Learning a role for a musical is no simple feat. It takes months of preparation both physically and vocally, as well as dedicated time to develop characterisation. Now imagine that times 2. Or 3. Or 8. Welcome to the life of an understudy!
Often learning multiple tracks, the understudy is ready to step into any role which may be required. Every major production will have understudies and standbys, and Come From Away is no exception. Despite having a small ensemble cast, there are 6 understudies learning numerous roles to fill any gap there may be. They will also act as standbys, being around in the theatre to jump in at any moment and take over from another performer. I was fortunate enough to speak to 2 of the show’s understudies about how they will be preparing themselves for such a large undertaking!
Canadian born Kathleen has been living in Australia for the last 14 years and has definitely made her mark on Australian theatre in her time living here. Having studied Opera and Art Song in Toronto, she went on to perform in Seesaw, Iolanthe and A Servant of Two Masters. Some of her Australian credits include Evita (GFO/Opera Australia), The Phantom of the Opera (RUG/GFO), The Pirates of Penzance (Opera Australia) and The Light in the Piazza (Lyric Theatre, Sydney).
Born and raised in Melbourne, Jensen graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2007. He has since performed nationally in shows such as Fiddler On The Roof (TML Enterprises), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (TML Enterprises) and Rock of Ages (Newtheatricals). In Melbourne, Jensen has been part of several Production Company shows including Crazy For You, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Brigadoon.
Can you guys tell me a bit about your roles in the show?
Jensen: It’s one ‘lead’ plus others for the majority of the cast. Kathleen and I are understudies and standbys, so we have a multitude of parts. We have four ‘leads’ plus others.
Kathleen: That’s right! So that makes it, what, I don’t know, ten characters each? [laughs] It’s going to be an incredibly exciting challenge, I can’t wait. It’s an ensemble piece in that each person has a character that is incredibly well developed, but they sing and tell the story together, so it’s individuals who come together to tell it which is really the heart of it.
Jensen: We play a combination of locals (the people from Gander) and those who were affected, so it is a bit of a dance between flipping roles and flipping characters. But the show is just so cleverly orchestrated and seamlessly transitioned that I think we’ll manage.
How does it feel to be part of a premiere cast?
Jensen: I think it’s a real honour. Being a premiere company member from Australia… It’s got a good ring to it [chuckles]. And it’s such a beautiful show as well, it’s a pleasure to be a part of.
Kathleen: I’m excited… beyond excited to be a part of it.
Do you think Come From Away is different to what Australian audiences are used to seeing?
Kathleen: It is, yeah. It’s a different show, it’s definitely very intimate and gets really into the nitty-gritty of the characters.
Jensen: It’s a true ensemble piece, which is not ‘breaking the rules’ as such, but it’s quite a unique circumstance for the audience since there’s no lead actor. Everyone gets individual moments, which really heightens that sense of community that this show is about.
The story is based off real testimonials of those involved in 9/11 and its aftermath. Do you think it’s one that people can relate to?
Kathleen: I believe that for sure. I’m Canadian originally and it’s a dream for me to be in this show. It’s just lovely how it represents everyone, it really does. Be kind to everyone, that’s the message I get from it.
Jensen: It’s staggering to think that the stimulus material has come out of one of the darkest times that we have had, certainly in my lifetime. This is actually what happened afterwards, thanks to the human spirit, generosity, and kindness. That’s why I think it doesn’t matter where you’re from. A story with these roots… anyone can relate to it in a way.
How have you found the challenge of depicting real people?
Kathleen: Everyone is incredibly down to earth in this show, all the characters are so incredibly real. It’s quite nice to just relax into it.
Jensen: It’s a human story and I think it’s not really bogged down by any of that musical theatre “faff” – it’s just honest and true and that’s what people relate to. I think that’s why it’s been so beautifully received around the world.
What drew you to the show?
Kathleen: I listen to the music, that’s all I’ve been able to do, and by the end of the soundtrack I’m in tears. I can’t wait to see it either!
Jensen: The music has been wonderful for me too. That’s one of the things that first got me. That sort of hybrid of influences… there’s rock in there, there’s folk, there’s this sort of Celtic strain going through. And it all just mashes into this beautiful thing.
Kathleen: The ‘Newfie sound, that East Coast Canada!
What makes Come From Away so special?
Jensen: I think there are plenty of feel-good musicals out there. But I think this one is something that is so joyous that people wouldn’t expect it. Yes, we’re dealing with very heavy subject material, where it all came from, but the show itself is actually very funny,
Kathleen: It’s funny, it’s heartening, it brings everyone together. It changes you as you leave the theatre from what I’ve heard. So many things have happened after this show was produced, like even the real people of Gander have gone on to do new and wonderful things because of it. This show really encapsulates the greatness that comes from a bad situation.
Jensen: It’s crazy even now, we all need a little kindness and compassion. We need a reminder, and this show might just be that.
Come From Away premieres at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in July 2019. Tickets and more information are available at Comefromaway.com.au