Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Swing?

Your agent calls. You #bookedit! What’s that you say? The swing?

“My initial reaction was, ‘I guess I wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of the people who were offered contracts,’ ” says Patrick Heffernan, a first-time swing currently on the non-Equity “Anything Goes” tour. “But you get to the rehearsal process and you realize, Oh! I’m actually the one who is going to be a little bit more qualified and ready to jump in at a moment’s notice with little or no time to rehearse.”

Swings are the unsung heroes of musical theater. When called in to cover a performer who is out, they deliver the lines for a given part (or “track”), dance their choreography, and may also have to sing the vocals unique to that track.

Heffernan covers a total of seven tracks: five male ensemble tracks and two featured roles. Stephen Carrasco, a swing and the dance captain on the first national tour of “Kinky Boots,” covers a total of 17 tracks—12 male tracks and, in an emergency, five female tracks. “They’re asked to do an ungodly amount of work,” says Merri Sugarman, senior casting director at Tara Rubin Casting.

So what does it take to tackle the workload and deliver as a great swing? “They’re the most chameleon-like people in the building and they have this uncanny ability to remember things and pick things up unbelievably fast,” says Sugarman. “They’re also people who have to have strong constitutions and even tempers.”

The ability to roll with the punches may be the most important skill. “You might mess up,” Carrasco says. “You were on for a different track the day before and now you’re on a new track today. So being able to forgive yourself for being human is a great life lesson.” Heffernan agrees—“If no one died, it was a good show,” he jokes—and adds that patience is a key ingredient. Not to mention organization. Heffernan color-coded his script, highlighting lines for each track, and carries a set of note cards in that track’s same color indicating costume changes and stage directions. He definitely fits the swing stereotype: smart, hardworking, self-aware, fearless.

During an audition, casting directors tune their radar to these specific qualities. “If you’re thinking about somebody for a potential swing position, you pay really close attention to the adjustments,” Sugarman explains. “Good swings are able to think about something for 10 seconds, process it, and do it. Swings are people who are known to be really fast on their feet and great listeners and great communicators.” Casting directors like Sugarman are looking to pick up on these nuances while simultaneously determining if an actor can handle all of the roles the swing will need to cover.

“Throughout the audition process they were kind of putting me through the wringer,” remembers Heffernan, “going for this role, this role, this role, dancing for this track, dancing for this track. Looking back, I should have known.”

Because so much of a show rests on the swing’s shoulders, casting directors must be meticulous about whom they hire—they’re not just leftovers from permanent ensemble tracks. That means that actors with previous swing credits on their résumés often get called upon to swing again. That’s great news for someone like Carrasco, who prefers to swing. “I like swinging, which is rare,” he says. “I never wanted to be a star. I never wanted to be famous; I just really wanted to be a part of it all, and swinging is an awesome way to do that.”

Swinging also comes with other perks. “Every single time you go on it’s like opening night,” says Heffernan. Playing the swing cures the staleness that often comes with performing the same role every night for months on end. “There comes a point in everyone’s life with a show where you kind of turn on autopilot,” says Carrasco. “You can’t really do that as a swing because you lose the luxury of doing the show 500 times in one track. You also make more money as a swing than you do in the ensemble, and that appealed to me greatly.” While this is true of union and nonunion actors, the Equity production contract stipulates a full swing is paid no less than 5 percent of the actor minimum per week above minimum salary requirements. Not to mention, sometimes it’s great to relax in the dressing room—once you feel comfortable in all of your tracks—and still earn money.

But don’t be fooled. Being a swing doesn’t typically mean waiting in the wings. Heffernan and Carrasco both perform regularly on tour. And during Carrasco’s first swing job in Broadway’s “Billy Elliot,” he went on every single show for a year.

From the mental flexibility to the physical versatility, this particular gig is a true test of a performer’s grit. If you can hack it, swinging might just be one of the best gigs in the business.

Inspired by this post? Check out our Broadway audition listings!