Jumping Into the Fire: An Understudy’s Tale

During the extension week of Liesl Tommy’s Hamlet this month, actor Nicholas Pelczar fell ill the morning of the Student Discovery Matinee, and his understudy, Philip Goleman, went on for him.

This is his story.

Everyone said, “Not what you expected when you woke up this morning, huh?” And it was not: It was a whirlwind from the moment (Stage Manager) Laxmi (Kumran) called me to the minute I got back on BART to head back to work after the show.

I must have looked like a deer in the headlights as I was whisked from the green room to the stage for fight call to rework the play’s final fight; to the dressing room to get the down-low on the costumes; to the moment when I finally stepped on stage. Thankfully, I was surrounded by a wonderful, supportive group of actors, stage management, and backstage crew to get me properly through the show.

It’s a show that, from the audience’s perspective, did not seem like three hours—and it seemed a lot shorter from my perspective that day. For me, my favorite moment was coming down through the audience as Laertes, gun in hand, yelling at the King, with the kids in the audience turning to see me and exclaiming “whoa!” as I went down the steps toward the stage. That made the day for me, being there to make sure that they got to see this show and get exposure to Shakespeare.

Going on is not something you expect to happen, especially in the extension week, but you keep alive the idea and the willingness to jump into the fire on a moment’s notice. With a phenomenal show and superb cast and production crew, you know you’re not jumping in alone, and it’s something I would willing jump into again and again.

Pictured above: Goleman with actors LeRoy McClain (Hamlet) and Zainab Jah (Ophelia) after his performance; photo by Jay Yamada.

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