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By Brian Robin

Understudy Martin-Cotten Flies High

Flowers from Al Pacino. That’s when it hit Kim Martin-Cotten what just happened. That’s when the reality of being an understudy on a Broadway stage kicked in for keeps.

Martin-Cotten understudied for Lily Rabe as Portia in the Public Theater’s 2011 revival of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. With Pacino playing Shylock, this was one of the hottest tickets on Broadway and Martin-Cotten was just thrilled to be a part of it. One evening when Rabe couldn’t go on, Martin-Cotten got the call.

“There wasn’t any brain space to allow myself to be scared, but the adrenaline rush was enormous,” she said. “It’s good I played sports growing up, and good I had that sports mentality about not letting the team down. That’s definitely in the fabric of who I am and what my reaction in a moment of crisis is about—don’t let the team go down.

“I will say that my moment of fear showed up at the curtain call, when Al Pacino handed me a bunch of flowers and I said, ‘Oh my God.’ That’s when the fear hit. It was fine for it to show up then, because it didn’t get in the way of the play. That taught me a lot, that if I know the words and I know the story, I can do something that’s useful.”

Martin-Cotten was more than useful that night, just like she was more than useful when she stepped in to play Birdie Hubbard for three performances of SCR’s The Little Foxes early in that production’s run. Getting the call after Tessa Auberjonois fell ill, Martin-Cotten embodied the complex role and wowed critics with her performances.

Martin-Cotten is an accomplished actor, with credits on Broadway, off-Broadway and at regional theatres all over the country, with a Drama Desk Award nomination for playing Josie in Moon for theMisbegotten. But this was the first time since 2017 that Martin-Cotten, SCR’s Associate Artistic Director, went back on stage. Her last full production was interestingly enough, another Lillian Hellman play—Days to Come—off-Broadway. In her role as SCR’s Associate Artistic Director, Martin-Cotten works as a producer on shows, handling behind-the-scenes matters and working as SCR’s liaison with the actors and creative teams.

But on the morning of Feb. 4, the day of The Little Foxes’ opening, Martin-Cotten got that call all understudies await with equal measures dread and excitement. Auberjonois was sick, the performance was cancelled and Martin-Cotten would soon be going on.

“I thought I was mostly here as a very unlikely backup because I’m covering both Shannon (Cochran) as Regina and Tessa as Birdie. I thought those two amazing actors are not going to need me,” she said, laughing. “I was processing most things as a producer, with my head on our opening in that sense. … For me, most of what was the adrenaline in that moment was not, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have to go on stage as Birdie.’ Most of my adrenaline at that point was ‘We’re going to have to cancel that beautiful weekend.’ My disappointment on putting our opening weekend aside.

“All of my focus was about what the next steps were for the entire project. Then, later on, I was able to step in and help oversee the understudy rehearsals for the next play (Appropriate, the other half of Voices of America). Once that was done, that’s when I turned my mind to the other job I have, which is get ready to act in this play.”

Martin-Cotten had a head start, which made her a natural understudy. She understudied both roles, Regina and Birdie, for Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney during the 2016 Broadway revival of TheLittle Foxes. Part of the draw of that production being that both Nixon and Linney switched back-and-forth between the two roles. Martin-Cotten freely admits that with all of her producer duties, the only way she could have understudied as well as she did was because of that familiarity.

“It definitely helped that I had a sense in watching Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon trade the roles,” she said. “It gave space for me to have my own take and shape of those roles and that certainly accelerated the ability to step into something.”

If acting in live theatre is a nightly high-wire act, being an understudy is a high-wire act 20 floors up from that. Keeping with Martin-Cotten’s sports analogies, gleaned from playing lacrosse as a teenager, understudies are literally the next-person-up when a regular actor goes down. Otherwise, they are not seen, not heard by theatregoers. They are names on a program, usually barely noticed by anyone other than family and friends.

This all flips on its ear when a regular is unable to perform. Enter the understudy. And enter them in various stages of readiness. Some—like Martin-Cotten—are ready to go on without a script. Others spend their first few performances on book. Often, understudies take on multiple roles, necessitating extra preparations and further narrowing the wire they walk out on every night.

Martin-Cotten was not only familiar with the material, but also with the acting company. And that scaled back the fear factor considerably. She was the right person for the right role at the right moment—exactly like she would have drawn it up in her producer role.

“At a certain point in your life, if you’ve been doing this for a long time, it is a little like riding a bicycle,” she said. “You don’t need to get your feet wet. You know how to do it. You just jump on the bike and go. It’s not something you forget how to do. I was lucky it was with a fantastic group of people who said ‘Yes’ every step of the way. …

“I was far from the only understudy on Voices of America. We had Paige Lindsey White step on as Rachael for four performances of Appropriate, as well as Kaci Hamilton on as Addie and Matthew Arkin on as Horace in The Little Foxes for five performances. Not to mention that Zalen D. King was a late addition to the cast of The Little Foxes in the role of Cal. Without any one of them, we would not have been able to continue.”

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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