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.”

9 Secrets of Fine Art Auctioneers

Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie's auctioneer Tash Perrin conducts a sale.
Christie’s LTD. 2019

If a fine art auction can be compared to a well-coordinated circus, then the auctioneer is its ringmaster. At any given auction—which may include hundreds of people in the room and hundreds more watching online—the auctioneer is center stage, directing the audience's attention to lots big and small, generating excitement, and making sure the bidding runs smoothly. Auctioneers manage "all this while having charisma and a sense of engagement and great energy,” says Tash Perrin, an auctioneer who also holds a couple of senior management titles at Christie’s auction house. To find out what it takes to perform in such a fast-paced setting (and whether they always talk the way you see in the movies), we spoke with three New York City-based auctioneers who work for some of the world’s largest auction houses: Christie’s, Phillips, and Bonhams.

1. Auctioneering is mostly a side gig.

Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Auctioneer Jacqueline Towers-Perkins at the podium
Bonhams

At the big auction houses, practically no one is hired to work solely as an auctioneer. As Perrin explains, “Nobody here at Christie’s is an auctioneer full-time. All of us have full-time jobs and then we do the auctioneering as a side gig.” Some auctioneers manage a particular department within an auction house, while others work in a variety of roles that may take advantage of their specialty in a particular field, whether that’s Chinese ceramics, Islamic art, or jewelry.

As a specialist in postwar and contemporary art with Bonhams, for example, Jacqueline Towers-Perkins sources all of the artworks for auction, researches their origin, and makes sure they’re authentic (and not some knock-off). Finally, as an auctioneer, she gets to find a new home for them. “When it comes to selling [an artwork], that is sort of the icing on the cake,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. Auctioneers need to be licensed in some states.

More than half of all U.S. states stipulate that individual auctioneers must get a license before selling items at public auctions. New York state does not have such a law, but leaves the decision up to individual municipalities. New York City—the location of many big-name auction houses—does mandate it. Would-be auctioneers must go to the Department of Consumer Affairs—“the same place that hot dog vendors get their license,” Perrin says.

3. Not all auctioneers speak quickly.

If you’ve been picturing an auctioneer who talks a mile a minute, you’re probably thinking of cattle auctioneers, who rattle off increments in an almost meditative style called "chanting." A few other types of auctioneers talk this way, but you won’t hear it at any of the major art and antiquities auction houses, which also sell across categories including jewelry, handbags, watches, wine and spirits, books and manuscripts, and more.

That’s because an auctioneer’s cadence largely depends on what they’re selling. Speed is especially important for cattle auctioneers because they often have more lots (a.k.a. individual cattle) to sell than the typical art auctioneer. (They also talk that way to "hypnotize" bidders, according to Slate.) However, when it comes to prized artworks and rare artifacts that rack up millions of dollars at auction, an auctioneer’s goal is slightly different: to generate excitement and build suspense. Sometimes, they might even slow down and allow a moment of silence to fill the room before speeding up again. “A really important element to being a good auctioneer is your ability to speak silence,” Perrin says. That means allowing for pauses when necessary—such as when a potential buyer might be thinking about a bid. It’s also about creating a welcoming atmosphere for bidders. “We want this to be a really great environment ... We don’t want to rush people through it or make it intimidating," Towers-Perkins adds.

4. Auctioneers sometimes stick out their tongues and recite Humpty Dumpty as a vocal warm-up.

Because auctioneers are talking non-stop for several hours at a time, the vocal warm-ups they do before an auction can get pretty ... creative. “Reciting Humpty Dumpty with your tongue out is definitely something we would encourage,” says Perrin, who also coaches auctioneers-in-training. In the above video from The New York Times, Christie’s former head of auctioneering, Hugh Edmeades, can be seen reciting this nursery rhyme to loosen up his facial muscles and warm up his voice. Perrin says some auctioneers might also recite their increments (we’ll get to those later) in the shower before coming to work, while others might use breathing and vocal techniques that are similar to the ones employed by actors and singers.

5. The auctioneer’s book is their bible.

Auctioneers can glean everything they need to know about a sale from something called the “auctioneer’s book”—although at some auction houses, it's a digital file on a laptop rather than a physical book. The book contains the lot number (the identifying number of the item or group of items up for sale), the item’s description, and the amount of money it’s expected to go for. It also has one crucial piece of information that neither the bidder nor the general public gets to see: The reserve price. This is the amount of money the owner of the lot will—or will not—sell it for.

6. An auctioneer's ability to multitask is crucial.

Auction staff talk to bidders on the phone
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Juggling multiple tasks at once is a skill auctioneers must learn to master. In addition to remaining aware of the reserve price, auctioneers must also check their book for any absentee bids that have been placed prior to the sale. Bids are also coming in over the phone and online, and those bidders must be given the same attention and opportunity that bidders in the room are afforded. Throughout all this, auctioneers have to be engaging and charismatic. “If it looks like you’re very methodical and have a sense of just trying to get the job done, you’re not engaging the audience,” Perrin says.

While auctioneers are on the hook for most of the sales proceedings, they do get some help from a bid clerk. This person stands next to the auctioneer and surveys the room—including the phone bank, where staff talk to potential buyers over the phone and hold up a paddle whenever a bid comes through—to catch bids the auctioneer might not have seen. This extra assistance is especially helpful when there are 700 or so bidders in one space. “They play an incredibly important role, and I often refer to them as my best man up there,” Perrin says.

7. There’s a lot of math involved in auctioneering.

Auctioneers can only use certain increments, which means they’re limited in the exact price they can offer to bidders. “It’s very set,” Towers-Perkins says. “The numbers go up in tens at the beginning, then in twenties, then in fifties, then in hundreds.” (The precise numbers can vary by house.) This gets all the more confusing when absentee bids are factored into the equation. Auctioneers must ensure they’re referring to the exact amount declared in an absentee bid, which means they must think ahead and do a bit of quick math to figure out which number they should call out. Perrin calls this skill “numerical dexterity,” but there’s another term for it too. When everything goes well and auctioneers offer the correct increments, it’s called “landing on the right foot.” (And when things go wrong, it's called, naturally, landing on the wrong foot.)

8. Auctioneers can tell the difference between an involuntary nod and a bid.

Auctioneer Sarah Krueger
Auctioneer Sarah Krueger conducts a sale for Phillips.
Phillips

Sometimes, a nod is just a nod. Other times, it’s a bid. Auctioneers are trained to observe bidders’ body behavior and know the difference. Customers usually raise their paddles to place a bid, but some might prefer to remain discreet. Sarah Krueger, an auctioneer and head of the photographs department at the New York City branch of Phillips, said auctioneers get to know the bidding styles of frequent clients: “A nod or a slight move might indicate a bid from one person, but for another they might just be waving at a friend across the room.” Perrin says one client in England bids by raising his eyebrows, while other bidders wink to raise the stakes. Usually, an auctioneer can judge whether or not a bid is intentional by paying attention to the bidder’s level of engagement—for instance, if they’re looking at the auctioneer or still have a paddle in their hand, they’re probably interested.

9. They take their gavels seriously.

A gavel on a table
Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

Krueger has her own personal collection of six gavels: Three of them she uses in auctions, while the other three are more like collector’s items. Each auctioneer has their own preferences in terms of the style of gavel they use. “For my purposes, what I’m looking for in a gavel is something that fits comfortably in my hand and isn’t too heavy,” she says. “You also want to test it out against your sounding block and make sure that it’s giving you the right sound.” After all, auctioneers say that the moment the hammer falls, signifying the end of a sale, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. “The sound the gavel makes on the rostrum is incredibly satisfying—particularly on the very first lot you ever take and the most expensive lot you’ve ever sold,” Perrin says. “That’s extremely gratifying.”

11 Secrets of Opticians

iStock.com/Emir Memedovski
iStock.com/Emir Memedovski

Whether they need glasses or not, most people understand what an optometrist does. The same doesn’t always apply for the optometrist’s in-office counterpart, the optician. Even people who have been wearing glasses or contacts for most of their lives might not know exactly what these eyecare professionals do. Here are 11 secrets about being an optician, some of which might change the way you see your glasses forever.

1. Opticians aren't salespeople, and they don’t get commission.

When you go to the eye doctor, you don’t just sit in the chair, read some letters off a chart at the far end of the room, and then walk out with a pair of glasses. After the optometrist determines your prescription, you’re typically directed to the office’s optician, who will help you pick out your next pair of glasses or contacts. Think of them as the pharmacist of the eyewear world: The doctor determines your generic prescription, but the optician is the one who fills it for you.

“I am the person that makes sure we get a frame that fits you, that is going to work for your prescription, and is going to last you,” explains Maayan Shuval, an optician at Eyedentity, an eye care practice in Kirkland, Washington.

And despite what some people seem to think, opticians aren't just there to direct you to the most expensive pair of frames in the office, or to up-sell you on the priciest add-ons. "People always assume we make commission and we want them to buy the most expensive thing," Shuval says. "I’ve never made commission."

Still, many customers think that opticians are just glorified salespeople out for more money. “The misperception comes from the idea that glasses are glasses or contacts are contacts, and they’re all the same,” says Steve Alexander, an optician in Arlington Heights, Illinois who worked as a practicing optician for 13 years and is currently a consultant with The Growth Cooperative, a national consulting firm for eye care providers.

But the upgrades that opticians offer can make a real difference for your vision, whether it’s transition lenses, anti-glare coatings, or another high-tech feature. “I think people think that the upgrades in lenses are kind of a scam, and they’re really not,” Alexander says. “The coatings make a significant difference in the physics of light and how light actually interacts with your glasses.”

2. Only some states require opticians to be licensed.

The requirements for becoming an optician vary significantly depending on where you live, and fewer than half the states require opticians to be licensed. Alexander, for instance, works in Illinois, where he’s not required to have a license, while Shuval works in Washington state, which does require licensure—meaning she had to do an apprenticeship and take a state exam in order to legally practice, and she now has to spend a certain number of hours each year doing continuing education classes to keep her license.

Even within states that require licenses, there are a lot of differences between the certification processes. Some states require opticians to be certified by the American Board of Opticianry and National Contact Lens Examiners (ABO-NCLE), a national credential that requires continuing education and expires every three years. Other states have their own certification processes with different requirements for continuing education hours, expiration periods, and more. That means that a practicing optician in one state can’t necessarily practice in another state without going through the whole certification process anew. (Some of the national optical chains require their opticians to be licensed regardless of the state they're in—Warby Parker, for instance, requires its opticians to obtain the American Board of Opticianry’s certification.)

Becoming licensed is typically a lot of work (not to mention some money) but it does help opticians keep up with the current research on eyes and eyewear. “[One] class that I attended was a two-hour course about vision therapy, and how a lot of what we’ve known about and practiced with regards to amblyopia—which people call a 'lazy eye'—is entirely incorrect,” Shuval explains. The class had a profound impact on her practice. “My whole world shifted upside down over the course of this two-hour class. [Amblyopia] is super reversible if you have the right information. That’s amazing.”

3. Many patients have unrealistic expectations of opticians …

Patients aren’t always realistic about how much eyewear will cost and what is available. One of the biggest mistakes people make, according to Shuval, is assuming that all glasses and contacts are the same, when in fact, lens types, coatings, and other adjustments make a huge difference in how you see. They often suffer from sticker shock, too.

“I’m here to help my patients see and look better,” Shuval says, but customers don’t always appreciate how big of a purchase new glasses can be. “It can be a really angry conversation because people are like, ‘Why are you charging $600 for glasses?’” Aside from the fact that you’re probably going to wear those glasses all day, every day for a year or more, that price seems a lot more reasonable when you remember that every pair of glasses is a custom, FDA-regulated medical device. “What people really don’t realize about eyewear is 100 percent of glasses made are custom-made,” she adds. “No two pairs that I make are alike.”

Furthermore, as patients get older and start to need bifocals, they often don’t understand the limits of modern optical technology. “People just want to put on glasses and say, ‘Oh my god, I can see,’” Shuval describes. But adjusting to a new pair of glasses can take weeks. Your brain gets used to compensating for certain vision deficiencies, and you have to get used to a new prescription. And in some cases, lens technology still isn’t good enough to replicate the natural abilities of the eye. When it comes to technology like progressive bifocals, patients actually need to be taught how to use the lens, for instance.

4. … Especially when it comes to contact lenses.

Alexander says many patients get upset when they’re told that their prescription for contact lenses will expire after a year, and that they’ll have to come back into the office in order to get a new one. “What patients don’t consider is that you are putting a medical device into your face,” he says, “and if they’re not properly managed it can lead to serious complications—it can lead to infections and ulcers and corneal issues.” Patients don’t necessarily understand that they're paying for vital preventative care: “It’s a medical device in an incredibly sensitive part of your body," he explains.

5. Opticians are obsessive about fit.

Adam Bentley, an Optical Field Leader at Warby Parker based in San Francisco, says his biggest pet peeve as an optician doesn’t occur in the office—it’s when he sees crooked eyewear around town. “I’ve often found myself looking at a crooked pair of glasses on the subway [and] wishing I could walk up and fix them,” he admits.

6. Opticians often choose which frames their stores carry.

In private practices, the optician might be responsible for more than just showing customers the latest glasses. They might also be the one determining what frames the shop offers. “I personally am the frame buyer for my store,” Shuval explains. That means she can answer a whole host of questions for customers beyond the realm of fit or function, including queries about where the glasses are made. That has become increasingly important as more and more customers become aware of the eyewear monopolies. Luxottica, an Italian frame company, makes an estimated 25 percent of the frames in the world, while Essilor, a lens company based in France, makes an estimated 45 percent of prescription lenses. Many blame the corporations' vast reach for driving the price of glasses up to artificially high rates. (The two corporations also merged in 2018.)

But Shuval says that buying glasses from shops like Warby Parker isn't the only way to escape the EssilorLuxottica monopoly. “I seek out the small companies [that make frames] and I can tell you about all the designers and factories where they’re made, because that’s important to me,” she says.

7. Many private opticians aren’t fans of online retailers.

In fact, despite the accessible price points, neither Shuval nor Alexander expressed much enthusiasm for the idea of buying glasses online. The main issue is that being fitted for glasses isn’t only a matter of finding a frame that won’t fall off your face. Online shopping can offer very inexpensive options, as Shuval explains, and “sometimes they’re good options for people, but it’s [about] making sure that custom medical device that’s sitting on your face all day is actually going to be helpful.”

One of the roadblocks patients run into while shopping for glasses online has to do with measuring the position of their pupils. Opticians measure your eyes to make sure that the centers of your lenses are positioned exactly over your pupils. While patients can try their best to measure this at home on their own, it’s not the same as having it measured in an office by a professional.

Almost any online glasses shop is going to ask for your pupillary distance (PD), which is the horizontal distance between your eyes. You might be asked for your binocular pupillary distance, which is the distance between your two pupils, or the monocular distance, which is the distance from the bridge of your nose to your pupil—expressed in two different measurements, since faces aren’t always symmetrical. However, those measurements aren't everything. “In order to make a really good lens you need more information than that,” Shuval says.

In fact, there is a secondary measurement that most online shops don’t ask about—the vertical measurement, known as the ocular center height. “[The] ocular center is a top-to-bottom measurement for the patient, and that can’t be measured until you have the frame,” Alexander explains. “If you don’t know where their eye sits in a given frame before the lenses are made, then while the optical center might be aligned left to right, it’s not going to be aligned top to bottom.”

If your lenses aren’t positioned over your pupils correctly, you won’t see as well, and the eye strain can cause headaches and other discomfort. Lenses that don’t fit you right might make you feel nauseous, affect your depth perception, and more.

While you can get your ocular center measured by an optician at a Warby Parker retail store, buying glasses from Warby Parker’s online shop doesn’t require ocular height, just pupillary distance. In response to questions about this policy, Warby Parker provided the following statement: “A common misconception is that this measurement is required for all orders, when in fact it’s not … For online orders, we’ve developed tools and proprietary technology that allows us to help predict this type of measurement based on previous customer data. We also have in-house opticians to help online customers in the event that customers need extra assistance.”

8. Opticians love to answer questions …

“I love when patients come and ask me, 'Is there any cool new technology we should be looking at?’” Shuval says. Opticians are experts in their field and spend a lot of time keeping abreast of the latest technological updates in eyewear. Most love to share that knowledge. “We like getting to explain stuff,” she explains, “and I think it’s really important for people to be educated consumers.”

9. … Except for one particular question.

Glasses are so personalized and there are so many possible options that it’s impossible to quote someone a single price tag, but that doesn’t stop patients from asking. “One of the more common questions that I used to get as an optician [that used to] drive me crazy,” Alexander explains, “would be, ‘How much are glasses?’ And it would be through gritted teeth that I answered, ‘Well, it depends on the frame that you choose and the lenses you need.’ But it’s a question that never made any sense to me because you’d never call up a car dealer and say, ‘How much is a car?’”

10. They'll gladly fix your glasses ... if you're a patient.

If you buy your glasses from an optician, adjusting and servicing those frames (for example, if they need to be straightened or have a screw replaced) is usually part of the initial cost. However, if you’re not a patient or bought your glasses online, you shouldn’t expect to get free repairs from the office.

“When an office charges for an optician's time or replacement of parts patients will get up in arms about it,” Alexander says. “If it’s somebody who wasn’t a customer of ours and has not taken care of their eyewear, to come in and get upset at being charged for a service we’re providing is always very frustrating for me.” That said, he says he would never charge one of his longtime patients for repairs.

But if you do need to get your glasses serviced and you're not already a patient, any charges will likely be minimal—at most, he says, you’ll probably need to pay $10 or so. So don’t be afraid to walk into your local optician’s office and ask. Just don’t get too snarky when they ask you to break out your wallet.

11. They don’t always follow their own advice.

“I clean my glasses with my shirt or whatever is lying around,” one anonymous optician tells Mental Floss. “It's a big optician ‘no, no.’” If you really want to take care of your specs, you’ll clean them with a microfiber cloth and lens spray instead, and always keep them safely tucked away in their case when you aren’t wearing them.

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