While the majority of press around a production often centers on the stars, director, or author, little to nothing is said about those members of the company working just as hard—if not harder—than those creatives: the swings, standbys, and understudies. All major productions depend on these performers to keep a show up and running. (And large shows with complex staging and choreography like “Hamilton” even have “universal swings,” performers who are contracted to go out to whichever production needs them on a moment’s notice.)
What’s the difference between the three? A swing is an off-stage performer responsible for covering any number of ensemble tracks, sometimes as many as 12 or more. An understudy is a performer cast in the ensemble of a musical (or a minor role in a play) who is responsible for covering a lead or supporting role. A standby is an off-stage performer whose sole responsibility is to cover the lead (usually a star) in a production.
If you’re looking to join a stage production in one of these capacities—or just started as one!—here are some helpful hints from performers who have worked in these roles over the years.
Mary Claire Miskell, “13”
“I was an off-stage swing for five tracks. I had a separate script for each of the two leads and one for the three ensemble tracks. I had a highlighter with a matching pen for each and a million photocopies of a diagram of the stage to insert into my script for musical numbers and blocking. Never assume something is too easy to forget because you will.
“You want everything in writing but keep your script clean and simple for last-minute reviews when you go on. Sometimes you have set dates to go on for certain tracks but keep lightly reviewing the other roles as well because you might (probably will) have to go on sooner than planned.”
Lauren Gaul, the Rockettes
“Learn how to forgive yourself if you mess up. As a dance swing, that is the hardest part. But if you didn’t forgive yourself immediately, you play mind games on yourself the rest of the show.
“Also, train yourself to remain calm. You may be freaking out inside but you have to remain calm, appear calm to your cast, dance captains, and directors. You don’t want to put doubt in their mind or yours.”
Jonathan Fielding, “The Play That Goes Wrong”
“You can’t learn the lines too early! You don’t get an organic rehearsal process so you’re often left to your own devices learning the script. I’ve seen a few amazing understudies go on in their first weeks and even if they messed up the blocking, they could still hold their own with the lines.”
Amanda Flynn, “Wicked”
“Knowing your lines and what numbers to stand on are paramount to success because your mind will be on overload when you do actually go on, so you have to have it ingrained in you.
“Also, be an incredible observer. Watch what’s happening in rehearsal and onstage. Learn from the people doing it eight times a week. Learn without having to ask questions (unless you’re in your own understudy rehearsal) and never underestimate the power of the living room rehearsal. I was handed a script for ‘Wicked’ with Glinda’s blocking written in it by a stage manager. I taught it to myself in my living room and my first rehearsal (after music and choreography) was a run through with other understudies who had already had put-ins. I had taught myself the entire show by reading the blocking and watching Glinda on stage every night.”
Leslie McDonel, “American Idiot,” “Hairspray”
“Do the choreography backstage to the music out of the monitors every night you’re not on. That’s the only way you won’t look like you’re thinking onstage. Then you can have a chance of being present.”
Raymond J. Lee, “Soft Power,” “Groundhog Day,” “Honeymoon in Vegas”
“I would hang out backstage (out of the way) when I wasn’t on and quietly do the lines along with whomever I was replacing/covering just to make sure I was aware of the pace of the scene.”
Frances Mercanti-Anthony, “Spring Awakening,” “Jerusalem,” “Cyrano de Bergerac”
“Thinking of yourself as second string is a great way to give a second string performance.”
Elise Vannerson, “Beautiful”
“You have to self-teach. Don’t wait for more rehearsal time; work hard on your own—you could go on without ever being taught the show from beginning to end!”
Sean McKnight, “Annie Get Your Gun,” “The Producers”
“If there’s a hole, chances are you’re supposed to be in it.”
This is all such great advice. As a casting director and director, I have a few more thoughts:
The most talented performers often get cast as swings. They can do everything and you can trust them, so you give them a huge amount of responsibility. Don’t be disappointed if that’s how you’re cast: it means we really like you and you will go on a lot.
If you’re just starting out in the business, don’t let your ego stand in the way of accepting an understudy position. Swinging and understudying are amazing ways of getting your foot in the door and forming relationships with a multitude of creatives. One job leads to another.
If you’re a performer of some stature and take an understudy position, check your ego. It’s your job to serve the production. I’ve seen some understudies make the rehearsal all about them but remember: you are there to support the rest of the company! If you can’t do this, you shouldn’t take the job.
Always be prepared! I’ve seen stand-bys go on at intermission as well as halfway through an act.
Have fun and breathe! But the only way to do this is to be over-prepared.
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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.