14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Broadway Understudies

Lauren Spinelli
Lauren Spinelli

On Broadway, “the show must go on” isn’t just something people say; it’s a way of life. Even if a star is out because of vacation or illness, the show can't just close its doors. Instead, the star’s talented understudy steps in to make sure that audiences aren't disappointed—and that the production doesn't lose money. Mental Floss spoke with Broadway musical understudies past and present to bring you behind-the-scenes secrets of the job, which is harder than you might think.

1. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF UNDERSTUDY.

Actor Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Broadway's 'Come From Away.'
Josh Breckenridge is a standby in Come From Away.

The public tends to use understudy as a blanket term, but it has a more narrow meaning on Broadway. If you peruse a Playbill, you might see words like standby, alternate, and swing in addition to understudy; each fills in for an onstage performer, but in a specific way. “Standbys are off-stage, and cover only principal roles,” says Josh Breckenridge, a standby in Broadway’s Come From Away. “They literally stand by. They’re required to be at the theater, and in some cases, within a certain radius of the theater, to be on call if a principal role is unable to perform. Understudies are on-stage, every night, in a specific [ensemble] role, and they cover principal roles. Swings are off-stage and cover ensemble.”

There’s a certain chain of events that allows these actors to make it on stage: If a performer is out, her standby will go on; if the standby is also out, the understudy will step in, and a swing performer will “swing in” to cover the understudy’s typical "track," or role. Alternates, meanwhile, cover specific performances to give the principal actors a break. “They’re scheduled to go on every week, whereas a standby just goes on if there’s an emergency, if someone can’t do the show,” Breckinridge explains. Not every show will have all of these layers of redundancy, but according to the Actors' Equity Association Rulebook [PDF], all Broadway shows are obligated to have understudies.

2. ACTORS AUDITION SPECIFICALLY TO BE UNDERSTUDIES.

Usually, actors know they’re auditioning to be an understudy, standby, or swing. Occasionally, though, they’ll be auditioning for a principal part and be cast as the understudy instead. According to Asa Somers, who understudies for Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, “They audition you for the role and then they go, ‘You were great, but we’re going with someone else—but you’re good enough that we would like for you to understudy. Would you be willing to do that?’ So it does happen.”

3. THEY REHEARSE REGULARLY—BUT NOT USUALLY WITH THE MAIN CAST MEMBERS.

The understudies of 'Dear Evan Hansen.'
Dear Evan Hansen understudies Garrett Long, Colton Ryan, Olivia Puckett, and Michael Lee Brown. (Not pictured: Asa Somers.)
Jenny Anderson

Actors filling in for main characters have the opportunity to rehearse twice a week. Typically, they’ll rehearse with each other, with stage managers reading off-book to cover other parts, as an assistant director watches. There are very few of the bells and whistles that accompany a full show, which provides some challenges for the actors. For example, because there are only six standbys for the 12 cast members in Come From Away, Breckenridge says they have to rely on the crew to make up the difference during rehearsals: “There are moments where we have to pause for the crew to shift everything—there’s a little bit of hodge-podging and faking our way through.”

“I think one of the hardest things is how dark it is in rehearsal,” says Garrett Long, who understudies Heidi Hansen and Cynthia Murphy in Evan Hansen. “We just [use] work lights.” Somers says, “I feel like the stage is way bigger when just the work lights are on because you can see everything—the audience, the wings. It’s disconcerting.”

Colton Ryan and Michael Lee Brown both cover Evan Hansen’s three high school-aged male leads—Evan, Connor, and Jared—which means they sometimes play two of the parts they cover in the same scene during rehearsal. “The first scene is one of only two scenes where Connor and Jared are in the same space,” Ryan says. “Because Jared enters first and has more lines, Michael will play Jared or I’ll play Jared. We’ll get to the point where [Jared] goes, ‘Oh, you’re such a freak,’ and leaves. And instead of leaving, [whoever is playing Jared] mimes walking out and will just come back in as Connor. You just have to switch on a dime.”

4. THEY OFTEN COVER MULTIPLE TRACKS, AND HAVE VARIOUS METHODS FOR KEEPING THE CHARACTERS SEPARATE.

“I made a run sheet for each character,” Brown says. “I wrote down exactly, in every scene, their movements—which wing they exit, enter, and every move they make. Props you need to remember, costume changes backstage. When you go on, you keep a copy on each side of the stage, and it’s super helpful.”

Jay Douglas, who covered six characters in The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, had a similar strategy. “I sat out in the audience with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a tape recorder in the other hand, and I would follow each of my people around one person at a time,” he told Playbill. “I would speak every move that that character made into a microphone, and then I would go back and actually type it out in a Word document.” He reviewed his notes and corrected them until he had an accurate description of what every track did, then kept a printed copy in his bag so he could pull it out to reference it at a moment’s notice.

For Ryan, keeping the characters from bleeding into one another comes down to physicality. “They’re all seniors in high school, but they all lead from a very different place in the body: Their gut, their heart—where they keep their instinct,” he says. “I found that tapping into a specific physicality is what can trigger my brain to say, ‘OK, you’re on that track now.’ And then they don’t bleed at all.”

Come From Away includes 12 actors—six men and six women—playing 60 different characters; as a standby, Breckenridge covers five of those actors and their subroles. “You’re one character one moment, you put on a hat and you’re automatically another character, or you slip off a jacket and you become an additional character,” he says. “It’s a subtle change, and it’s typically done with a physicality, with an acting beat, with a register of where you use your voice, and also with accents. As crazy as learning multiple accents can be, it’s actually very helpful with character shifts because that, in itself, can help you change into a completely different character. Dialogue helps, too: I’m speaking Arabic at one point as Ali, but then I’m talking about kissing a cod as the local Newfoundlander. I think that helps you zero in and not jump from one dialect to the next inappropriately.”

5. THEY’RE NEVER FAR FROM THE THEATER DURING A PERFORMANCE.

Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Jared Bradshaw understudies Willy Wonka in Broadway's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Standbys and swings have to be in, or near, the theater when a show is happening. But when they’re not on, they have a lot of downtime, and they can decide how they spend it. “I shared a dressing room with Megan Hilty, who was the Glinda standby at the time,” says Shoshana Bean, who was the standby for Elphaba in Wicked from 2004 to 2005 (after which she took on the role herself). “We would rehearse sometimes, we would watch TV. I would go to the gym, write music. We were allowed to be within a five-block radius of the building and reachable on our cell phones, so I grabbed food with friends or ran errands.”

Breckenridge says he and the other standbys will often watch the show: “We’re either out in the house, up above in the lighting rig—there’s a seating area for us—or we’re watching backstage,” he says. If they’re not watching, “We go in our dressing room, close the door, turn up the monitor, and kind of do the show there. We can sing full out, say the lines, in the dialect, and not have to mute ourselves as we would in the audience or backstage.”

Depending on the day, the cast of Dear Evan Hansen will also rehearse together or watch the show (they also enjoy playing Bananagrams). One thing is for sure: No standby or swing is lazy. “There’s a misconception that we’re not working,” Breckenridge says. “But we’re working our butts off behind the scenes.”

Understudies, who have their own tracks in the show, obviously can't fully watch what the actor they’re covering is doing—but sometimes, the stage manager will arrange for them to watch the show from the audience, as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s did for Jared Bradshaw. Bradshaw plays a reporter and an Oompa Loompa in the show and understudies for Willy Wonka (as well as the other male leads), who is played by Christian Borle. “He had a swing go on for my role as Jerry Jubilee, the reporter, and he let me watch the show from 10th row center,” Bradshaw says. “It wasn’t for fun—it was to let me watch Christian and see from the front of house where he’s actually standing and what the lighting cues look like.”

6. EVERY TIME THEY GO ON IS BASICALLY LIKE THE FIRST TIME.

“The problem for us is every time we go on, it’s the first time, more or less, because so much time has passed,” Somers says.

And it can be hard to master a role when you don’t go on much. “It was hard to have a job as a performer but not technically get to perform that often,” Bean says. “Most standbys go on very infrequently and it can feel like being shot out of a cannon. Takes a second to get your groove and find your sea legs.”

Long agrees. “I did two and a half years at South Pacific, and I was still working on it at the end,” she says. “[A principal actor] is sometimes gone for a week and by the end of that week you’re like, ‘OK!’ But then you don’t touch it [for a while].”

7. THEY COULD GO ON AT LITERALLY ANY MOMENT …

Sometimes, understudies will know far in advance when they’re going on for a principal actor—like if that actor is going on vacation. But illnesses or other unforeseen emergencies might mean much less notice. Ryan got the first clue that he might have to take the stage for a Sunday matinee of Dear Evan Hansen when he found out, after the Saturday evening performance, that star Ben Platt was going to the doctor. “I had a feeling that the next morning I might get a call,” he says. “It was around 11 a.m. on Sunday when I finally got the text that said ‘Hey, this is it.’” Ryan, who made his Broadway debut that day, says he felt very zen about it all. “The timing was unbelievable,” he says. His classmates and teachers happened to be in town for a showcase—Ryan is in his senior year at Baldwin-Wallace University and is receiving internship credit for his time in Evan Hansen—and “they freaked out, and all got tickets somehow. I couldn’t believe the support I was lucky enough to have out there.”

Sometimes, the call comes even closer to the wire. “I got an hour and a half notice last time I went on, and then before that I almost went on in the first 10 minutes of the show because someone was, like, throwing up,” says Olivia Puckett, who covers the roles of Alana Beck and Zoe Murphy in Evan Hansen.

And in some situations, an understudy or standby will be called in during a show. Bean (who these days is focusing on her music; she released a new single, “One Way to Go,” in March) had to go on close to the end of a matinee of Wicked when star Idina Menzel fell and fractured her rib. “They got me ready in 7 minutes,” Bean recalls. “I was in shock that we were actually going through with it. I was worried about her because no one know what had actually happened when they took her to the hospital. I was determined to keep it together ... I didn't feel I had the right to indulge in my feelings at the time—I felt I needed to be focused and steady, for her, for the show, and to just do my job.”

8. … EVEN IF THEY HAVEN’T REHEARSED THE WHOLE SHOW.

A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory program with an understudy slip.
Chris Messina

Standbys and understudies for principal roles will sometimes get the chance to do what’s called a “put-in,” where they perform the entire show, in their costume, with the cast (in street clothes), the orchestra, and things like lighting cues and props. But it doesn’t always happen.

Ryan, for example, never had a put-in. The day of his first performance, he only ran a few essential scenes on the stage before he had to go deal with the things he doesn't normally have to do: warm up and run songs in the music department; get into costume and miked up; and put on makeup. When he had time, “Cast members would come up to my room and we would run lines,” he says. “We’d never done this at all together, so we were getting a feel of the pace in a 10-minute frame. We spent maybe half an hour on the stage just doing the dancing bits ... Other than that, it was like, ‘Alright, let’s see how you do.’”

Similarly, Bradshaw covered for Christian Borle without having fully rehearsed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Luckily, he got a text from Borle the morning of a regular four-hour understudy rehearsal session, so the stage manager gave him the opportunity to run through some of the things he'd never done before—like riding in the glass elevator and in a boat that sailed 20 feet above the stage (which Bradshaw says was “a little terrifying”). “There was only one thing we forgot to do—there’s a pushcart train that Willy rides out on stage, and we had not done that,” Bradshaw says. “I’m pushing the pushcart and singing this line that I’d never sung before with a Willy Wonka hat on and Augustus Gloop is going up the pipe, and I’m like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Those are the moments you pinch yourself. You’re like, ‘I’m not killing anybody and I’m not dead, so this is good.’”

He also got a little help from his costars: “After the number, Augustus goes up the pipe. I was supposed to be leading off Mrs. Gloop, who is played by Kathy Fitzgerald, but she was essentially leading me.” Their mics were off, and the music was very loud; under her breath, Fitzgerald was directing Bradshaw where to go. In another moment, the actor found himself in the way of Emma Pfaeffle, who plays Veruca Salt. “I was really in her way. In character, she took her hands and pushed me in the chest,” he recalls. “It was one of those perfect moments where she knew that I knew it was OK for her to push me, and her character totally would have pushed me. In a moment like that, when an understudy goes on for the first time, you shove with love.”

If worse comes to worse, an understudy will go on, script in hand—which is what happened during a 2016 performance of Falsettos, when star Stephanie Block and her understudy were both out sick. Stephanie Umoh—who covered the roles belonging to two other actors—went on for Block after doing just a 2.5-hour staging rehearsal. According to Playbill, “Umoh used the script for most of the show, but the audience cheered throughout.”

9. THEY GET PAID FOR EVERY TRACK THEY COVER …

According to Breckenridge, “Swings get paid more than understudies because swings have to, typically, cover multiple roles. As a standby, you can cover, I believe, three roles, and the second that you cover more than that, you have to be paid an additional amount, per week, for each role that you cover.”

Sometimes, moving from swing to understudy means taking a pay cut. Bradshaw, who swung into 10 roles during his eight years in Jersey Boys, had his pay decrease when he took an ensemble role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory even though he's on stage every night. “I was covering six different roles and getting paid for all those. I got paid for dance captain and fight captain,” he says. “Every six months you can get a little increase for pay for signing on for another six months. I was getting paid a lot more doing Jersey Boys. You’d think moving to a new show you’d get paid more, but when you’re in the ensemble every night and covering three roles you aren’t getting paid as much as being a swing and covering three lead roles and three ensemble roles.”

10. … AND A BONUS IF THEY COVER FOR A PRINCIPAL ACTOR.

Broadway performers get paid for eight shows a week—and if you cover for a principal actor and go on in their stead, you get a little pay bump. “Say you’re getting paid $300 a show. When you go on for a principal role, you get an extra $300 because that principal actor is not getting paid that night,” Bradshaw explains. “You get one-eighth of your salary extra.”

But as Douglas explained to Playbill, you only get that bump if you go on for a principal role. “If I go on for my ensemble track," he said, "that does not pay me any extra ... [but] even if I am not on once during the course of a week, I still make my full paycheck, [and] any principal performances that I have is additional money on top.”

Understudies can also expect to get paid more for things like extraordinary risk, “which is when you do something like riding in [Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's] glass elevator,” Bradshaw explains. “There was a trap door in Jersey Boys. They let you know that it’s a pneumatic lift and if you stick your arm out your bones are going to snap in half. You have to say you know how it works, but you also get $20 a week to risk your life and ride it. There are all these little bumps you can get as an understudy, and it’s a wonderful thing.”

11. THEY HAVE OTHER ROLES, TOO.

One standby or swing will serve as a show’s dance captain; in Come From Away, Breckenridge fills that role. “It’s my job to maintain the cleanliness of the show, so to speak,” he says. “While a typical dance captain’s job is maintaining just the choreography, with this show, there’s also chairography and blocking and chair traffic. All that stuff that I have to maintain. So on a typical day I’ll watch the show and take notes. If I see something—a traffic issue, or dance moves that have gotten muddy, or blocking that's a little off—I’ll notate it. If it’s something that becomes consistent, I’ll give the actor a note before the half hour [call] the next day, just to make sure they can apply that note in the show.”

12. THEY HAVE A LOT TO THINK ABOUT WHILE STAYING IN CHARACTER ...

“We’re focusing on things that [principal actors] don’t have to focus on at all anymore,” Puckett says. “You walk on stage and you’re looking for your spike mark [a piece of tape that shows actors where to stand], and then you’re looking for where the light is hitting you, and then you’re figuring out if you’re in the right shirt, and then you’re on top of that remembering your lines, and then on top of that you’re in your character.” According to Bradshaw, that type of compartmentalization has a name: “swing brain.”

13. ... AND NEED TO BE CONSISTENT WITH WHAT A PRINCIPAL ACTOR HAS DONE IN THE ROLE.

It’s key that understudies and standbys are consistent with what a principal performer has done in the past, both so they don’t throw off the other actors’ rhythms or wander into a perilous situation. “As the standby, my only intention was to fit in like a cog in a wheel,” Bean says. “A show runs like a well-oiled machine, and it can be dangerous to you or to the other company members if you don't hit your marks and follow the track as it's laid out.”

That said, there is room for a little fun. In his debut as Willy Wonka, Bradshaw said a line in Spanish and threw in a Southern accent on one line. “Willy Wonka is supposed to be unpredictable and you don’t know if he’s telling the truth or lying or strike that, reverse it,” he says. “Any comedian is funnier if they’re doing their own stuff as opposed to doing a filtered version of someone else’s accent. Still, you have to be standing in the right place at the right time. There are holes that open up in the floor and entire ceiling comes down—it’s dangerous.”

14. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT THEY’RE NOT LESSER THAN THE PRINCIPAL PERFORMERS.

The performers Mental Floss spoke to all mentioned the disappointment audiences express when a principal actor is out and a standby or understudy is on. While that’s understandable, they want audience members to know that they’re just as talented and working just as hard as the principal performers.

“The term understudy has a connotation that you’re not as good,” Bradshaw says. “It’s tough understudying a star now instead of just an actor. I would want to see Christian Borle as Willy Wonka. I wouldn’t want to see Jared Bradshaw—I would be disappointed! But you get to exceed their expectations. It takes a special person to understudy and to hop in and play a lead in one of these Broadway shows.”

Breckenridge concurs. “The producers, directors, choreographers, they’re trusting us to do, technically, a harder job than what the onstage actors are doing,” he says. Swings and standbys need to be able to maintain and perform multiple roles, sometimes at the drop of a hat. “I think there’s a misconception that we are second best, when in fact, we’re hired because we have the talent to do a myriad of things, like different roles and voice types,” he says. “We’re just as talented and we are an equal piece of this family, of this cast.”

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

iStock.com/andresr
iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

11 Secrets of Perfumers

Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images
Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

Perfumers are a rare breed. These half-artist, half-scientist hybrids undergo rigorous training, memorize the smells of hundreds of ingredients, and spend decades honing their craft—which might explain why there are reportedly more astronauts than perfumers in the world, according to the BBC.

For many, the job isn't merely about peddling bottles of sweet-smelling stuff to consumers; the goal is to convey an emotion, create a beautiful moment, or jog a childhood memory. To find out what it takes to create top-notch fragrances, Mental Floss spoke with three perfumers who broke into the industry through very different paths.

1. Perfumers can identify hundreds of ingredients by smell alone.

A large perfume organ with hundreds of fragrance bottles
Mandy Aftel's perfume organ
By Joel Bernstein // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Master perfumers are sometimes called a nez—the French word for "nose"—for good reason. They commit hundreds of scents to memory and can distinguish between ingredients that would smell identical to the untrained nose. Many perfumers can also tell an essential oil from a synthetic material, which is no small feat. “You’re talking maybe 200 essential oils and about 1500 synthetic materials,” Jodi Wilson, a classically trained perfumer who now works as a fragrance sales manager for Orchidia Fragrances in Chicago, says of the ingredients perfumers typically employ.

The trick, she says, is to associate each smell with a distinct memory. “The more experiences you have in your life, the more memories you create, and that’s really how you remember these raw materials when you first start studying, because it reminds you of your grandmother or a flower shop or a bakery or a certain gum,” Wilson tells Mental Floss. (The link between smell and memory has actually been proven by science—one 2018 study by neurobiologists at the University of Toronto revealed that the brain not only stores information about certain scents, but also memories of when and where you first encountered them.)

2. Having a good sense of smell isn't enough to make a good perfumer.

Many perfumers have a heightened sense of smell. Jersey City-based perfumer Christopher Brosius, who founded the rebellious fragrance brand CB I Hate Perfume (a reference to his distaste for most commercial fragrances) is one of them. He realized just how strong his nose was while working briefly as a New York City cab driver—he had to roll the window down every time an “offensive” perfume wafted in his direction and made his stomach churn.

However, many aspiring perfumers mistakenly believe that a “good nose” will get them far. “That’s like saying that if you have 20/20 vision you’re the next Picasso,” Brosius tells Mental Floss. “A keen nose is very useful, but at the end of the day I have met perfumers who were extremely talented who didn’t smell anything more sharply than anybody else. They just had the capacity to think in a different way about what they were doing with scent and combining it in unique and interesting ways.” More important than a good sense of smell is creativity, a natural talent for recognizing scents that work well together, and the “dedication to building a very particular base of knowledge and skill,” Brosius says.

3. France's Givaudan Perfumery School is the goal for many would-be top perfumers.

Jodi Wilson picks roses
Jodi Wilson picks roses for distillation while studying at the Roure Perfumery School (now called the Givaudan Perfumery School) in Grasse, France, during the 1991-92 academic year.
Courtesy of Jodi Wilson

Like many professional perfumers, Wilson was educated at what's now the Givaudan Perfumery School in France. Founded in 1946, it only accepts one or two promising students each year out of thousands of applicants—and sometimes none at all, if that year’s crop of candidates don’t live up to the school’s high standards. Former director Jean Guichard has said he hand-selected students based on their personality, talent, and motivations. “The perfumer should be a mixture between a scientist and a poet,” Guichard told the BBC. “When I meet people, I know if they have talent or not. I don’t want to have people who say, ‘I’m going to be a perfumer because they make a lot of money.’ That doesn’t interest me at all.” (And speaking of pay, Wilson says the starting salary for entry-level perfumers is about $45,000, but perfumers in New York City tend to start off a bit higher. It's not unheard of for the world's top perfumers to make six figures.)

The now-four-year Givaudan program is rigorous. First, students have to memorize about 1500 raw materials, Wilson says. Next, they learn how to build accords, which are the fragrance notes (like rose or jasmine) that form the heart of a perfume. They move on to perfume schemas (the “skeleton” of a fine fragrance, which contains 10 to 12 materials) and also learn about the culture and history of perfume. “It takes a long time to learn all of that, and that’s what you’re doing all day from 9 a.m. till 4 p.m. It’s intense,” Wilson says. If and when they graduate, they’ll have a job waiting for them at the Givaudan fragrance company, which is where they’ll learn how to make perfumes under the guidance of a seasoned professional.

4. perfume school isn’t the only way to break into the industry.

Mandy Aftel holding perfume blotters
Perfumer Mandy Aftel at work
By Foster Curry // Courtesy of Mandy Aftel

Brosius says “99.9 percent” of aspiring perfumers would benefit from attending a perfume school. However, he personally did things a little differently and learned the fundamentals of perfume-making by landing a job at Kiehl’s and completing the company’s in-house training program.

It’s even less common for a perfumer to be self-taught, but it’s not impossible. The latter camp includes Mandy Aftel, a perfumer in Berkeley, California, who dropped a fulfilling career in psychotherapy to pursue a budding passion for perfume-making. For information about natural materials, she turned to fragrance books from the early 1900s, before synthetic materials started to saturate the market. Now, her Aftelier Perfumes business uses hundreds of natural ingredients—no synthetics—to create unique fragrances, and she has a loyal clientele. Regardless of the career paths they took, all of the perfumers agreed that this career is “a continuous learning process,” as Aftel tells Mental Floss. Both Brosius and Wilson said it takes 20 to 25 years to truly master the art of perfume-making, and Aftel still calls herself a “beginner” after 30 years of working in this field.

5. Not all perfumers work with fine fragrances.

Fragrance is used in many different ways, some of which we encounter on a daily basis without realizing it. Some perfumers specialize in creating scents for “industrial application,” which could include anything from children’s toys to paint to fabric, Brosius says. In the case of toilet-bowl cleaners, cat litter, and asphalt, the goal is not necessarily to create a pleasant aroma; instead, the challenge is to mask an unpleasant one. However, many of the perfumers working on the industrial side have scientific backgrounds and tend to work for a chemical company rather than a perfume label, Wilson says.

6. Some of the materials perfumers work with are hazardous.

Some undiluted ingredients—such as cinnamon—can cause severe chemical burns if they get on one's skin. Brosius wears gloves and goggles while blending materials and says some ingredients in his studio come with a "do not open without authorization" label attached. He says, “We have a protocol here that if anything new comes in, it’s opened in specific parts of the building or even sometimes outside on the terrace so that we don’t have an accident where it’s like, ‘Oops I just spilled one single drop of aldehyde [an organic compound] and now the entire building is uninhabitable, although next week it will smell like ginger ale!”

7. They want you to know your aromatherapy lotion might not be made of rose, jasmine, or whatever the bottle claims it contains.

Labels can be deceptive. If you’re buying an “aromatherapy” lotion or shower gel that claims to have rose, sandalwood, or jasmine in it but costs $15, that’s a red flag. According to Wilson, these ingredients can cost many thousands of dollars per pound. Wilson says it’s far more likely that cheaper products contain just a drop or two of the natural oils advertised—for the sake of being able to list them on the label—plus a host of synthetic ingredients that mimic the smell.

8. They're not always working on fragrances they like.

Marketing is a huge part of the cost of the perfume, especially on the higher end; the perfume industry spent around $800 million on marketing in 2016, according to Bloomberg. “Ninety percent of the time, the cost of the juice in that bottle is fractional,” Brosius says.

Marketing demands are also one reason why perfumers don't always get to follow their nose—and their creativity. “Most perfumers who work at large houses are not so happy with their job all the time,” Brosius says. “For every fine fragrance they get to work on, they’re compelled to work on a ton of crap fragrances as well. Much of it is entirely dependent on the whim of the marketing company.”

Companies are also more risk-averse, Wilson says—and the perfumes themselves now aren’t always built to last. “It used to be that a ‘classic’ was considered to last for 20 years—so your Chanel 5 and things of that nature,” Wilson says. “Now, it’s very rare to have a perfume that stays around for even 10 years.”

9. The smell of puppies is impossible to replicate—but perfumers are trying.

A bottle of Soaked Earth accord from CB I Hate Perfume
Kevin O'Mara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Brosius has taken on some ambitious projects over the years, including fragrances imitating the smells of snow and wet earth, but some scents are harder to capture than others. That’s because the aroma chemicals needed to replicate certain smells haven't been created yet. This can be said of gasoline, champagne and certain wines, and some animal smells. “Particularly with puppies and kittens, the molecules needed to accurately reproduce those smells don’t exist in the perfumer’s palette. You can’t solvent extract puppies and kittens for their smell," Brosius says, describing a method that involves applying a chemical solvent to a raw material—such as a flower—to extract its aroma.

However, he’s had success creating "a context that’s so strong that people are convinced that they’re smelling something that isn’t there," he says. For instance, his roast beef fragrance doesn’t contain roast beef or anything like it, but it does contain notes of parsley and black pepper. That scent in particular, and a few others like it, aren't meant to be worn on the body. Brosius says some of his fragrances are more like modern-day "smelling salts," where the goal is to revive you, in a sense, by relieving stress. "All you have to do is open the bottle, breathe in, and your system will automatically reset to calm," he says.

10. Perfumers sometimes work with whale poop.

A small bowl with ambergris in it
Peter Kaminski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Perfume-makers work with some unusual ingredients, and ambergris is certainly at the top of the list. This rock-like material comes from the excrement of sperm whales and occasionally washes up on shore. Aftel is fortunate enough to have some on display at the olfactory history museum she operates, called the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. To convert the solid mass of crushed up squid and cuttlefish bits into an aromatic oil, she had to mash it up with a mortar and pestle, then add alcohol, heat it, and let it age. So what does it smell like in liquid form? “Heaven,” Aftel says. “It’s just ambery and shimmery. It’s a miracle of transformation.” Besides, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick and it used to be a 17th-century ice cream flavor, so you know it has to be good.

11. They keep wool nearby to combat nose fatigue.

Wool is the olfactory equivalent of eating sorbet in between courses. If you’re smelling the same scent for a prolonged period of time, or sniffing too many perfumes in a row, your odor receptors will habituate and stop sending those signals to your brain. This is officially called olfactory fatigue, and it explains why you might stop noticing a smell after a couple of minutes.

“If you smell a lot of scented materials, a lot of times your nose will just kind of conk out,” Aftel says. She keeps some wool nearby to help reset her sense of smell, and three big whiffs does the trick. So why does this work? Aftel says one theory is that the lanolin in wool absorbs and neutralizes odors, giving the brain a rest from sensory overload. As for those coffee beans you might see in some perfume shops? Those "definitely don't work," Aftel says.

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