Nonfiction: The Understudy by Eve Krakow

Julie stands center stage, in jeans and a black t-shirt, listening to the director’s instructions.

As I watch from the sidelines, my fingers cling to the smooth pages of the script. I try to ignore the longing inside, curled up in a ball so tight that my stomach aches. A creature that wants to break free, to unfurl itself, to soar, but is terrified to do so.

I edge closer, careful not to drop the pages in my grip.

I’m at a rehearsal for the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe. The community theater group meets here in the church hall once a week. The room is a mix of old and new, with its lemon-scented tiled floor, dark wood trim, and heavy, musty curtains framing high windows.

I’m clumped off to one side with the rest of the chorus. We’re waiting for our turn to sing. Yet while the other women fidget, whisper, and giggle, my attention is focused on Julie.

She plays “Leila,” one of the principal fairies. In the actual show, the women—the fairies—will be dressed in wispy dresses and gauzy shawls, while the men—“peers” in the House of Lords—will wear robes and powdered wigs. At the moment though, most of the cast are lounging about in jeans and sweaters.

I am Julie’s understudy. This means that although I sing in the chorus, I must also learn the part of Leila. I must be ready to step in at any time.

Julie nods to something the director has said. Satisfied, the director turns back to the group, clapping his hands twice. “Okay, everyone, from the top of the scene,” he announces.

The piano starts. I join the chorus singing “Tripping hither, tripping thither,” moving left and moving right with the group, trying not to trip on my own feet. But when we pause our dance for Julie/Leila’s solo, my body stiffens.

If you ask us how we live, lovers all essentials give,” Julie begins, as she steps forward from the fairy circle.

My eyes follow Julie’s body as she glides from one part of the stage to another in time to the song’s metre. “We can ride on lovers’ sighs, warm ourselves in lovers’ eyes…

From my place in the background, I speak the words just loud enough for my own ears. I mirror the gestures, imitating the movements in a faint echo, trying to etch them into my being.

I’ve wanted to sing in a musical ever since I was a child. My parents used to bring me to local amateur productions. I’d perch on the edge of my chair, captivated by the music, caught up in the emotion of the singer exposing their deepest longings, desires, and inner conflicts. Every time I watched a show, something inside me would stir, sit up, latch on to that moment, and not want to let go.

I wanted to be that singer. I wanted to be that person onstage.

When I was a bit older and would find myself home alone, I’d belt out Broadway songs as loud as I could, twirling and leaping about the house. Then I’d bow to the curtain calls of my imaginary audience.

In real life though, I am not that person. I am quiet and shy. I blush when someone speaks to me. I hover in the background. I stumble over my feet.

But that’s precisely it: when I sing, I am free. In that release of air and sound, my whole body vibrates. It starts in the chest and moves outward, like a current racing through my arms to my fingertips, flowing down my legs and rooting me into the ground. The resonance clears my mind, and on those words and notes, all the tightness balled up inside my gut surges outward, without barriers, without constraint. All those feelings trapped inside come rushing out, released from their confines, expanding, soaring. I find expression and fulfillment in a way not possible in words alone.

A sharp pain jolts me back to the present—an elbow jabbing into my upper arm.

“Sorry about that,” says Elena. “We have to turn here, remember? I go here, and you go over there.”

Elena has short dark hair and wears a striped turtleneck sweater. She’s a bit of a mother figure to the group, always checking in on younger and older actors alike as if we were her children.

“Oh, right,” I say, my face growing hot. “Sorry.”

Elena smiles. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.”

The song is over and we’ve moved on to the dialogue. Julie takes center stage again, with two other fairies and the Fairy Queen. She speaks in a loud, clear voice. She laughs when she fumbles her lines and jokes with the director. Then she pushes her straight blonde hair back behind her ears and tries again, this time getting it right.

How I envy that hair. My own is dark and frizzy and never behaves as I’d like.

In truth, I recognize why Julie got the part. Although she’s a few years younger than me, she has a lot more theater experience. I’ve sung in choirs and shows before, and even had a few solos, but I’m not an actress. When I’m in a scene, I suddenly feel the empty air on my skin. I become all too aware of my body alone in that space and don’t know what to do with it. My limbs turn to rubber and I forget my lines.

Kind of like in real life.

Still, I can’t help feeling resentful. Jealous. It’s a silly show, really, but…

At the break, I sit on the floor, back to the wall and binder propped up against my knees, reviewing my notes. I bite into an apple and steal glances at Julie over the top of my pages. She’s standing in the middle of the room, laughing with another cast member. Julie chats with everyone. In everyday life she’s a grade 1 teacher. I picture her ample form reigning over a classroom of noisy children, showing them how to trace their letters, intervening in fights over crayons, getting little Jimmy to go wipe his runny nose.

At thirty-two, I feel like I’m still trying to get my career off the ground. I originally studied journalism but somehow veered off course and have been working as an office assistant. For the past two years I’ve been pitching stories to newspapers and magazines, and while I’ve written a few articles, none have led to steady work. It’s like I’m still trying to figure out “what I want to be when I grow up.” Still trying to get my personal life off the ground, too. Hoping to find that special someone.

I’m pretty sure Julie has a boyfriend.

***

At the next rehearsal, Julie arrives as usual, announcing her presence with a big “Hi everyone!” as she throws her coat over a chair. My eyes track her movements. All week, I’ve been trying to practice the “tripping hither” solo at home, and fretting over the timing of the steps and gestures. Now, heart beating fast, which makes me sound out of breath, I tap Julie on the shoulder and ask if we can go over it together.

It’s not that Julie isn’t nice to me, but we don’t usually talk much or hang out with the same people. Sometimes I feel she is merely tolerating my presence.

So I’m relieved when she says that she’d be happy to review the steps with me.

I’m expecting to do so discreetly in a corner, but Julie strides to an open space in the middle of the room. “Shall we try it from the top?” she asks. I nod.

Once we start, my body begins to relax. I copy Julie’s movements, listen to her tips and take copious notes. She’s a good teacher, encouraging me along—although, I get the feeling that she’s treating me like one of her elementary-school students.

It occurs to me that some leads might feel reluctant to share their secrets with their understudy, but clearly, I am no threat. I am not sure whether to feel indignant or grateful. For now, I am merely resigned.

***

At the end of rehearsal, I can’t find my binder. My precious binder with my music and lines and stage directions and detailed notes and—

I turn my head this way and that, frantic. People are leaving with binders under their arms. Maybe someone took mine by mistake. Panic starts to rise in my throat. Julie, putting on her jacket, sees my distress.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, releasing a sigh of exasperation.

My face reddens. “My binder. I can’t find it.” I’m embarrassed to be blinking back tears.

Julie climbs onto a chair. Shouts, in her clear teacher voice: “Has anyone seen Eve’s binder? Please check that you don’t have it.”

People pause in their shuffling. They flip open their binders to check. Shake their heads. Lift jackets from chairs, peer into their bags. Nothing.

“Thanks,” I say, as she’s getting down from the chair.

Julie shrugs. “I’m sure it’ll turn up.”

After everyone has left, I find it. It’s perched on the window ledge, hiding behind the piano. I must have left it on a chair and then someone moved it. It sits there like a lost, scared puppy. I pick it up gently and tuck it into my knapsack.

I do not stop to wonder what it is that I’m really trying to keep safe and sound.

***

Being an understudy is tricky because I don’t get many chances to rehearse the part onstage with the other actors or accompanying musicians. I watch and observe. I try to learn. I practice on my own, without context.

I scrutinize Julie’s tone and gestures. Onstage and off.

It’s something I find myself doing more and more: watching others, observing. Trying to understand the social cues, the expectations, how people talk to each other and respond. Trying to learn a script I was never given.

***

And then, two weeks from showtime, it happens. Julie comes down with the flu.

Rehearsal begins. When we get to the scenes with Leila, I step forward. My heart hammers in my chest and my knees threaten to give way. But I open my mouth, deliver my lines, and sing the part. I perform the movements, hands trembling, legs shaking. My voice wobbles and my face is on fire, but I make it through.

After the run-through, the director pauses to talk to me. “Good job,” he says. “Keep at it.”

The creature inside me perks up its ears, uncurls just a little.

***

In the end, Julie makes a swift recovery and is back at rehearsal the following week.

The tightness in my shoulders dissolves and my lungs fill with relief.

***

It is opening night. Almost time to take our places. I’m looking for the seamstress to help me adjust my fairy wings, which keep sliding down. I glance into the dressing room reserved for the female leads. Fumes of hair spray hang in the air. And that’s when I see her.

Julie is staring at herself in the mirror, murmuring her lines. But it is the tremor in her voice that makes me pause. I steal a glance at her reflection. A vein pulses at her temple. Her hands are trembling.

Realization hits me with a jolt. She is nervous.

I move away quickly before she sees me. But as I continue down the hall, pulling at the shoulder strap of my costume, the aftershock ripples through me.

Confident, popular, self-assured Julie is nervous.

It will not be the only time I face this revelation. The following season, I will be shocked to come across our male lead pacing and fretting. “You’ll be fine,” Elena will reassure him, hands adjusting his wig, as he looks to her with pleading eyes. Years later, just before a choir concert, I will stumble upon the soloist warming up his voice in the stairwell. He will be shaking out his hands and taking deep breaths, trying to calm himself down. Again, my brain will struggle to match the image of the confident, joking barytone of rehearsals with the man in front of me, anxious and vulnerable.

In fact, I will need to see the evidence time and time again before the creature inside me dares to truly break free.

It will be the same story when I have children and see other mothers, dressed in sharp outfits and not a hair out of place, who always seem to know exactly what to do and what to say. Only after some time will I finally realize how universal my deepest insecurities really are.

But all of that is in the future.

And yet, the seed has been planted. I carry it with me as I take my place backstage with the chorus, unsure what to do with it or what it means. It is a crack, a hairline fracture in my wall of beliefs. Because if someone is nervous about performing a part that they have rehearsed and practiced and taken hours to refine, then what else…?

My heart is pounding. I can smell the burning spotlights. I wipe my damp palms on my costume.

But the music has already started.

It’s time to step out onto the stage.

Eve Krakow writes, translates and sings in Montreal, Quebec. Her work has appeared in lichen literary journal, Maisonneuve, Smithsonian Magazine and SHY: An Anthology. Through her writing, she seeks to connect with others by giving form to that quiet yet insistent inner voice. She is currently working on a collection of creative nonfiction stories.

2 responses to “Nonfiction: The Understudy by Eve Krakow

  1. Pingback: Best of Net Nominations 2020 | JMWW·

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