09 March 2016


[I like to post articles that define, describe, or explain the work of theater pros who aren’t generally known or understood by lay people (whom one of my teachers liked to call “civilians”).  On 14 January 2014, I posted “Stage Hands,Equity News descriptions of the work of stage managers and dance captains; in “Two (Back) Stage Pros” (30 June 2014), I republished two articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post that profiled set designer Eugene Lee and wig-designer Paul Huntley.  Below is a collection of pieces (and random comments) from the January/February 2016 issue (vol. 101, no. 1) of Equity News, the newsletter of Actors’ Equity Association, about swings.  You don’t know what those on-stage pros are or what they do?  Well, then . . . read on!]


EMILY ROGERS:  “When I tell people that I’m a swing, the response I usually get is a blank stare—and, if I’m lucky, that’ll be followed up by a ‘huh?’” [Rogers has appeared Off-Broadway in Jasper in Deadland and on tour in If/Then.]

*  *  *  *

 “Unsung Heroes”
by Kate Shindle, President of Actors’ Equity Association

This month [on 13 January], Equity celebrated the first-ever National Swing Day (and if any non-theatre people out there are reading this, calm down—to quote Inigo Montoya [a character in William Goldman’s 1973 novel The Princess Bride and Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation]: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”) The celebration was the brainchild of our 2nd Vice President, Rebecca Kim Jordan, who has spent most of her considerable tenure at Equity fighting for what we call Chorus Affairs. Since Equity’s 1955 absorption of what was originally a separate union called Chorus Equity, chorus and principal constituencies have been represented within our Council by designated officers—as are stage managers. Although we all try to be mindful of the greater good of the membership, it’s never a bad thing to have reminders of what is good for ensemble members. Or middle players. Or ASMs. Or, in this case, swings.

To me, swings are among the most fascinating creatures among us. These performers—who I tend to think of as superhuman—are collectively responsible for covering every role in a musical. It’s one thing to understudy a single character; I’ve done that and it ain’t easy. You have limited rehearsal time, you sit on the sidelines a lot, and when you do go on, you are often asked to stick as closely as possible to another actor’s performance, so as not to disrupt the usual flow of the show. But swings go a significant step further than this. Whereas I only ever had to learn one character’s lines, blocking and music, a swing has to know those things for five (or ten, or 20) different people. All of whom often sing together in harmony, dance together in formations and have specific offstage traffic and costume changes. When you swing a big musical, you are responsible for multiple ensemble tracks, which you have to call up from memory at a moment’s notice. You have to know which harmony each performer sings, so that you don’t throw off the balance of the music. You have to know the traffic in musical numbers, which can be wildly confusing when some dancers go left (for example) and others go right. You may have to move set pieces. You may have quick changes. You may cover principal roles. And you have to do all of this, on very little rehearsal, so that it appears absolutely seamless to the audience.

It’s basically my personal idea of a waking nightmare.

But swings are a special breed of performers. Obviously it takes major chops to play numerous roles, often of varying ages and backgrounds, as well as a significant brain to maintain that kind of information. Being a swing also requires huge dedication to the well-being of the show, because a) you don’t know if you’ll ever go on, and b) if you do go on, and you’re good, your chances of getting promoted actually diminish. A reliable swing is like gold to producers and stage managers, so when another actor leaves the show, it’s much easier to train a new person to take over that one track than it is to promote and replace a swing who covers five, six or seven tracks. Being a swing takes talent, and it’s under-the-radar talent that can go unrecognized.

Which is why I was so delighted to see—on Twitter and in the press and at the Broadway theatres and everywhere else I looked on January 13th—the absolute joy our community took in celebrating the most undercelebrated members of our casts. Over and over, it was enthusiastically acknowledged that without swings, our shows would simply not go on. Over at the Richard Rodgers, Lin-Manuel Miranda took time out of his pursuit of total world domination to tweet about each swing individually and their value to Hamilton. Wicked made fan art. Infographics bounced around the internet with terms like “MVP” front and center. It was pretty awesome.

We should actively remind ourselves to recognize our unsung heroes. In a culture that is, by any reasonable measure, remarkably and consistently star-obsessed, it’s amazing to have a day dedicated to some of the hardest-working and least-acclaimed people on our stages.

Hug a swing, everybody. And don’t be afraid to notice what he or she does for your show.

[Katherine Shindle, born in 1977, was Miss Illinois in 1997 and  then Miss America in 1998.  She’s an actor, singer, dancer, and AIDS activist, and the author of the 2014 memoir, Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain (University of Texas Press).  Shindle was elected president of Actors' Equity in 2015.]

*  *  *  *

RANDY AARON: “The last person that I told I was a swing was my sister—and she had no idea what it meant. Her response: ‘What the hell does that mean? It’s not kinky is it?’” [Aaron’s Broadway appearances include Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance.]

*  *  *  * 
“Swing? What’s a Swing?”
by Rebecca Kim Jordan

Well . . . . In a musical:

1: A person who literarily understudies all of the chorus and sometimes more!
2. Usually knows all the staging of the entire show.
3: Can, but doesn’t, usually call the show.
4: Can tell if the lights have lost their focus, and 5: Knows every dead spot sound-wise on stage.

Seriously—this talented, uber-focused individual covers most of the vocal parts and choreography in a musical, often covering many more people than fingers on a hand.

I have been doing research as to why a swing is indeed called a swing—to no great end.

It’s one of those showbiz-isms that stuck!

But by the dictionary’s definition, a swing means to:

“Move or cause to move back and forth;
Move by grasping a support;
Move quickly around to the opposite direction;
Move or cause to move in a smooth curving line;
Move or cause a move in thoughts and or opinion.”

Yep. That defines it. I get it; the operative word is move. A swing is definably, and obviously, on the move.

Being offered the job is often met with “I wanted to be in the show,” “I guess I was their last choice,” “I must not be as good,” but the truth is, you will be in the show—as a matter of fact, you’ll be in all of it.

A swing is never the last choice, but rather, one of the most important choices. And, if done correctly, you are one of the best. As a swing, you’re versatile and, hopefully, one of the calmest people in the theatre, as a swing’s job is never really done.

A lot goes into putting a musical together. What keeps it together is an intricate relationship between actors, musicians, stagehands and the nuance of a skillful call over the PA system from the stage manager. But swings, they are the how it can be done eight shows a week.

Swings have the company’s back.

[Rebecca Kim Jordan, Equity’s Second Vice President since 2012, is an actress as well as a Broadway director and choreographer.  She’s the chair of the union’s Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs (ACCA).

[Jordan should have consulted Wiktionary for a definition of ‘swing’ that states: “In a musical theater production, a performer who understudies several roles.”  The derivation of the term in theater seems to come from its use as an adjective in labor jargon (courtesy of Dictionary.com and the American Heritage Dictionary): acting to relieve other workers when needed, as at night.”]

*  *  *  *

SATOMI HOFMANN:  “When I am a swing the conversation usually goes like this: Them: ‘So, what do you do in the show?’ Me: ‘I’m a swing.’ Them: ‘Oh. As in swing…er?’” [Hofmann was seen on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera.]

*  *  *  *
“Who Am I Anyway?
by Laurent Giroux

I was never expecting to be a swing, but it proved to be an opportunity that opened doors for my career.

My first job as a swing was for Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. I covered nine men and 38 specialties. And before accepting my first swing gig, I asked my friend and “swing veteran” Debbie Lyman for advice. “Swinging a show can be a great job or it can be hell on a stick, depending on how you look at it,” she said. And she was right! It was both. Don’t get me wrong, it was tough, especially in the beginning (and the fact that I was on pretty much every night for two and half years), but that challenge kept me from doing the same track each night.

Years later I was asked to swing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This time, I jumped at the chance. I swung three dancers, five singers, two character actors and (understudied) one of the leads. As if that wasn’t enough, I was the assistant stage manager and the assistant dance captain. I was told that I probably might not go on for months, but instead, in true swing fashion, I went on two days later. As fate would have it, I went on for four of my tracks in previews and the female swing performed every track she covered before the show’s opening date.

So what has swinging done for me? The job prepared me (without even knowing it) to become the actor I am today. And as an actor, I am always aware of everything around me on stage; I am known for being able to block myself in scenes without being told where to go. As a director once said to me, “You always know where to go, when to move, how to take the stage.”

Swinging gave me that valuable tool.

If you are new to swinging, remember this: Stage managers and dance captains are your best friends and crucial allies. I have been lucky to have amazing SMs and DCs throughout my career. I’m not sure I would have survived swinging without them.

So what advice can I give? Well, swinging ain’t for the faint of heart. But if you like an amazing challenge (and occasionally an evening off [if you’re lucky]), it’s a fantastic job with many unforgettable and rewarding opportunities.

[Laurent Giroux has appeared in Pippin, Ambassador, Chicago, Dancin’, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Broadway, and The Threepenny Opera and The Baker’s Wife in regional productions.]

*  *  *  *

SAM TANABE:  “When I tell people I am a swing, they usually assume I understudy just one person. They are then baffled when I explain that in Allegiance, which I’m currently in, I cover the entire male ensemble: young and old, Asian and white.” [Tanabe appeared recently in Allegiance on Broadway.]

*  *  *  *
“Saving the Show”

Three former Equity swings talk about the rewarding, challenging, always on your toes job

Theatrical Band-Aid. Ultimate, costumed chameleon. Production lifesaver. Unsung hero.

Working as a swing is no easy feat. One of the cast’s greatest secret weapons, an Equity swing can step on stage in a moment’s notice. Even more, a swing can be on stage in any pair of shoes—literally.

With shows like Chaplin, having had 20 assignments for swings, or Jersey Boys (averaging 18 swing assignments for male swings) or Chicago (averaging 17 assignments for female swings), the contracted position is crucial to several shows across the country.

“Swings are the saving grace of any production,” said member Rommy Sandhu, who first served as a swing in A Christmas Carol. “They possess the ability to fill in to almost any spot onstage, to create a seamless performance for the audience, to adapt to different styles and partners in the flash of a program insert.”

A swing’s primary role is to cover the chorus; however, for some swings, principal coverage is an additional duty. Each character, or each assignment, is known as (industry-speak) a “track.” And depending on the show, a swing could cover any number of tracks. Sandhu once covered 22 tracks for a show, both male and female. And though he joked it was strange, he noted that it was totally manageable.

When it comes to the job, strong nerves, a sharpened pencil (maybe four) and a pad, a stress-management system and a working cell phone are just some of the tools to be successful.

“Pay attention to everything and everyone (stagehands, too),” said Greta Martin, whose first swinging gig was in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, “at all times as much as you are able, and of course, do your homework—know your parts. That goes without saying.”

“Do your research,” said J. Austin Eyer, who first swung in Curtains (he went on to swing for that show on Broadway for three years) and author of the recently released Broadway Swings: Covering the Ensemble in Musical Theatre. “Be in the moment. Things can be very exciting if you look, listen and connect to the people around you. Being a swing promotes a necessary collaboration and patience for the actors around you.”

For Eyer, swinging helped him cultivate a steady career on Broadway; more than half of the shows he worked were as a swing. For Sandhu and Martin, the job has taught them to see the whole picture, understanding how each element and each character mesh together. The position has taught all three performers to be flexible, both personally and professionally, understand—and laugh at—spontaneity and appreciate the tedious nature of details. (That is making stage charts, memorizing all choreography, jotting down each and every set and pop move and completing several tracking sheets.)

In addition to the theatrically-clerical duties of the job, the role of a swing can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

“You wonder if you’ll be in the show opening night or when the show is archived for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, if you’ll get to be on the cast album, the Tonys or The Morning Show,” Eyer said. “Sometimes you forget that you are actually a performer.”

For others, there is the stigma that being a swing meant they “weren’t good enough.”

“On the contrary,” said Martin. “It was because you were good at many different aspects of being in the show that they didn’t know what to do with you and didn’t want to lose out on your talent.”

The talent of a swing is clearly recognized as a key part of the cast. A swing, naturally, is often a triple threat, getting the opportunity to keep his or her dancing, acting and singing chops sharp while covering his or her several tracks. The surprise and anticipation of the “who” a swing might play that night might mean that he or she will be dancing heavily, belting loudly or sobbing as a specific character.

Swings might have to quickly space out a scene during intermission, try that lift in the wings, give that monologue one last shot in the minutes leading up—it is, to say the least, certainly not dull work.

“The key to happiness onstage and off as a swing or fulltime ensemble is to enjoy your life and find pleasure in the day-to-day tasks,” Sandhu said.

“It’s a tough job,” Eyer said. “I encourage you to reach out to past swings and take solidarity that you are one of a long line of swings that kept the curtain up. You are the unsung hero of the theatre.”

[Rommy Sandhu has appeared in Broadway in The Life, On the Town, Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Bombay Dreams, Children And Art, and Mary Poppins; Off-Broadway in Make Mine Manhattan; and in regional productions of Diner and The Full Monty.  Gina Martin appeared on Broadway in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Oh, Kay!, and Guys and Dolls, and Off-Broadway in St. Louis Woman and Do Re Mi.   J. Austin Eyer’s Broadway credits include The Secret Garden, Curtains, and Billy Elliot (also national tour); Off-Broadway, he choreographed My Big Gay Italian Wedding (twice); and in regional theater, he’s done Irving Berlin's White Christmas (twice) and Curtains,]

*  *  *  *

STEPHEN CERF: “When I tell someone I’m a swing they think it either has something to do with an actual swing, like on a playground, or they think I’m telling them I’m a swinger. I’m pretty sure I’ve had to fully explain what I actually do every single time.” [Cerf currently appears in Motown The Musical on Broadway; previously, he was seen in Jersey Boys on Broadway and Nevermore Off-Broadway; he’s toured with Monty Python’s Spamalot, Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, and Motown the Musical.]

*  *  *  *
When I think of a SWING, I immediately think . . .

We asked members on social media to tell us what they think of when they think of an Equity swing. We heard,

Unorganized Chaos
Self Belief
Organized Chaos
Smartest in the cast
By the seat of your pants
Who am I now?

. . . and of course,
“When you throw your keys in a bowl and go home with a different wife.”

*  *  *  *

PHYLICIA PEARL:  “Most of the time I get blank stares or a rather lackluster ‘Oh . . . congrats,’ because people have no idea what a swing is. When I explain that I cover most of the roles in the female ensemble of The Lion King, people are either in awe that I know so much or just ask me, ‘who plays Nala?’” [Pearl is currently on Broadway in The Lion King.]

No comments:

Post a Comment