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.”

16 Secrets of School Portrait Photographers

iStock.com/HKPNC
iStock.com/HKPNC

One by one, they form a little conveyor belt—throngs of students lining up to sit in a chair, look into a camera lens, and smile. For millions of kids, picture day is a way to memorialize their appearance in a given year, although later the out-of-fashion clothes or cosmetic growing pains may be a way to memorialize pure awkwardness. For the photographers tasked with the job, however, picture day means corralling hundreds of children and establishing a comfort level without any time to waste.

“We get about 30 seconds per kid,” Kristin Boyer, a photographer in Atlanta, Georgia, who has been taking school portrait photos for eight years, tells Mental Floss. “And it’s amazing how much impact you can have. You want to make them feel like a million bucks—beautiful, awesome, and smart.”

To get a better sense of what goes into the job, we asked Boyer and two other school photographers to divulge some of the more interesting aspects of wrangling kids for posterity. Read on for some insight into uncooperative subjects, why mornings make for the the best shots, and the importance of booger patrol.

1. SCHOOLS GET A CUT OF THEIR FEE.

While deals can vary by school, photographers typically get paid when parents order photos. The school then takes a percentage of that fee.

To select a professional, schools will often take bids. "I make a presentation," Boyer says. "I'll explain what I do. Sometimes schools are looking for certain things." Boyer takes more dynamic shots with ambitious outdoor backgrounds; some larger schools herding 1500 or more kids, she says, may want to opt for a simple portrait to expedite the process.

As for what schools do with their portion of the revenue, it depends on the school. But many usually sink it back into student programs.

2. PARENTS TAKE PICTURE DAY VERY SERIOUSLY.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

“Parents are very passionate about their kids getting good school photos,” Courtney, a photographer based in Canada, tells Mental Floss. They might send along a note with their kid describing what they didn’t like about the previous year’s photo. “When I started, I didn’t expect the level of hostility with parents when a photo doesn’t go the way they want it to.”

Boyer has sometimes had parents ask to stand behind her while she shoots so they can take their own pictures. “I usually say no cell phone photos. If they take theirs, they won’t buy mine.”

3. THEY TRY TO TAKE PICTURES BEFORE LUNCHTIME.

For younger kids, mornings are better. After lunch, photographers are likely to need the help of photo-editing software. “One of my first-graders got spaghetti on them,” Boyer says. “You don’t want to let them start to get markers or food all over.” Boyer’s most unusual Photoshop request? “I edited out a cookie once. The kid would not sit down unless he had a cookie.”

4. KIDS ARE SOMETIMES TERRIFIED OF THEM.

A little girl in a yearbook portrait photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

Portrait photographers typically work across a spectrum of ages, from kindergarteners to high school seniors. If a child is very young, it’s possible the entire idea of sitting for a portrait will scare them silly. “You always get one or two that are just terrified,” Grant, a portrait photographer who works on pre-K to 12th grade, tells Mental Floss. “I’m a big, beefy dude, and sometimes a kid will get in there and see me and go, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this.’” To placate the pensive pupils, Grant makes a big show of leaving by stomping his feet, then lets one of his less-threatening assistants take the pictures.

5. YOUNGER KIDS TAKE EVERYTHING LITERALLY.

Photographers need to be careful when giving instructions to kindergarteners and first graders, who tend to process things with little nuance. “Sometimes I’ll ask a kid to high-five me and I'll act like it hurts,” Grant says. “I’ll ask for a Band-Aid. Sometimes they’ll look very serious and say, ‘I don’t have one.’” Another time, Grant asked a kid to point his knees toward a nearby computer. “He came over and touched his knee to the laptop.”

6. SOME KIDS INSIST ON HAVING PROPS.

A student poses for a school photo with an electronic keyboard
iStock.com/RyanJLane

A lot of photographers are switching up the conventional portrait by snapping pictures of kids outdoors, in "action" poses like jumping, or against more eclectic backgrounds. Kids are getting more creative, too. Like prop comedians, they will sometimes arrive for picture day armed with accessories. “I’ve seen everything from Halloween costumes to dogs and other pets,” Courtney, says. “Or they want to wear hats or sunglasses.” If it’s within reason and OK with the school, she’ll take one traditional photo and then let the subject pose with their prop for the second.

7. SELFIES HAVE MADE THEIR JOB HARDER.

Posing for a professional portrait can be a strange experience for a kid who has spent considerable time on a cell phone. “Kids have gotten much more comfortable in front of the camera, but it’s bad selfie behavior,” Boyer says. “Doing duck lips, thrusting their arms out to make their shoulders straight. You kind of have to re-train them.” Boyer lets them know it doesn't look good, but "I say it in a nice way."

8. “ORANGE CHIN” IS A PROBLEM.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/imagedepotpro

Sometimes, fashion can betray kids. “Fluorescent green and orange tops seem popular now and light tends to bounce off of it and on the chin,” Grant says. “The bottom of the chin tends to turn orange.” Unless they happen to have an extra shirt or request a photo retouch, they’re stuck with it.

9. THERE'S A REASON THEY ASK KIDS TO TILT THEIR HEAD.

Aside from some unfortunate fashion choices, one staple of school photos is the head tilt, with kids cocking their faces off to one side. According to a school photographer on Reddit, there's a good reason for that. "These photos are going to be used for the yearbook (more than likely) and everyone should have somewhat of the same head pose," they explain. "The way we stage our lights does not flatter the subject when they're looking straight at the camera. If you tilt your head you're more likely to also move your chin in that same direction, which makes for a more interesting highlight/shadow play and also has the added benefit of making the face look smaller (if you're a little overweight)."

10. THEY USE A SYSTEM TO TRACK EACH KID.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

With hundreds of students at a given school, photographers need a reliable system of identifying kids and making sure their names match up to their portfolio. While systems vary, one of the most common is to collect school data and then print a unique ticket with a student’s name, grade, homeroom, and a number. “Those have a barcode,” Grant says. “So they come up, we scan the ticket, and pull up their record. It’s like scanning soup at a grocery store.”

It’s also error-free, unless some senior decides to trade tickets with a friend so their names get mixed up on their school identification cards. “They don’t seem to think it out, though, because the homeroom teachers pass the cards out and will notice the picture isn’t of them.”

11. THEY HAVE SOME SILLY STRATEGIES FOR MAKING A KID SMILE.

Photographers have less than a minute to relax a kid enough so they deliver a broad, genuine smile. To facilitate that, Grant says he keeps a laundry list of groaners at his disposal to provoke a laugh. “It’s like a script tree that a telemarketer would use,” he says. “If a kid says they play soccer, I’ll say, ‘Oh, so you like kicking people?’”

Photographers also rely on another age-old technique: embarrassment. “In grades four to six, if you ask girls to say ‘boys’ and boys to say ‘girls,’ it’s so scandalous,” Grant says. “For a second shot, you ask them to say, ‘cute boys’ or ‘cute girls.’ That typically works.” Grant can also provoke smiles by asking about pet names. Elementary kids react to being asked to say, “trick or treat, smell my feet.” If they remain stubborn, Grant will pull out all the stops and request they say “stinky feet.”

12. SOMEONE NEEDS TO BE ON BOOGER PATROL.

A child picks his nose
iStock.com/RichVintage

While photo-editing software can address rogue snot, no one really wants to spend the extra minutes digitally erasing boogers from photos. Boyer typically enlists volunteer parents to make sure faces are wiped clean or has assistants armed with tissues, combs, and other grooming products to make for a stylish and snot-free image. “We usually try to catch things like that before they get in front of the camera,” she says.

13. SOMETIMES THEY REGRET ASKING QUESTIONS.

To build rapport, photographers are always looking to get kids to talk about themselves. Once, one of Grant’s assistants asked if a child had any pets. “Yes,” the kid responded. “Rabbits. But we ate them last night.”

14. KIDS LIKE TO MESS WITH THEM ...

The older kids get, the more they tend to commit acts of subversion. “One kid came in with his jacket on, took it off, sat down, and was ready to go,” Grant says. “I knew something was going on. I looked at his shirt and it said ‘Student of the Month.’ Except he put masking tape over the ‘ent’ so it read ‘Stud of the Month.’” (After consulting with the principal, the kid was allowed to keep it on for the photo.)

Courtney had a kid sit down with what looked like a nice shirt with birds on it. “It was actually middle fingers,” she says.

15. ... AND SOME KIDS ARE JUST A PAIN.

While most kids are cooperative, Grant will sometimes see subjects who want to make their life as difficult as possible. "Seniors tend to fool around more and be difficult on purpose," he says. "Some of them are just perpetually in a bad mood or feel self-conscious." Sports teammates might egg each other on to not crack a smile. One school photographer who works for Lifetouch writes on Reddit that there are one or two "problem kids" per class: "You just have to remember they're just doing it for attention because they aren't getting it somewhere else."

16. ACCORDING TO THEM, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD SCHOOL PICTURE.

A student poses for a school photo
iStock.com/RyanJLane

The internet is overflowing with awkward and embarrassing school photos, from unfortunate backgrounds to unfortunate hairstyles. But according to Grant, “bad school photo” is a misnomer that gives photographers a bad rap. “There’s a common idea school pictures are bad,” he says. “No. School pictures are like shooting fish in a barrel. Is a kid going to smile? Is a kid going to lean into it? Or is it going to be bad no matter what I do? If you think the picture is bad, well, no, that’s you. The picture was fine. The bad haircut wasn’t.”

13 Secrets of Tombstone Engravers

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iStock/marako85

Creating a tombstone is more complex than just sandblasting letters onto a slab of granite. Designing memorials involves helping families of the deceased—or people looking to plan their own resting places—figure out the best way to represent a whole life in a single, permanent monument. Here are 13 secrets of memorial engravers that we gleaned from the experts:

1. THERE IS NO "NORMAL."

A mausoleum in a graveyard on a sunny day
Vince Dioguardi

Clients don’t necessarily know what they want right off the bat, and they may even feel overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of the possibilities. “A lot of families come in and they bring up the S word—standard,” explains Vince Dioguardi, the president of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-area Rome Monument, a company founded by his great-grandfather in 1932. “There is nothing standard.”

Even the preferred size of a memorial can vary vastly from client to client. What seems tiny to one person might seem huge to another, and vice versa. And so a monument designer will sit down with clients and discuss the person the memorial is for, including their hobbies and interests, their family, and other aspects of their lives—then come up with ways that life could be symbolized in stone (or another material). The end result is always unique.

2. THE PROCESS CAN TAKE YEARS ...

Everyone deals with death differently. Some people want to decide on a memorial immediately after a loved one dies, while others might take years. Even just signing off on a contract can be an emotional step for someone who's grieving. “The most important thing you can do is give people the room to process their grief,” Greg Lundgren of Seattle-based Lundgren Monuments, which focuses on cast-glass memorials, says. He's come up with ideas for clients who then went dark on him for two years before moving forward on the commission. It usually takes him just a week or two to come up with preliminary drawings, but he and the client might go back and forth for up to a year discussing dimensions, prices, and other factors before the client is 100 percent sure about the design. Then Lundgren drafts up a contract, and typically finishes up the memorial in six months or so.

Dioguardi estimates that crafting a memorial takes around eight to 10 weeks at his company. First, however, customers typically come in for two or even three consultation visits where they learn about the process, talk about design ideas, decide on something, and finally come up with a contract.

3. ... SO THEY OFTEN FEEL VERY CLOSE TO THEIR CLIENTS.

A grave marker for Franz Xaver Gabl
Greg Lundgren

In the course of creating a monument, "you become very deeply engaged with the family," Lundgren says, much more so than you would in any other sort of designer-client relationship. Talking about a deceased loved one and trying to come up with a design that will adequately capture who they were as a person is naturally more intimate than if you were designing, say, a piece of furniture or a new kitchen. The process can create a relationship that lasts beyond the scope of the project itself. "I have families in other parts of the world where if I were to visit that city, I would completely go visit them and have dinner with them, and I know that I would be welcome," Lundgren says.

4. CLIENTS OFTEN TRY TO CRAM TOO MANY MOTIFS ON ONE GRAVESTONE.

“One of the most important parts of my job is to remind people that there’s no way they can capture a real person in a piece of stone,” Lundgren says. Clients often want to incorporate as many symbols of their loved one’s life as a stone can fit—requesting that the designer incorporate an image of their college mascot, and their truck, and a dove, and a photograph of them, and a poem memorializing them, for instance. But that impulse can mean the memorial “ends up looking like a NASCAR [vehicle] with all the company sponsors on it,” Lundgren explains. His biggest advice is to follow the old adage "less is more.”

5. FAMILY DISAGREEMENTS ARE A CHALLENGE.

One challenge memorial designers face is that families often don't come to unanimous decisions. “Everyone has an opinion,” Lundgren explains. “It’s a hard thing, especially when you’re faced with the legacy of a person and it is so permanent—it’s not like buying a shirt.” While a family might be able to agree on the size, shape, and color of a monument, they often get hung up trying to decide on the specific text that should be included.

6. A NUMBER OF THEIR CLIENTS ARE STILL LIVING.

You don’t have to leave your gravestone’s design up to the people who outlive you: You can choose something for yourself before you go. “It’s extremely common here,” Dioguardi says. It’s called “pre-need.” That way, there’s no guessing or arguing among your family members about what you might want—it’s already determined.

7. THEY DON’T ONLY MEMORIALIZE HUMANS.

A modern urn
Ruth the dog's urn
Greg Lundgren

When asked about the most elaborate memorial he has ever designed, Lundgren described not a huge tombstone or complex statue, but an urn he made to memorialize a dog. Ruth was a stray Australian shepherd his client found on the street, and when she died, he was heartbroken. To honor her memory, Lundgren created a bronze and stainless steel urn. Ruth had one brown eye and one blue eye, so he incorporated two semiprecious stones, one brown and one blue. “I think it was the fanciest urn I’ve ever made,” he says. The result is an urn that looks more like a piece of modern art than a memorial for a deceased pet.

“If you lost something you love and want to pay your respects to it, I’m going to approach it with that same sense of humanity,” he says, whether it’s a person or a pet.

8. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS CHISELING BY HAND.

How your memorial is made depends a lot on who you commissioned it from. Lundgren doesn’t consider himself a stoneworker. He labels himself a designer, and says much of what he does is really graphic design. “Basically what you’re doing is creating line art,” he says. “Most engraving is not done [the] old-fashioned [way], like hand chiseled and chipped away. I’d say probably 99.9 percent is formatted on a computer, cut as a stencil, and then sandblasted and carved into the surface.”

Dioguardi disagrees with that assessment. “A lot of consumers think this is all machinery-based,” he says, but not all firms rely entirely on stencils and computers. Rome Monument uses an automated sandblaster for lettering, but also uses chisels and other tools to create designs by hand. If a family comes in and asks for a gravestone with a rose on it, one of their sculptors will actually carve that rose into the stone freehand.

9. YOU CAN BUY A MEMORIAL FROM WHOMEVER YOU WANT.

A family mausoleum
Vince Dioguardi

Just because you choose a particular cemetery or funeral home doesn’t mean you have to buy a headstone or monument directly from that company. “Cemeteries that do sell memorials make the consumer think that they have to purchase a memorial from the cemetery,” Dioguardi explains, but that isn’t the case. You can commission a memorial from any designer, and then have it delivered and installed in that cemetery. Both Dioguardi and Lundgren design and ship memorials to cemeteries all over the country. Lundgren, in fact, has designed memorials for installation all over the world.

“There’s a lot of funeral homes and cemeteries that will show families a very narrow slice of what’s possible. They’ll say, ‘Pick something out of this book,’” Lundgren says. “I think it’s important for families to remember that there’s no limitation on what can be done.”

10. SOME DESIGNS CAN BE VERY ELABORATE ...

Just because he advocates for “less is more” doesn’t mean Lundgren thinks all memorials should be simple grave markers with minimal text. He has designed memorials shaped like giant boomboxes and unicorn heads, hot pink headstones, and all manner of custom sculptures.

“Whatever that consumer can think of that they want to do, we can design it,” Dioguardi explains. That goes for the industry as a whole, not just his firm. “There’s a monument in Vermont that it’s a full scale Mercedes-Benz [made] out of a single block of granite,” he describes. The only thing that truly limits what kind of memorial you can design for your loved one is your budget— and your imagination.

11. ... BUT THEY HAVE TO CONFORM TO A CEMETERY’S RULES.

A headstone designed with a rainbow on top of it that reads 'Marcie Ann Ljunggren'

Cemeteries do have some say over the type of memorial you install at your love one’s final resting place. “A cemetery is like a condominium association,” Dioguardi explains. While you may own the gravesite itself, there are still certain rules you have to abide by. Specific motifs typically aren't off-limits, but designs are often restricted by size, material, and sometimes even by color.

These restrictions can even vary within cemeteries. In one cemetery Rome Monument has worked with, for instance, some areas are restricted to bronze monuments, while monuments in another section have to be granite. Recently, a customer called to inquire about buying a memorial for a family member, but didn’t know where in that cemetery they were buried. “We had to make a couple phone calls to the cemetery to find out where this family’s loved one was laid to rest so that we know what type of monument that we [could] design,” Dioguardi says.

Some of these rules stem not from cemeteries looking to strong-arm customers into buying monuments from their own catalog—though that’s an issue, too—but from real concerns about how certain materials age. “It’s always a good idea to have restrictions and rules to make sure a cemetery is going to age well,” Lundgren says. Many rules were developed in the 1920s and '30s to keep people from installing materials that would quickly deteriorate, like wooden crosses or metals that would rust. But those rules haven’t necessarily kept up with new technological advances. The large-scale cast-glass memorials Lundgren makes are only possible because of computer technology that wasn’t commercially available until the 1990s. Part of his job is simply educating cemeteries and funeral homes about what long-lasting materials are possible.

12. CARS ARE A SURPRISINGLY POPULAR MOTIF.

The guy in Vermont who was memorized with a giant Mercedes-Benz sculpture isn’t a total outlier—a fair number of people ask to somehow incorporate cars or trucks. While many of Dioguardi’s clients request memorials that incorporate themes like faith, family, hobbies, and career, Lundgren says he’s created multiple memorials that somehow involve vehicles. “Strangely I’ve gotten more cars than I would have thought,” he explains. He suggests that it could be a demographic pattern. “A lot of the work we do is for younger people, and when you have someone who’s 17 or 19 years old and the family is trying to recall what’s important to them, cars are often a lot more important to [teenagers] than if you’re 60 or 70 years old.” He says he also receives a lot of requests for birds, flowers, and butterflies.

13. WORKING WITH DEATH ISN’T ALWAYS SAD.

“As depressing as it might sound to be a monument designer, it’s really amazing,” Lundgren says. While most aspects of dealing with the logistics of a loved one’s death are stressful and depressing, figuring out a way to memorialize them permanently is actually a positive process. “To be able to be that one person that can talk about beauty and art and legacy is really powerful,” he explains.

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