It’s every actor’s anxiety dream, and COVID is making it real

It’s every actor’s anxiety dream, laughs Alexandra Aldrich.

Oh my god, this is the dream you have: when you’re naked, and you don’t know the play, and someone tells you you’re going on stage.

Except it happened (bar the nudity). A week ago, Peter Houghton, director of Melbourne Theatre Company’s Heartbreak Choir, phoned Aldrich mid-morning to tell her that evening she’d be on stage, playing a role she’d never rehearsed.

A quick run-through with the rest of the cast was thrown together mid-afternoon. Hours later, Houghton addressed a packed house at Southbank.

He was there, he said, not to celebrate the passing of COVID but to mark its continued presence. Carita Farrer Spencer, who played a major role in Aidan Fennessy’s rave-reviewed show about community and singing, had tested positive. In her place, script in hand, would be Aldrich: A player from the reserves, about to step into the first 11 – someone they’d attached to the production but kept apart from the cast, just in case.

Please get behind her, Houghton added.

They did. Aldrich got through on talent and adrenaline, landed the gags, even put down her script to sing one of the songs; and has a story to tell for the rest of her career.

To says those words for the second time ever, on stage that day, in front of an audience . . . other than being scary, it was awesome, she says.

In 2022, the unsung heroes of Australian theatre are the players dubbed COVID covers. Understudies and swings are a luxury usually reserved for commercial theatre: now they’re a necessity that all companies can barely afford, but on which the show depends.

When Bell Shakespeare played its hugely successful Hamlet in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra this year, COVID-19 dogged them.

In Sydney, they cancelled four shows, including a preview. Then they had a couple of weeks with between two and four understudies on stage each night, in a cast of 11. Four understudies (for this and their other shows for the rest of the year) is unprecedented for the company.

How sustainable that is going forward is something that we’re just starting to grapple with, says director Peter Evans. It’s obviously incredibly expensive.

Houghton says understudying every role, basically having an entire spare cast, is unfeasible. There’s barely enough money to pay for one, he says.

But the toughest part about having COVID covers ready to step into multiple roles is that they can’t enter the rehearsal room – the whole point is to try and keep them separate. Usually, understudies work closely with the actors they are shadowing.

MTC executive director Virginia Lovett describes this as unsustainable.

If we keep losing performances, we’re going to lose major box office, she says. But having more than one cover on stage – unrehearsed actors with script in hand and a loose familiarity with the character – may be a step too far.

The goodwill of the audience is extraordinary but how far can you stretch that? Often, they’ve bought a ticket to see certain people. . . it compromises the show too much.

But if we’re going into this winter period where every day I’m getting four or five people testing [positive], it’s just very hard to manage moving on with live theatre.

What Aldrich did was a moment of magic, Houghton says. On the basis of watching a few rehearsals over Zoom, and performances from the crying room at the back of the theatre, she had picked up enough about the show to inhabit a character. And learnt the song, and performed it.

She absolutely went for it. I just stood up and cheered.

At the end of the night he could see the toll it had taken. She was absolutely wrung out with the fear and adrenaline, she was so tired, he says. And then she had to do it again. You know, strange times.

Aldrich says, The adrenaline was amazing. I’ve been very proud of what I’ve been able to achieve, not just for me but to keep the cogs of this beautiful play going.

That was the Thursday. Then she did it again on the Friday night. And two on Saturday. And then another cast member came down with COVID, and the play went dark for a week. It’s currently scheduled to be back on Monday.

Houghton is just plain tired. But he’s staying optimistic. We’ll get out of the quagmire, I think.

– with Karl Quinn

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. .

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