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The Working Actor

Swinging Lessons

Swinging Lessons
Dear Michael:

I recently landed a role as a swing at the only Equity theater in town. I was super excited, because it meant that I would become an Equity membership candidate (which would be great to have before I start grad school this fall). I overlooked the notes about the swings also doing stage crew work. I didn't think it was that big of a deal, until we got to tech week. Once tech week started, I saw how much stage crew work we would be doing, and I'm a bit overwhelmed. We're doing tech cues for special effects during the show and then spending two hours after each show cleaning up (the show gets really messy).

Aren't the swings supposed to be watching and taking notes? After each show, the director gives notes to the cast, and we (the other swing and I) don't ever get that information. When I asked if we could leave the cleaning-up to another member of the stage crew so we could get to have our vocal rehearsal, I was told absolutely not. Let me just say that before tech week, the swings were not called into any rehearsals. We were told that once the show starts going, we will be having two rehearsals a week to get us up to speed. I showed up to a few rehearsals anyway to get notes and blocking, so I could be ready to go on if needed.

I feel like I'm being a bit taken advantage of here. Are swings normally stage crew as well? Is taking on stage crew work as well as swinging four roles worth the stress just to get EMC status? I mean, I'm trying my best to sneak around and watch the show to make sure I'm prepared, but every time I try, I get bitched at by the stage manager.

I keep going back and forth. I really want to perform the show, and I know I can, but this experience is so demoralizing, I'm about ready to drop out.

—Stuck in Ohio, Columbus, Ohio

Dear Stuck:

I can certainly understand your frustration. And while quitting is an option worth considering, I'm concerned that you could be walking away from a far more valuable opportunity than you realize. At this early stage of your career, there's so much to be learned from gigs that are less than ideal—perhaps more than from those that run smoothly. At times, the professional actor must have acrobatic social skills, navigating challenging interactions with grace, restraint, and a nuanced sense of diplomacy that can be learned only in circumstances that require those skills.

So, do swings normally do tech work? No, not normally, and if they're Equity members, never. Tom Miller, coordinator of the Equity Membership Candidate Program, says the only Equity members who are permitted to do tech work are stage managers and assistant stage managers, and only when it's part of their contractual duties. For EMCs, however, the rules are a little different. "An EMC may be asked to do tech work," Miller says, "but they must be fully prepared to perform and sufficiently unencumbered by other duties." That means, according to the rules, your tech duties can't interfere with your primary job as a performer.

But it's important to understand this: Production teams usually don't want to think much about swings and understudies until a show is up and running. Only then do they turn their focus to preparing for the possibility that a cast member will miss a performance. And it is absolutely up to them to decide when and how to do that. So don't assume you'll be in on note sessions—or even get on stage—until you're needed. And you might never get to work with the director, even though all those things would help you do your job.

Yes, it's unusual for swings to not be invited to rehearsals. I agree with you: It's a good idea to have them there. And if you or I were in a position to make those decisions, we would be sure to get that right.

But here's the big lesson. It's a hard one, but now is as good a time as any to learn it, because it'll serve you throughout your career: It's not your decision. What's more, no one's asking for your input on how to run things. So unless something's illegal, immoral, a violation of your contract, or a threat to your safety, do yourself this enormous favor: Butt out. It doesn't matter if your plan is better. Even if those in charge are dead wrong, operating in the dumbest possible way, they're still in charge. Trust me, you'll encounter that throughout your career. Most actors could tell you lots of stories about poor decisions made by producers and directors and describe their own much more sensible approaches, and you'd agree with them. It doesn't matter. The folks you're working with get to run their theater any way they want, even if it's stupid. Learn to edit your input.

Though I appreciate your conscientiousness, this is a situation where your dedication could really piss people off. Helpful suggestions and self-created opportunities to observe can come across like you're questioning the expertise of your superiors, and that's never going to be popular. So follow the schedule you're given, stop showing up uninvited to rehearsals, stop sneaking in to watch the show, and do the best job you can within the given parameters.

Now, that's if you stay with the job. Maybe it's better to quit. If you're feeling taken advantage of or mistreated, leaving might make sense. I'm a big advocate of cultivating a sense of dignity and self-worth.

But if you decide to stay, you'll need to adjust your attitude rather than trying to get them to adjust their way of working. Otherwise you'll be miserable, and they'll be annoyed. Embrace the experience. Do your tech work with gusto. And if they're not giving you the chance to learn your tracks, let that be their problem. If an actor misses a show and they've neglected to properly rehearse the swings, they'll pay the consequences at that time. But I think what's more likely to happen is this: No one will be out. The theater will get a free crew member; you'll get EMC points and a very valuable education. And that's what internships are all about.

Is it worth it? That's up to you. But even with its frustrations, the situation you're in is rich with potential lessons. Even if you quit, be sure to take them with you.

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