Waiting for Waiting for Godot: My own experience understudying Beckett

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Being cast as an understudy in a production of Waiting For Godot, around 2004, in North Hollywood, California, had to be one of the worst experiences of my acting life. I had just started a career in Los Angeles as an actor and stand up comedian. I was willing to act in almost anything that came my way. Which apparently included understudying the role of Vladimir, with no pay, in a production with no guaranteed performances, with almost no rehearsal time.

Funny thing about Hollywood, the entire town seems to exist due to this hopeful idea of But, what if… “But, what if… a producer is in the audience the night I go on?!” “But, what if… this director becomes a powerful film maker and casts me in every picture he ever makes?” “What if… my big break happens?!” What if… What if… What if…

Funny thing about Hollywood, the entire town seems to exist due to this hopeful idea of But, what if…

Rehearsals were held at the director’s flat, in the industrial area of Burbank. The building he lived in was so sketchy it could have existed next door to a cantina on Tatooine. There seemed to be a shared live/work area between two rival biker gangs. Most of the residents probably assumed I was waiting around to purchase drugs, and not arriving early for a theatre rehearsal. If the building left me with any doubt to the legitimacy of the project, the director’s flat confirmed that fear. One lamp, bare walls, and the only furniture consisting of a folding table and camping chairs. Everything smelled like some sort of condensed soup. And I instantly began wondering if I had made a huge mistake in becoming an actor. I remember he did have a beanbag chair. I sat in the beanbag chair.

We rehearsed in this fashion for some time, the actors performing, me in the beanbag chair, following along in the script. I assumed this was what I was supposed to be doing, because no one told me. One night, I drove the actor playing Vladimir home after rehearsal and he assured me I would get a chance to perform. I was instantly nauseous.

It was the actor’s nightmare. Constant threat of performing followed by soul-crushing depression because I hadn’t.

By opening night, I still hadn’t run the whole play. And what was worse, no one seemed to notice or care. I wanted to say something but, what if… it turned out to be my fault, and they fired me! But they weren’t paying me so, I guess, what if… they ask me to stop coming! My career would be over!

So, every night I sat backstage in a raw panic, not knowing if I was going to go on, if I wanted to go on or what I would even say if I did go on. It was the actor’s nightmare. Constant threat of performing followed by soul-crushing depression because I hadn’t.

My only companion in this acting hell was the Estragon understudy, who seemed to be unfazed by the fact that neither of us had rehearsed and could be called upon to perform at any moment. He was a nice man, very large, whose day job consisted of security for strippers performing private bachelor parties. His stories were sad and terrible, but he told them anyway.

While pouring over the text, trying to memorise on the fly, I began to realise that, as an understudy, I was actually experiencing what the play was about, in real time. Every panicked rehearsal, every stressful night back stage, every attempt to remember my lines and every night realising I wasn’t needed… I was waiting for Waiting For Godot. And I found it hilarious.


Dave Hanson’s award-winning Off-Broadway comedy Waiting For Waiting For Godot receives its European premiere at London’s St James Theatre from 30 August to 24 September 2016. The Fast Show‘s Simon Day stars alongside Laura Kirman and James Marlowe, directed by Mark Bell (The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery). During the run, My Theatre Mates co-founder Terri Paddock hosts a post-show Q&A with Hanson, Bell and the three stars of the show on Monday 5 September 2016. 

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Guest Bloggers on Twitter
Guest Bloggers
MyTheatreMates welcomes submissions from guest bloggers and other occasional contributors, including theatremakers commenting on aspects of their shows. Please email your suggestions to Mates co-founder Terri Paddock or submit them via our Contact Us page.