I get asked this question a lot.
Should I take an understudy or swing position?
That is a tough question to answer because it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, most things in showbiz fall into that category, which is why it is so important to embrace your own path and pave a road to the success you want. #embraceyourpath
But let’s talk about understudying and swinging because I’ve done a lot of it in my life, and there are wonderful pros and cons.
First off, let me be clear…
…your happiness as a swing or understudy is entirely in your hands.
If you have any thought that a swing or understudy is “less than” or “not part of the cast” or “beneath you,” I promise you will have a miserable time.
But, if you look at it as a great opportunity and a way to make your multi-talents shine, you will have a blast! I personally think that everyone should have to be a swing at some point in their career. Being a swing takes great fortitude and the ability to release the idea of being perfect.
It also takes some thick skin. Yes, there are times when the people who do the show every night might get frustrated with you because you don’t do the show exactly like the person you are covering. But, I find that is NOT the norm. In my work as a swing and understudy, I have always felt fully supported by the rest of the cast, and you will too!
So, what does it take to be a swing or understudy on Broadway?
If you say to a civilian (a person not in theatre) that you are a swing, they will look at you like you have three heads. But being a swing is actually one of the most important and challenging positions in the Broadway community.
If that is a new word to you, a “swing” is defined as an actor, singer or dancer who understudies the ensemble performers in the show. As a swing, you are responsible for knowing all the staging for all the parts you cover, and it can usually mean anywhere from 3 to 12 “tracks.” An understudy is someone who covers a principle role. Sometimes you can be both.
Having spent my early life being a swing, dance captain and understudy, I quickly learned what it takes to be a good one. Here are the tricks of the trade:
1. Be highly organized. Whether you are a first-time swing or a veteran one, being organized is the key to your success. You must keep copious notes and create a system that works for you. Some swings like to use index cards, some like notebooks, others like drawings and charts. It doesn’t matter what someone else does — YOU have to find a system that works for you so you can know your stuff when you’re on. #findyoursystem
2. Choose one track to focus on first. I find it easiest to learn something in full through the eyes of one performer, so you get the basics of the musical number or staging first. Then tweak it for each person you are responsible for covering. If you try to learn everybody all at once, you will become overwhelmed and not quite know where to start. Then, take FULL ADVANTAGE of understudy rehearsals to master a track. Keep in mind, many times in understudy rehearsal you will be asked to do multiple tracks. This is actually my favorite time as a swing, as it shows yourself that you really do know the show! #onetrackatatime
3. Get all perspectives. Particularly if you are an off-stage swing (as opposed to someone in the show who swings a featured part), you have full access to watching the show from all different angles, seats and levels. Take advantage of this so you have full spatial awareness of the stage. Your first time on will likely be a surprise, and if you’ve studied all the angles, you will have more success at being in the right place at the right time.
Don’t forget the backstage traffic too, which can sometimes be more crucial for safety than the traffic on stage. And don’t forget to notate wig calls, sound checks and costume times for each track to keep the pre-show schedule running efficiently too. #perspectives
4. Notate the little things. As a show evolves, actors invent new things, and create little moments on stage with other cast members. Make notes of those so you can do your best to give the actors on stage as close to what they are used to when you go on.
As a show morphs in a long run, often the “numbers” you wrote in your swing book for a certain dance number are NOT actually what they are doing on stage at night. Make notes of how things have morphed, and if things are vastly different, go to the dance captain or stage manager to clarify. Perhaps they will call a clean-up rehearsal. It’s true — sometimes the swings and understudies “know” the original staging better than the actors on stage every night. #takegoodnotes
5. Bring yourself to it when you are on. Of course you have to hit your numbers, say your lines and do the dance steps so the people who are doing it nightly are not thrown off. But, don’t forget to bring yourself to your performance while maintaining the integrity of the staging and the show. And remember that the show is the thing and to honor the director’s original intention. #bringyourselftothestage
6. Go over at least one track once a week. I find it particularly helpful to actually run someone’s track each week either at the theatre when you’re not on or even at home in your own space. This is super helpful if you go long periods of time without being on during a long run. Your job as a swing is to be ready when they need you, so it is your responsibility to make sure that you are. #beprepared
Now, tell me your success stories about swinging or understudying in the comments below.
Leslie Becker is an award-winning Broadway actress, writer and creator of The Organized Actor® and is passionate about inspiring, entertaining and educating others. www.OrganizedActor.com.