An actor and actress face each other and press palms together. Each has a placard around their necks with a number written on it. In the foreground is a microphone.
Carolyn Agan as Olive Ostrovsky and Vishal Vaidya as William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Peter Flynn at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Blogging with Barfee: Life of an Understudy

6 min read

Editor’s Note: Spelling Bee cast member Vishal Vaidya (William Barfee) has been blogging about his experiences for NY-based dance organization Motivated Movers. His most recent post gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the life of understudies. The following post recently appeared on the Motivated Movers’ Blog.

Blogging with Barfree

Hello, readers! What exactly is this thing called “understudying?” One of the more stressful jobs in the business, understudying comes in many forms. There are swings who learn multiple roles in the show and are on stand-by during the run. There also are internal covers, understudies who perform one character and have to learn another just in case.

It’s a very big, very fraught, simple but it’s not, it’s a very big undertaking!

From the title song of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Let me start by introducing our understudies for the show. I’ll let them tell you about it in their own words:

Clark Young: I’m understudying all five male roles in Ford’s Theatre’s raucous production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I’m here to talk about the trials and tribulations of the coffee-swilling life that is swinging, or understudying (swinging sounds better at bars)… but first, a bit about myself. In 2009, I graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in English and theatre and performance studies. I have continued to work in Washington, D.C., as a performer, playwright and political blogger—it’s been a blast and I only regret the days when it’s 100 degrees and humid. Next up, I’ll be heading to Boston to perform in a production of Natsu Onoda Power’s Astro Boy and the God of Comics with Company One.

Kristen Garaffo: Hi, friends! My name is Kristen and I play Schwartzy and cover Olive Ostrovsky. I live here in D.C., and am an actor, singer and yoga teacher.

Maggie Donnelly: I’m Maggie Donnelly! I just moved to the D.C.-area from NYC. Super stoked that my first contract in the D.C.-area is swinging The Bee! I understudy Rona, Marcy Park and Logainne Schwartzandgrubanierre. It’s a trip.

Maggie Donnely (in plaid skirt) in curtain call bows for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by Gary Erskine.

Understudying is not an exact science (to say the least). The way it works at Ford’s is as follows: We come in for the last week of rehearsals and then spend hours poring over various tracks/music numbers/the script throughout tech. Once the show opens we have designated understudy rehearsals during which we practice our various parts. We are also called at half hour (along with the rest of the cast) as insurance in case anything goes awry. As far as going on is concerned, sometimes you know in advance (you “have dates”) and sometimes you don’t!

Kristen Garaffo cast as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere in the Ford’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Kristen: Since I’m already in the show every night, my job is a little bit different than Clark and Maggie’s. I really started my work on Olive’s track on our first understudy rehearsal, after we opened the show. I kept going back and forth during our rehearsals about whether or not I wanted to pay attention to Carolyn Agan’s blocking, [Carolyn plays Olive] and start learning her lines etc. Every time I thought about it, my brain immediately went to overload mode, so I decided to open the show as Schwartzy and not worry about Olive until I had too! Luckily, I was pretty familiar with Olive’s two songs, “My Friend, the Dictionary” and “The’ I Love You’ Song,” so it was really just about learning her blocking and lines.

Clark compared the job to being in the Secret Service: “Know where everyone is, but don’t make a big deal about knowing it.” What are some challenges you’ve faced?

Clark: With little voice training and even less dance training, the challenges have been many when it comes to learning the surprisingly complicated layers of this musical. So, first, I found security in understanding the core of each character—the unique truth each of my fellow actors communicates to his audience on a nightly basis. I may not tap as well as Vishal’s Barfee, and I may not sing as well as Kevin McAllister’s Mitch, but I’ll [certainly] find the heart in why they need to tap and sing so freakishly well. It’s a spelling bee after all—we are all here to prove something. And my job is to prove I belong anywhere on that stage at any given moment.

The greatest challenge, honestly, is locating ownership within the show as well as a sense of belonging within its ensemble. I didn’t necessarily create the work—I never held it in my hands—but I have to own any part of it at a moment’s notice. It’s the ultimate paradox of the swing, and it’s thrilling/terrifying/exhilarating.

Kristen: The biggest challenge has honestly been to just remember that Olive does NOT have a lisp. The lisp is something I’ve spent a lot of time working on [for Schwartzy], and I have to consciously think about not using it. It’s especially confusing since it’s the same world, at the same bee! I have slipped up a few times in rehearsal. Still working on it!

Any advice or final thoughts?

Maggie: Believe you can. You might not feel ready to take on a challenge, but I bet you are. …I think it’s about actively finding a way and not waiting for something to magically happen. Make your own magic.

Clark: Fortunately, the ensemble [in Ford’s Spelling Bee] couldn’t be more friendly or supportive—nor my fellow swinger-in-crime, Maggie, more reliable or remarkable. She and I own this endeavor as a total partnership that requires patience, drive and support. She keeps me focused when I’m distant and calm when I’m nervous. I hope I do the same. To spell it out for you, I got lucky with this group and this theater. Here are five words for you fine folks: Do work. And be ready.

Kristen: Gratitude, positivity and self care. [An actor’s] life can be rough, and it is so easy to get down and be really unkind to yourself. I think it’s essential for any artist to celebrate [their] own victories, however big or small. …Especially since I think it’s much easier to jump at the things we need to improve or work on. We’ve got to take care of ourselves physically and mentally! This includes, for me, yoga, dance parties, spending time with loved ones and taking time away from my label as an “actor” or “singer,” to just be me. Me time is super important! I also practice gratitude daily. When you get a chance to work on a show like this, it’s easy, but even when things are rough… there is always something I can find to be grateful for. We are so lucky to be artists and we should celebrate ourselves and our fellow artists always. There is enough to go around! Let’s lift each other up!

A huge thank you to Clark, Maggie and Kristen for their honest and encouraging words! Read more #BloggingWithBarfee at!blog/c24qf

Follow Clark:

Follow Kristen: or

Follow Maggie:


Latest Posts From Ford’s Theatre