Carlos L. Encinias and Jim Daly  of Altar Boyz
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Carlos L. Encinias and Jim Daly
of Altar Boyz
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Whenever show time roles around, there are always a bunch of actors getting paid not to do anything. Nice work if you can get it, right? But it's not all just hanging around eating bonbons for these folks -- they are the ones on call if a misfortune befalls someone in the show. And it's these understudies, standbys, and swings who keep the theater going. "We call our boys wonderstudies," said press agent David Gersten of Altar Boyz' Jim Daly and Carlos L. Encinias, the show's two understudies, who each cover all five roles in the show and who go on approximately two to three times every week.

The difference between an understudy and a standby is confusing to many audiences. The terminology is not actually defined by Actors' Equity Association, but is agreed to by producers and agents. As a general rule of thumb, standbys cover one role, while understudies can cover many. Additionally, many actors perform one part in a production while understudying other roles, whereas a standby is only seen in a show when called upon. Swings are a somewhat different animal, rotating into ensemble tracks when needed.

For these talented thespians, their downtime is typically spent close to the theater, if not actually inside it. (Not all actors are bound by this rule; while standing by for Adam Pascal in Aida, Will Chase was allowed to stay home in New Jersey if he knew Pascal was on.) For example, during Altar Boyz performances, Daly and Encinias, who both joined the company in 2005, are either inside New World Stages or directly outside at Worldwide Plaza.

The actors have been friends since appearing in a 2002 regional production of Jesus Christ Superstar, so they spend a lot of time bonding. "This is the second Jesus to bring us together," Daly notes. In the 80-something minutes they have to kill -- they are permitted to leave following the last dance-heavy number, "Number 918" -- they play Scratch, Trouble, and Boggle with company manager Ryan Lympus and wardrobe supervisor Megan Opalinski in the sole backstage dressing room. Daly has occasionally used the time to get assistance applying Just For Men hair color. And the actors, members of the same book club, read tons.

Their life is not all fun and games; they have to run through the show, performing all the solos themselves, two times a month. "This show is hard to keep in your brain because you're only one count off depending [on which role you are playing]," Daly says. "You have to be flexible. I carried around my script for six months when I started." Despite sticking close to the stage, only Daly has had to go on mid-show. He was sitting outside when he got the call to step in for the role of Juan, which he had never performed for a paying audience. "Jim has bad luck," Encinias states. "When I go away, all the people are sick." It all balances out, however, as Encinias has a difficult job that Daly does not; he serves as the show's dance captain, requiring him to give notes to the performers. "It's the best and the worst of jobs," Encinias says. "When you go in, you get all the laud of a principal show, but it's really hard."

At least the Boyz can go chill outside. Hairspray's Michelle Dowdy has to stay within the confines of the Neil Simon Theater, where she reads and watches DVDs of such TV series as The West Wing and Lost with swings Gretchen Bieber and Nicole Powell. However, a number of other Broadway shows, including Spamalot, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Wicked, allow their cast members to travel within a five-block radius as long as they are armed with a powered-up cell phone.

James Ludwig, who covers five out of seven male principals in Spamalot, luckily lives a few blocks from his theater, so if he is not on or watching, he can be at home if he wants. "I am in the theater a lot," Ludwig says. "I like to go to work, but it's great to have a choice. I run a couple of home businesses on the side [including a film company and a website that specializes in delivering information on NYC bars]."

Lisa Brescia, who is Julia Murney's standby for the role of Elphaba in Wicked, is using her paid spare time to earn a BA online at Empire State College. "Since January, when I began rehearsals for the green girl, I've taken Women's Art History, The Middle East, and Psychology. Any cast or crew members who have questions about Frida Kahlo, Islam, or behavioral abnormalities can find me cursing at my laptop," she says.

The understudies at Spelling Bee have lower goals; they are just trying to color within the lines. "From the Cabbage Patch dolls to Build-a-Bear, our artwork is proudly hanging around the greenroom," says Jacqui Polk, who understudies the roles of Marcy Park, Olive Ostrovsky, and Loggainne Schwartzandgrubineirre.

All of these actors work very hard to be prepared at a moment's notice, but most of the time, they find themselves without a demanding job at show time. "We have fun," Encinias says. "We have time for fun."