Ahmad Maksoud ’09 performed in many plays during his time at Northeastern, including Tales of the Lost Formicans, Guys and Dolls, Measure for Measure, and Working and more. After graduation he went on to study at the American Repertory Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training in their joint program with the Moscow Art Theatre School. In all his training, he worked on creating roles through intense rehearsal processes. However, he is now working as an understudy for a Broadway show, The Band’s Visit. He’s having to think on his feet in a whole new way. Ahmad remembers his time at Northeastern, and tells us how it continues to help him today:
Throughout my career, I’m not sure there’s been a truer test of my training and education as an actor than understudying. As I write today, I am working as an off-stage standby for the Broadway production of The Band’s Visit, covering seven principal roles. Sometimes I perform when other cast members are sick. Other times I take their spot when they’ve got personal obligations. Most of the time, I’m haunting the theatre halls and dressing rooms, watching the show on a small TV monitor, and finding other backstage folk to bother. All of the time, though, I’ve got to be ready to jump in for any of those seven roles at a moment’s notice. The low-rumbling anticipation, punctuated by the occasional moments of pure adrenaline, offset the day-to-day banality of showing up and waiting. But all of that demands a level of preparedness, with a stark absence of the rehearsal time you expect for seven parts, that I’ve never experienced before.
When I was an undergrad at Northeastern, I remember Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, who taught Voice and Movement at the time, never relenting whenever we would fall back into our I don’t knows and I should’ves. “I don’t know doesn’t serve you as an actor.” “Actors don’t live in the land of should,” he would say. Those words have never hit me harder than they do right now. I was brought into The Band’s Visit shortly before previews began, which means after the bulk of the rehearsal process ended. Even if I had joined earlier, my other understudy compatriots assured me that I still wouldn’t have received any active rehearsal time, as they hadn’t. Which is to no one’s explicit blame, by the way; the principal cast needed as much practice as they could get, what with rehearsal time being a luxury in the professional world. When our understudy rehearsals finally began, the show had already opened, a couple weeks prior. My first performance, due to an illness, was performed with, I’d estimate, a total of four or five hours of preparation in advance. I hadn’t rehearsed with any technical elements either, which, considering the set has a revolving stage, and the fact that that role has to make an entrance, in the dark, on roller skates, was not the most comforting reality. That performance would also mark my Broadway debut.
So Antonio’s sage words reverberated with me then. There was no time to not know, or to resist a decision and possibly regret it later. I was making my Broadway debut with hardly any notice (I was also only told two hours beforehand.), armed largely with just with my textbook of notes and autonomous learning. I had to make firm decisions, and I had to trust them, and I had no time to look back. And it all happened.
Now that the show’s been running for a few months, we’ve got a bit more rehearsal under our belts. I’ve performed in a different role as well (also due to illness and with little notice/preparation), and now, we’re finally beginning to receive scheduled performance dates, as contractual vacation time starts kicking in. We’re given these dates several weeks to months in advance, allowing us to focus our energy on these roles in our rehearsal time and private learning. And even still, we did not craft these roles from the ground up in a traditional rehearsal space. We’re caught somewhere between honoring what the actor who originated the role has created, and bringing our honest selves, with our own bodies and self-generated intentions, into our performance. With those circumstances already muddying the waters, there’s absolutely no room for doubt. In grad school, one of the most important lessons I learned was that in the present moment of acting, we have no idea what our performance is like. We cannot, in any real capacity, evaluate our own look and sound. All we have is what we can observe around us – our scene partners, the environment of the set/stage/theatre. And yet, we spend so much of our energy considering how our performance is going, which is the genesis of our I don’t knows and should’ves. If we spent more of our effort focusing on whether our tactics were actually working, a set of possible decisions would reveal themselves to us as we go. A positive side effect of not performing the same role every day is that I’m hyper aware of how my on-stage decisions are affecting the space and other people, keeping me active and engaged in the present. So at least that’s pretty cool.
The last thing I’ll say is that journey that led me to this wonderful opportunity did not come conventionally by any means. There was no standard audition/callback/hiring process. The whole experience was truly an accumulation of relationship building and odd happenstance. Those relationships, and the risk-taking that followed when opportunities arose, could have easily been missed had I shied away from taking chances and moving forward. I don’t know and I should’ve are often a product of our own attempt to predict or assume a certain outcome before it happens, but then the moment passes and we’re left wondering what went wrong. What I’ve learned is that listening, curiosity, and a certain degree of boldness are far more effective than calculation, or wariness, and certainly self-aggrandizement. Antonio’s persistence to keep us active and engaged taught me, more than almost any other lesson, to listen and respond, off stage and on, without ego or embarrassment. Understudying lets me practice that every day.
Ahmad could be performing at any performance, any time, but he knows for sure that he will be onstage Thursday, March 22nd at 7pm and Friday, March 23rd at 8pm. For tickets, head to The Band’s Visit website.