Thursday, January 31, 2013

JKTS Chat: "Understudyness" by DROOD's Eric Sciotto

From Eric's Gotta Dance feature on
Photo by Matthew Murphy
When word got out a few weeks ago that Andy Karl would be out of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and that Eric Sciotto, the "Twitterverse" lit up like a Christmas tree.  In what speaks volumes for the love and respect so many of us have for Mr. Sciotto, those Tweets were universally positive - well-wishes, votes of confidence, and, myself included, many disappointed-I-can't-be-there notes of encouragement.

So, many of you wrote to ask if I could do another interview with Eric all about his experience that night.  I had imposed upon him to do three segments of "JKTS Chat," and I wasn't sure if I should impose again.  Thankfully, he is a very generous, giving guy.  I noticed (and I'm sure you did, too) that not only is he passionate about his profession, but he is a passionate fan of theatre just like us.  Then I got to thinking, going on for a role is such a whirlwind of activity, thinking, and emotion, that trying to tell all about the whole experience might be more interesting as a narrative rather than trying to answer specific questions from someone who has never had a similar experience.  Well, despite a very busy schedule - doing the show, getting through the whole holiday season and raising a family with two small children - Eric really, REALLY came through for us.  What follows is his account of that fateful day when he played Neville Landless!


So... I love to understudy, and I love to go on for the role!  Not to say there aren't nerves involved, but it's "why I'm there" and doing the role is why I put in all that work...

My philosophy on understudying - and being a good one - is to be as ready as possible as soon as possible in the rehearsal process... I don't wait for formal understudy rehearsals to begin; I don't wait for people to teach me stuff.... I basically say "If [the person I cover] were out TODAY, could I do it?!" And I work from there... I tell myself to "know what I know and to know what I don't know" and I keep a little list... "If I were thrown on NOW, what questions would I need to ask...."  And assume no one's gonna teach me anything. (That's not the case, but if I work like that, it's all up to me and I take responsibility for it all) In the moment, when someone's sick or hurt, or out, do I want to say, "Sorry, I don't know it yet" or "I can do it?" , I choose "I can do it."

Valerie Wright
I have to tell this story: My first Broadway show ever was Annie Get Your Gun, and Bernadette Peters actually was sick when we started rehearsals.  She was there and she fought it, but she was battling a nasty cold or a flu or something.... At one point, like two weeks in or so (foggy memories) we were to show everything we'd completed thus far to the design team.... a no-pressure run of the show...which (of course) means "performance mode" and BP called out that day...she was losing the fight with said cold.... Our director, Graciela [Daniele], addressed the group and said, "Bernadette is too sick to be here, so we'll just show you a few numbers that don't involve her, and we'll reschedule this...." And a small voice peeped up: "Graci... if you want to do the run through, I can do it."  It was Valerie Wright.  Valerie was playing her own role of Dolly Tate, AND finishing up the run of Redhead at Goodspeed, I think.... and she was also Bernadette's cover.... so... finishing a job, learning her own role, and covering.... got it?

Graciela said, "Valerie, thank you, but I can't ask you to do that, we've given you no rehearsal, and it's really not fair to you...."  Valerie confidently said, "I can do the role if you want to do the run-through."  Graci then said, "Let's do the run!"

And we did.  And Valerie delivered a stunning performance that had the whole place captured by her brightness!  She was funny and sad and dreamy and amazing and everybody laughed and cried... she had everyone in the palm of her hand.  It was revelatory!

The fitting for my Tick
"Uluru" costume (Priscilla)
I learned "how to understudy" from her on that day... and I've never forgotten that moment.

I do my work.  I do whatever it takes to be ready....

And so it was with Neville.... now, my life is more complex than it once was... I have two kids at home...  and I can't sing 'til all hours of the night, or [during] naps, because I'll wake people... and when I'm home, I'm in dad-mode... So preparing for the role of Neville (and Jasper) has been brought to you by the NJ Transit.... I worked on every commute possible, and when walking to or from the bus, I was singing the songs... I worked on breaks.  And in rehearsal, I just watched and watched and watched and prayed that a lot of it would “osmosis itself” into my brain.

When we started rehearsing Drood, Andy was still doing Jersey Boys... so every Weds and Sat, he'd run off to his matinee, and if they were doing any Neville stuff, I'd jump in... this is like a gift from the Oprah to have that chance.... by the time we went into previews, I'd done all but ONE number (I think) with the actual principal cast! That's unheard of and was deeply appreciated and not taken for granted... each time I had that opportunity, I went full tilt!  Tried everything as big and real as possible, made mistakes, screwed things up, and learned from it all!!

Then once in previews, we went into formal understudy rehearsals, which are usually once a week, and I was able to keep working and get some repetition and finally belt out a few of the numbers I'd mostly rehearsed quietly....

Neville make-up test (before I lost the beard)
So, by the time Andy was actually sick and called out, there wasn't much more I could do without just DOING IT!

He'd been battling a cold or flu, and so I was on "high alert" in my brain... and watching him like a hawk.... and so, when I got the call Sunday morning, I was fine and ready to go!

The biggest challenge, was that I'd never done the makeup.... the makeup designers did a test on me, and so I knew what I should look like, but I hadn't applied it myself.... and I'm not really sure what happened, but the makeup went on SOOOOO dark that I basically looked like I was doing blackface... It was funny and shocking... See, I hoped I'd have the luxury of taking my time to make sure I looked right, but an understudy is also in the business of making everyone feel comfortable with the fact that you're on... so when the stage manager says that they called the principals in to run a bunch of scenes and numbers... that takes up your prep-time.  Also, often, you'll have a last-minute fitting....

So - when you think "oh good, I'll just calmly prepare and do what I need to do" THINK AGAIN!  

I did try to get in really early, and have a little time to myself (makeup, script, last minute questions) but was quickly pulled in a million directions.  It's honestly very frustrating, and, in my opinion, counter-productive.  But I'm clearly alone in this thought.  I'd rather think of everything ahead of time and deal with everything ahead of time, so when the moment comes, we're all cool and ready. But most departments work under the "when it happens, we'll deal with it" rule.

I had to learn years ago to get over it.  So part of my prep-work in preparing for a role includes reminding myself that when the time actually comes, I will not get a moment to myself first... so BE READY.

K... so... Jessie Mueller (Helena Landless) was AMAZING.  I respect her and trust her immensely.  She was AMAZINGLY insightful and helpful... don't forget, I have my own track in the show, so I can't always see everything that Neville does... and things morph and change and evolve, and there was some blocking that changed in previews, that I never could see because I'm quick-changing in a stairwell... so, she talked me through that, but more importantly, let me know that whatever I did, she'd go with it.  Also, after the opening number, Jessie actually went and darkened her makeup, to make us more twin-like.  (What a lovely and generous and thoughtful lady!)

Which brings me to: "a good company will always conspire to make the swing or understudy right."  And this company is the BEST!  They were all so present and available to differences and nuances and adaptable if anything was different or wrong.  (Reminded me of Sherie Rene Scott and John Hickok, who were SOOOOO incredibly open to differences when I was on for Radames in AIDA.)

That said, as a cover, it's MY job to do what they're used to so that they don't feel like anything is different in terms of blocking and staging, and then within THAT framework, deliver my own performance that fits in with theirs....

Luckily, I LOVE LOVE LOVE what Andy is doing with the role of Neville.  He's been a GREAT model and someone who has taken a smallish role and made a SHOW-STEALER out of it.  He's wonderful and I happily worked within the bubble of his shtick-filled brilliance and felt great out there.  It was a blast, and I can happily report that all the laughs and responses were there, which kept the timing relatively the same, and the rest of the cast were more than congratulatory and complimentary and even the crew went out of their way to pat me on the back and say how much they loved my choices, my characterization, my confidence/command, and my overall work!  SO - I was happy.

I was nervous, but VERY sure of myself.  I'll have to fix the makeup if I ever do it again, but Andy is strong-like-bull, and so I don't foresee it happening much, if ever!

E-Daddy and family
I'm VERY happy to have done it once.  Quite simply, it means the work was not in vain.  I did it.  I felt great.  People loved it.  Fans have been so lovely and kind and celebratory of my performance.  And best of all, my partner decided to take a chance and bring our 4 year old, Samson, to see his E-daddy and to see his first Broadway show ever.

So, knowing Sammy was out there was mind-blowing for me.  He apparently was SUPER interested and really watching and really listening and asked a ton of questions about tiny details in the lyrics that really proved that he was listening... and he was so excited afterwards! Proud of me and proud of himself for being so good and for seeing his first show!

That made it all SUPER SPECIAL!!!!!

K... a few specifics:  

PRE-SHOW:  I have never worked that area... and my own section is small and easy to address... so I just wandered about and made a bunch of self-deprecating jokes about my "subtle" make-up application....  And I talked to my Sammy.

"THERE YOU ARE": Funnily enough, in my own track there's a section of lyrics that I never sing, because I'm busy dealing with (and talking to) an audience member... so when it came time to sing it, I was not as "on it" as I'd hoped... but everyone is singing them too, so I jumped right back in....

"NO GOOD CAN COME FROM BAD":  Went great!  Very fun!  I may or may not have crushed Stephanie J. Block's hand during the "menacing handshake" and she may or may not have said" that's enough! that's enough!" out of the corner of her mouth....  And I also do a fancy twirl of the cane at the end... which got gasps, I'm pretty sure... I felt cool.

CHITA:  She gave me a sly look halfway through and said, "well allllright!" (You’d have to hear the tone of voice... I can't really describe it...) It was the perfect vote of confidence and spoke volumes!

DATCHERY: My night on was the ONE AND ONLY time ROSA was DATCHERY!!!!  Cool!!! 

LOVERS: Helena was picked, and so I had to do the old "please don't pick me" take which is fake because OF COURSE I wanted to do lovers with my sister... but it didn't happen...  

And MURDERER... was..... ummmm... Puffer!  Right... 

...So, yes, it'd have been fun to be chosen for something... and I wanted that, but I was also relieved... it was my first time out there... I was happy to have made it through and have it go so successfully... I didn't need more to think about....

Hope you enjoyed my epic account of what it's like to cover and perform the role of Neville!

Eric Sciotto
Twitter: @E_DaddySciotto

Thank you, readers, for your continued support and interest!  And thank you, Eric, for being so helpful, generous and thoughtful.

To read the first 3 installments of JKTS Chat with Eric Sciotto by clicking the icons to your right, or click the "JKTS CHAT: The Interviews" tab at the top of the blog!


All photos, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Mr. Sciotto.


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