If you've attended any number of theatrical events, you've probably seen this sign at one time or another:
"In this performance, the roles normally played by [person 1] will be played by [person 2]."
Now, sometimes, that's a real bummer -- you might have come to a show specifically to see person 1, for example -- but you should know that sending on an understudy is never something done lightly. Sending on an understudy is a Big Deal. And that's why I want to tell you a little bit about the last time that sign appeared on Berkeley Rep's stages -- partially to give you some insight into what's might be going on backstage while you're reading that notice, and partially to give a round of applause to some serious superstars who rarely get the limelight.
In one of the very last weeks of Compulsion, you might have seen that understudy sign in the lobby. Tuesday night, about 90 minutes before the first show of the week, puppeteer Emily DeCola recieved a phone call. There was a family emergency, and she needed to get home. This could have been a major problem -- we cast a full contingent of understudy actors for each show, but we don't shadow-cast the backstage crew or the puppeteers. We were about to be one man down for three days.
Frankie Cordero had just arrived in Berkeley the day before.
Who is Frankie Cordero, and why had he come?
Frankie is a puppeteer who has worked previously with the Compulsion puppet designer, Matt Acheson, as well as two of the puppeteers -- Eric Wright and Emily herself. He's familiar with Matt's particular style of choreography. And he was here to start rehearsal for Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead.
We've been joking that it's the Year of the Puppet, first with Compulsion in September, and next with Composer, which will make its world premiere on our stages in December (previews begin November 26). But in this case, it meant that we had a perfect understudy option right when we needed it most. And for that, of course, we were very grateful.
But let's back up a bit. Frankie Cordero arrived in Berkeley on Monday evening at almost 10pm. He showed up the next morning for rehearsal at 9am and worked on Composer until 6. He was at the grocery store getting his basic provisions -- you know, those staples that make "home" home -- when he got a call from Stage Manager Michael Suenkel to ask if he would be willing to help out. Luckily for us, Frankie said yes -- and Michael told him to get to the Theatre immediately.
Emily performed that night, and Frankie was right there beside her, shadowing, noting, and studying her every move. The next morning she flew home, and Frankie went back to rehearsal for Composer. That is, until his lunch break -- a lunch break that was extra-long for the other puppeteers -- which served as an impromptu understudy rehearsal. Frankie, Eric, and the third puppeteer, Daniel Fay, worked on the show for two and a half hours, and then Frankie went back to Composer rehearsal. After rehearsal was done, Frankie went to get fitted for his puppeteer jumpsuit, and then, less than 48 hours after arriving in the Bay Area to work on a different show, after one-and-a-half rehearsals, Frankie performed in front of a sold-out audience. And he did a very good job.
This is pretty incredible stuff -- and it would be impossible without the support team who made it possible for Frankie to do what he did: the wardrobe team who leapt into action to get Frankie outfitted; the backstage crew who adjusted their tightly plotted paths to accomodate someone still "learning the ropes" (pun completely intended); and, most importantly, the stage management folks who worked through lunch and dinner the whole week to make sure that the crew, the puppeteers, the actors, and everyone else had the support and guidance they needed.
This was one of those times when the drama backstage matched the drama in front of the stage...but I guarantee that every time you see a notice announcing that "Person 2" will be appearing in "Person 1's" stead, something similar is taking place. It's kind of incredible what people go through to make sure that the show will always go on.
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