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How to Make Swing and Understudy Roles in Theatre Work for You

The jobs of understudies or swings in the live theatre world are often misunderstood by those who haven’t stepped into those roles. The glamorization of Hollywood has planted certain misconceptions as the definitions and responsibilities can shift from theatre to theatre (especially if you’re working non-Equity).

Please note: The following thoughts are specifically talking about my experiences in non-union, regional theatre. Actors Equity has its own definition of the roles described. Unfortunately these standards are not always followed universally in non-union houses, and it can be helpful to know how to navigate less regulated spaces.

Whether you’re understudying for the first time, interested in doing so in the future or just wish to have a better working knowledge of the job, here are a few tips to make the experience productive.

Know the Understudy/Swing Lingo

In general, the difference between a swing and an understudy is the number of tracks they learn.

An understudy is generally assigned to one actor. They learn everything their designated actor does in the show and are ready to step in in case of illness or absence.

A swing will learn multiple tracks. Most often they are found in musicals, learning several ensemble tracks, so they can step in for multiple actors.

However, this is not exclusively the case. I’ve worked with theatres that use swings in straight plays to mean an actor within the cast who learns an additional track, so they can “swing up” into another actor’s place if needed (necessitating, of course, an additional actor to learn their part as well). The most important thing is to make sure you clarify what your role will be and what your employer’s expectations of the role are before accepting a contract. 

Don’t Commit to the Role of an Understudy if You Can’t Do It

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this mistake made several times. Actors underestimate the amount of work the job entails, don’t want to show up as much as they should or count on the low likelihood of having to step in. Then, of course, they get the call and cannot do the job well on so little preparation.

Do not let this be you. It’s a great way to lose the respect of your employers and not get hired again. Not to mention it’s incredibly disrespectful to your castmates and excruciating for an audience to watch.

Understudying is not a supplemental gig to pile on top of other bookings. You have to make sure you are fully available for all necessary rehearsals and all performances. If you can’t do that, don’t take the job.

Check-in With Your Scene Partners

Trust your castmates to help you through the process as keeping a good line of communication is vital to success. Things change from rehearsal throughout a run, and you may have missed adjustments or discoveries that have been made since you noted them down.

If you’re lucky you’ll get a put-in rehearsal, but sometimes even those are not guaranteed. Building a good relationship and open dialogue with your possible scene partners will help a smooth transition.

Don’t Go Off-roading

Stepping into someone else’s role as an understudy or swing is not the time to show off how you would have done the part if cast. It’s a time to preserve the show that has already been built. That means blocking, pacing and even some acting choices are your responsibility to replicate.

This doesn’t mean you have to mimic the other actor’s every intonation. You will bring yourself to the character, causing certain acting choices will differ. However, if they affect your scene partner, the structure or pacing or blocking of the scene; you’ll have to watch the primary actor’s performance closer as those decisions have already been made.

Ask Lots of Questions

This is probably the best advice I can give. Understudies and swings are often left to their own devices. Rehearsal processes generally don’t have the space built in to help an understudy prepare appropriately, so you have to be your advocate.

Ask the stage manager for any blocking you missed, and ask for reference videos of dances or fights. Don’t leave it up to the director or stage manager, they often are so preoccupied with the rehearsal in front of them, they’re not thinking about your learning process. 

Every actor should understudy at least once, just like everyone should work a job in the service industry if only to understand the process. It’s often a tedious and thankless job with fewer resources than it should be afforded. That said, it can also be fascinating, challenging and thrilling work and, when handled right, is a great way to show off your reliability, flexibility and talent. 

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