Interview: Jennifer Tierney, a Standby in COME FROM AWAY, Talks About the Challenges of Covering Six Roles

"I genuinely love my job"

By: Dec. 28, 2022
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Come From Away
Photo Credit: Phillip Cowndley

All big shows rely on their understudies; they provide the backbone of a production.

Jennifer Tierney is a standby in Come From Away, who covers all six female tracks in the musical, making her the first performer to standby for six roles on this show globally.

BroadwayWorld caught up with her about how she juggles multiple roles, how it felt to perform at West End LIVE and why Come From Away is such a special show.

How many roles do you cover in Come From Away?

I used to cover five, and then they recently asked me if I'd cover a sixth one. I think I'm the first person globally now to cover all six. It's pretty intense, but it's lovely.

What was it like learning six roles?

Learning the show in itself is tricky for anybody, just because of the sheer logistics of the show and the way it's put together. There's a lot of specifics and every track is very different.

I've been with the show since the beginning, so because I've got a really good core understanding of it and how it works, learning the sixth didn't feel that far removed from what I'd already had to do from learning five roles logistically.

But then you've got to add everything else in, like character choices and making sure you're telling the story with the utmost integrity. Especially as the sixth one for me was Hannah, who has a very emotional storyline, so I really wanted to honour that and make sure I understood what was going on for her and where she was coming from. That's the biggest challenge for me, making sure I'm telling the story with the most integrity, because all these people that we play are real people.

Logistically, yes there's more chairs to move, and more lines to learn and stuff, but it's more about the other things that really matter.

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Have you got a favourite role to cover?

I genuinely love playing them all, they've all got their own kind of individual things.

Bonnie was my first cover in the first year that I was with the company, and she's so determined and wants to get things done, but then there's such a warmth about her, so I love to play Bonnie. I also love playing Diane because she's got that lovely storyline through the show, and that lovely connection with Nick.

I think if I had to pick, it would definitely be Beverley. I feel like I've got her under my skin a bit now. I've found my own way of doing it, so I always get excited to play her.

There have been occasions when you've covered three different roles across three days. How do you get into the headspace of each character when you swap around?

Just a lot of preparation, a lot of rehearsal and making sure that I'm on top of what I'm meant to be on top of really.

It's funny how you can compartmentalise. I obviously do a lot of preparation and rehearsals to make sure I'm secure in what I'm doing, but over time, you just kind of compartmentalise each role. I think because I make them all so different to me, you just find your own way with them.

There are moments when you go to say someone else's line, and you have to stop yourself from doing that. Especially if you're doing a partnership, like I was playing Beverley for a few days, and then the next day I switched over to Beullah, and they're on the other side of each other as a partnership throughout the show. So I had to make sure I wasn't saying somebody else's lines and was on the right side traffic wise.

I'm lucky as I started off as a dancer, so I think that maybe helped me. I came into singing and acting a bit later in life, so I think having a dancer's brain has been really helpful to be logistical with my roles. When you add in the artistry of it and the characterisation, I think that's where the real work comes in for me and that's what I enjoy the most.

The Come From Away standbys performed at West End LIVE this year. How was that experience?

It was incredibly nerve-wracking, but I felt very privileged to be up there with the company. To have the opportunity to be up front with the ladies and sing "Me And The Sky" was absolutely incredible.

What a year to do it as well, because there were so many covers, swings, stand bys and alternates performing this year. It felt like a lovely year to celebrate the work that we've all put in. I think now more than ever, everybody's getting a little bit more recognition for the work that we do and that's lovely.

To have West End LIVE support us like that, and give everybody that platform to stand there and say, the covers are just as good as anybody else that plays the roles, and we want to celebrate them. That was a real privilege to stand there and have the opportunity to do that.

Come From Away as a show is also very celebratory of their standbys too.

Definitely, and a lot of that comes from the cast as well. Our job is incredibly tough, any swing job or cover job is really hard. With the amount of roles that we have to cover in the show, it's made so much easier by the in-house support and everybody having our backs and giving us that support that we need. If we didn't have that, it would be a whole other hurdle to jump through. Feeling that we're appreciated for what we do is a lovely feeling because it motivates us to keep wanting to do a good job for everyone.

I genuinely love my job. I love the versatility of it, the variety, the challenge of playing all these different roles, and having an amazing camaraderie with everyone that I'm working on stage with makes it the best experience of my career, to be honest.

It's so obvious in the curtain calls how much you all support each other as well and that you all care about Come From Away.

Absolutely. I think every one of us would say it's a real privilege to be a part of this production. It's a genuinely happy building, everybody gets on so well, and I've made friends for life in this show.

It's very rare that you come across that sort of energy in a building. It's not about us, it's about the story that we're telling, and that must always be at the forefront.

Do you have any pre-show rituals before you go on stage? And do they change depending on which role you're doing?

The only thing I tend to do is run a few lines for each character, just to make sure that I'm saying the right things for the right person.

I always run Bonnie's first opening monologue about sitting in a car and taking a minute for herself. I also always run a few Beverley monologues just to make sure I get the accent in my mouth because Texan is so far removed from my own Scottish accent. Beulah doesn't stop talking, so I say a few things for her too.

I've never really been a big kind of show ritual type person, to be honest. I do sometimes run "Me And The Sky" if I've not done it for a while. I tend to go backstage and just rattle through the words once just to kind of get it in my mouth.

Have you been a standby or swing for any other productions?

I had covered in a few shows before, but never more than two roles really.

I covered Madame Morrible in Wicked, and then I got an Elphaba cover in my third contract there, but that was over a decade ago now. I'd covered other roles in various other shows, but never have I ever had a challenge like I do here.

Come From Away is sadly closing on January 7 2023. What will you miss most about it?

I'm so sad for the show closing in the West End. From a personal point of view, it's been such a constant for me over the last four years. It's been there through the pandemic and through personal things that have happened in my life.

Come From Away has been something to look forward to, focus on and put my energy into every day. I think that's what I'll miss the most, is that solid knowing that when I come to work, I'm seeing these amazing people and I get to perform this amazing show.

It makes me a bit teary actually thinking about it. I can't imagine it not being here yet. I'm not in the place to consider that yet, but I know I'll need to start doing that soon, but I will desperately, desperately miss the show for many, many reasons.

What do you wish people understood or knew about being a standby?

The level of commitment, as well as the work and time that we put into it.

I think about the show all the time. There's constantly logistics going through my mind so that I'm as prepared as I can be to do the job to the best of my ability.

There's a lot of commitment, time and energy that goes into making sure I feel like I've done the best I can do when I leave the theatre at night. I guess people only see us when we are on stage doing the show, but it's the other stuff that goes on alongside.

If you could cover any other role in Come From Away that you don't currently cover, who would it be?

Maybe one of the Kevins, I think they'd be fun. They've got such a lovely balance between that relationship, like Nick and Diane have, but then they also have their separate characters as well. If I had to pick, probably Kevin T, as he's got "Prayer", which is my favourite song.

Why should people see Come From Away?

Because it's fab. It's just got such a warmth about it, and it's a story that everybody should hear.

We've all had so much trauma happen in the last few years, globally, and then on top of that, everybody's personal experiences. I think it just leaves you feeling that things can get better and there is a bit of faith in humanity and that good people do exist.

It's just a really good reminder that even though things might feel terrible in the worst moment of life, actually, good things can come out of those things, too. It's just a really special show for that, I'll never forget the reaction that we get from the audiences, you feel like you've had a big warm hug, it's just a very special show.

Come From Away is running at The Phoenix Theatre until 7 January 2023. It is then embarking on a UK tour in 2024.


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