Talk to the understudy and other ‘stuff reporters do,’ starring Danny Arnold

Sweetheart’s answer to where he went to school to become an arborist is, “I learned on the street.” 

We have that in common. To this day, I’ve never taken a journalism class. I learned to be a reporter on the street. Literally, somewhat, as part of my first job at a daily paper involved finding people willing to answer the “Question of the Week.” 

What arborists see, regardless of where they learn their craft. (Photo credit: Sweetheart)

It was usually about some current events topic and dreamed up by our editor, a man who inexplicably wrote all his editorials in second person. More than once, I fantasized about asking why I couldn’t get a little help around my house from “our wife.” We never took a newsroom poll about worst task, but if we had, Question of the Week would have been the winner.

On a rotating basis, we had to collect six answers – and pictures of the answerers. Which involved walking up to a stranger while holding a notebook and camera and asking them if they’d like to answer a question and get their picture taken for the newspaper. 

Good times. 

All of these people thought the US should pull its troops out of Somalia.

Eventually, most of us got wise to hitting the the gas station at 11 pm on a Saturday, when people were too plowed to realize what they were getting themselves into. (We also got great some great – and unprintable – answers.) 

I loved pretty much everything else about being a reporter and features editor at a daily paper. That’s one reason it’s been hard to see way the news business has changed over the past 25 or so years. The advent of digital publishing should have created more jobs for talented writers, not less. Journalism as a business is in flux, and while it’s still unclear where it’s going to land, so far it’s basically been a bloodbath for writers. 

Recent staff massacres at The Forward (for which I freelanced at one point), Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have resulted in yet another round of talented writers worrying how to feed themselves and their families. The important work those people were doing includes keeping our government on notice that it’s being watched. That is under threat, at exactly the moment those in power need that message.

Freelance writing is a rough way to make a living. You never know when you’re going to get paid. Paid vacation, sick days and health benefits are non-existent. Having a day job doing what you love is a beautiful thing, and I hope all those journalists who just lost theirs land on their feet, with jobs they love.

As a reporter, I loved writing feature stories. People doing interesting things told me how they came to be doing them and what might be happening next with whatever they were doing. Then, I got to turn those parts of their lives into stories. I loved it. I still do, even though now the people telling me interesting things are at the reference desk, and their stories are not for publication.

Occasionally, though, I get a chance to put on my feature writing tiara (I’ve won a couple of awards for feature writing, hence tiara rather than mere hat).

Not too long ago, Seth Meyers came to town for a benefit. I am a big Seth fan, so I asked the editor of the paper I do most of my freelancing for if he was planning a profile and if so, could  I write it? He wasn’t. But, he said, the Broadway Touring Company of “Fiddler on the Roof” was coming to town. How about an interview with the actor playing Tevye and one other lead actor?

When I finally connected with the media contact for the show (after a two-week game of phone tag), I told her I wanted to interview the actor playing Tevye, and I wanted to interview the actor who was Tevye’s understudy. 

No one ever talks to the understudy, which is a mistake.

The understudy has to learn two roles – the one for which they’ve been cast, and the one they may have to step into on a moment’s notice – or never. It doesn’t matter whether they ever go on as that character or not, they need to know the role as well as the top-billed actor does. Every single day (and twice on Saturdays and Sundays) they need to be as ready to be a main cast member as they do to be a supporting cast member. Both roles are essential to the success of the production, but they’re very different.  

Long story short, I didn’t get to talk to the actor playing Tevye. Which turned out to be no problem at all.

His understudy was more than ready to star in my feature story. Click here  to read about the delightful Danny Arnold.

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