Friday, December 14, 2012

Swing Time

Although I know that many of my friends who read this blog are theater performers, I’m sure that some of you reading this are not, so let me give you a bit of background on today’s topic: Theatrical understudies. Actually, not just understudies, but also standbys and swings.

As you all probably know, an understudy is someone who learns a major role in a production in order to provide coverage if the original actor has to miss a performance. Most major roles in professional theater productions have an understudy. Sometimes the understudy knows well in advance when he or she will perform; for example, if the star is going on vacation for a few weeks. Sometimes he or she gets a few hours’ notice if the star is ill and unable to go on that day. And sometimes he or she gets tossed onstage mid-performance because the star begins a show but can’t finish for whatever reason. Some stars are afraid to let an understudy go on for them for fear that the understudy’s performance will be better than their own, and some stars are such passionate work-a-holics that they don’t want to miss a moment in the spotlight even if they’re not feeling well. The result of both situations is that occasionally the star will start a performance and not be able to finish it.

But besides an understudy, there is also a job called a “standby.” Much like an understudy, a standby learns a role and is prepared to step into it at a moment’s notice. The main difference between an understudy and a standby is that an understudy is generally a member of the cast, whereas a standby is an outsider. A standby is usually required to come to the theater (or at least be nearby, much like a doctor who is “on call”) just prior to a performance and stay until intermission. An understudy, being a member of the cast, is of course already at the theater for the performance. But when an understudy steps in for a lead, the understudy’s role – usually a small role or featured ensemble part - is often left open, which brings us to the third category: swings.

A swing is a member of a cast, usually someone in a minor role or part of the ensemble, who learns multiple other minor chorus or dance roles. Sometimes a swing will step into a role because the actor in that role is ill or injured, but most often a swing covers the role normally played by an understudy who is stepping into the star’s shoes. Unlike an understudy or a standby who usually gets the opportunity to perform their role during a rehearsal or two, a swing is pretty much expected to pick up his or her covered roles by seeing the show and reading the script. A swing often steps into a role for the very first time in front of an audience.

Being an understudy or a standby is a tough job, because you’re always stepping in for the star, and often people are disappointed by your mere presence, regardless of how talented you are or how fine a performance you give. But to me, the toughest job of all is being a swing. Not only do you have to know two or three (or even four or five) different roles, you don’t get to rehearse any of them, you don’t usually have costume fittings so if you don’t happen to be the same size as whomever you’re covering you wear whatever the costumer has on hand in your size that sorta kinda suits the period and the character; and worst of all, nobody really notices how amazing you are when you do all that.

And yet, if I had to choose whether I wanted to be an understudy or a swing, I’d be a swing every time. How much fun to be able to play a whole bunch of characters in a show! What an adrenaline rush from jumping into a role cold in front of an audience and knowing that you’ll either sink or swim! What fun to know a show so well that you can step into any of a number of roles and cover their vocals, their blocking, their choreography, and their character so perfectly that no-one in the audience will know anything’s different. I know someone that has performed in the Broadway cast of Phantom of the Opera for 20 years. He is a swing who covers half a dozen roles, but I have no doubt that at this point he could successfully step in to any role in the entire production, including the Phantom and probably even Christine. I’m sure that after 20 years, he knows every nuance of every performance in the show and could mimic each one faithfully. How much fun to know a show that well!

This may not be true of non-theatrical types, but I bet that all my theater friends, just like me, have at least one show that you’ve seen or listened to the cast album of enough times that you can recite the entire script and score verbatim. And be honest: you’ve totally acted out all the characters in your living room while you were home alone, haven’t you. Yes, yes, you have. And so have I.

And that’s why it’s so fun for me to be in Reagle’s annual Christmas show – we’ve all done it so many times that 90% of the cast could be swings for any given role. And the best part of it is that we often are! Sometimes someone needs to miss a performance or two, or someone gets ill, and whomever is available to fill in for that bit part just steps up and does it. No hoopla, no curtain announcement, often no chance to run it through ahead of time. Just remember what you’ve seen dozens of times, do the best you can, and trust everyone around you to steer you in the right direction if you’re off.

I haven’t had much opportunity to be a swing so far. I think my second year I filled in for one of the “girls wearing the same coat” – a role that lasts for all of 12-1/2 seconds, but it was fun and gave me a taste for it. A couple of years ago I got to be a swing in the barbershop quartet of the Irish show. But this year I get to be a swing for a slightly more featured role: “Second Clerk.” I get to sing in a quartet that repeats 8 bars of music four different times. It may not sound like much, but it’s still pretty exciting! There are an awful lot of people in that scene that I need to work around and with and fit into traffic patterns. I need to hand off a prop (to my own husband, of all people, so I’d BETTER NOT screw it up). And I need to wear a microphone, something I’ve never had to do before in the Christmas show. It’s very exciting.

It’s swing time!

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