You may remember Shanara Gabrielle as Lady Montague in our Free For All production of Romeo & Juliet. Now she’s back in The Comedy of Errors, taking on the challenge of understudying three different roles and all the lines, dance moves and singing that goes along with them. We caught up with her between rehearsals to talk about what the process has been like so far.
STC: You’re an understudy for all the female roles in The Comedy of Errors. For those that aren’t familiar, what exactly does that mean? What are the challenges and rewards of being an understudy?
Shanara Gabrielle: Being an understudy means that you are the person who is “waiting in the wings” in case one of the actors is unable to perform the show – we are on-call for every performance. I am understudying 3 wonderful actress: Veanne Cox (Adrianna), Folami Williams (Luciana), and Eleasha Gamble (Courtesan).
The challenges of understudying are definitely different than the challenges that come with originating a role in the show. Instead of having to come up with all the ideas and build a character from the ground up, we have to learn to embody the characters as other actors have envisioned them. And in practical terms, it’s very hard to learn the show without actual physical rehearsal and instead spending most of my rehearsal time learning the show from the outside.
Because I love what I do, I find it rewarding to be part of storytelling in our world no matter the position – to learn the text of all of these roles and to get to know this show more fully. Most of us actors have the pleasure of doing these Shakespeare plays more than once in our career, so I just get a head start on the next time I encounter The Comedy of Errors.
SG: Rehearsals have just been a joy. First off, the show is a zany, sexy, hilarious, wild ride of 90 minutes – so we have a blast! It’s also an honor to sit in rehearsals and watch some truly wonderful actors at work. I’ve always believed in the saying “great artists steal” and watching rehearsals for this show is like a masterclass in rehearsal technique, physical comedy, and precision – so I’m stealing!
For the understudies, we joined rehearsal during tech (which means the time that the show transfers from the rehearsal hall to the stage and we start adding lights, sound, costumes and set). So our rehearsals are spent sitting in the dark theatre and watching and taking detailed notes on what the actors playing the roles are doing – their blocking, their physicality, their speech and vocal choices. But, the fun part of it is not just observing, but really absorbing what the actors are doing – trying to get inside their thinking about the characters.
STC: Have you ever been an understudy for so many roles before? What’s it like not knowing that you might have very little notice before being needed on stage?
SG: I have only understudied one other time in my career and it was a musical where I covered all the ladies in that show too. I learned the lead role as well as all the songs and choreography for the three other women in the show. I never went on for that show, but every morning I woke with the question “Will I go on today?” This time I’m hoping to find more relaxation in unpredictability of being an understudy – to find flexibility and ease in the uncertainty!
STC: This summer, you were featured in our Free For All production of Romeo & Juliet, also directed by Alan Paul. What’s it like to be working with him again for The Comedy of Errors?
SG: Being part of Free for All was such a pleasure – I believe in free theatre for all, it’s one of my core principals, and though we actors have very little control of our lives, I have always tried to match the ideals that I believe in with the work that I do. Being part of Free for All was one of those joyous occasions that it matched up.
Alan has become one of my favorite people to be in the rehearsal room with! He is so willing be open and sincere and that creates a supportive environment of freedom and creativity. He is also not afraid of the conflict that comes in a vibrant creative process and he is dedicated to specificity and excellence. Those qualities make it a joy to be in the room with no matter whether it’s for the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet or the wild farce of The Comedy of Errors.
STC has such devoted and quick audiences – they love the plays, they know the plays, and they are excited to be at the play! That is a pleasure.
Want to learn more about what it’s like to be an understudy? Follow Shanara on Instagram at @shanaragabrielle and on Twitter at @shanarag.
The Comedy of Errors is now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre.
Photo of Veanne Cox as Adriana and Eleasha Gamble as Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors by Scott Suchman.
Photo of Veanne Cox as Adriana and Folami Williams as Luciana in The Comedy of Errors by Scott Suchman.