Understudy backlash at the Globe

18th July 2022

On 21st and 22nd June the Globe announced on its social media that it had to cancel the performances of King Lear due to multiple cases of Covid within the cast.

The majority of messages in response were from well-wishers sending thoughts to the poorly cast. However, there were also some comments from individuals criticising the decision, such as: "A nearby (to me) professional theatre made the decision to have 2 understudies for every lead role during these times." and "Still?? There really should be understudies. This has gone on too long".

This of course opened an interesting online discussion.

Shakespeare’s Globe is a charity of education, performance and research, and has been celebrating the works of Shakespeare with audiences all around the world for many years.

As a charity, the theatre doesn’t receive any government subsidy or funding from Arts Council England (ACE). It purely relies on revenue through ticket and membership sales, guided tours, school workshops, retail and donations from its supporters. 

During the pandemic, this world-renowned institution was left critically vulnerable and at risk of closure as it wasn’t eligible for any financial relief. Thankfully, in late 2020, it received the maximum grant available - £3M - as part of the Culture Recovery Fund. 

This lifeline has allowed the theatre “to produce and plan more confidently” for its exciting future.

With all this in mind, it is really important for us to realise just how expensive it is to produce the incredible shows that Shakespeare’s Globe puts on for its audiences. That’s the cost of running the theatre itself, paying the crew, staff and actors, costumes and more. 

Budgets are already stretched to the limit, so if you were to add on additional actors for understudy roles to this list, where would that extra money come from? Would the theatre have to raise ticket prices? 

As the Globe comes out of the pandemic and still trying to build itself back up in an increasingly difficult climate, the decision to close for two days wasn’t easy.  

Its response to some of the angry comments was: "We don't employ full-time understudies at the Globe to cover every role, as unfortunately we are not in the financial position to do so… Cancellation is not taken lightly and always a last resort, and we do our utmost to make sure our shows go ahead. Unfortunately, circumstances happened outside of our control for performances so far this week, that meant it wasn't possible to continue with the show".

We all realise just how valuable understudies are to theatre. They play an essential role within the company by being able to step into a number of different tracks last minute. These talented artists are integral to a performance going ahead or not. We’ve all seen an understudy perform I’m sure and they are just as good a calibre as the lead, sometimes better! 

Having understudies for a number of roles is normal for the larger theatres and production companies. For charities, smaller theatres and independent theatre companies, like us at The Play’s the Thing, it is just not possible. It would be a dream to have understudies, but sadly the finances won’t allow it. 

All performers, including understudies, must be paid fairly. They have trained for many years so they should be paid for the job they are doing. If there was no money to pay the understudy, you wouldn’t expect them to come on stage for free if they were saving a show, would you? 

Some of the commenters would. One suggested volunteer actors or amateur actors take on the role! This was one Globe supporter’s retort: "Having actors volunteer as understudies is not a solution and would never be considered by any theatre of any repute. Also, would you want to see Bob from down the road who hasn’t got any acting experience try his hand at King Lear for the show you’ve paid to watch?"

Well said! 

However, the Globe do have cover for any absent roles with an actor reading the part script-in-hand. As the theatre said: "This does take some rehearsal time as logistically, we need to make sure the actor is comfortable and safe with their movements onstage".

Sadly, on this occasion, the situation was too bad for even script-in-hand actors to go on. 

The Globe is doing as much as it can within its financial constraints to ensure the productions go ahead for its audiences.

It’s easy to say, ‘Why not just get understudies’ or ‘Get volunteer actors in’, but when you understand theatre and what goes into a professional production, the time, the costs and how hard it is to get funding etc, these sorts of comments are just unnecessary and really infuriate me!  

As theatre supporters, we need to help the Globe and local and independent theatre companies to keep thriving into the future, not complain about performances being cancelled due to illness bought on from the pandemic or lack of understudies. 

One day understudies might be the norm for the Globe and for us, but right now it just isn’t feasible. 

You can view the discussion on Shakespeare’s Globe Facebook page.