Understudies are often overlooked in the performing world, but they play a fundamental role and not many productions would be able to function without them. Other important parts in shows, other than the leads, are the swings. The swing parts have to learn everyone’s places in every dance as well as what each person sings and where they move on the stage. The swing members have one of the hardest jobs in the business, and many refer to their well kept ‘swing bible’ before they need to go on to make sure they’re 100% clued up on where they need to be.
The majority of the leading ladies and men on the West End and Broadway started out as understudies, so being cast as one can be the stepping stone someone needs to get into the leading lady’s shoes.
Luke Harley – currently studying at Arts Ed in London – gave me his insight into the topic of understudies and swings. He told me “swings and understudies are incredibly vital for performances.” To be a swing, you have to have a massive amount of brain power so that you can learn every part you need to and remember exactly what everyone does. Being a swing means that you may end up learning up to 10 different tracks for a performance, and having to know where everyone stands, each individual’s choreography and harmonies, as well as all their libretto. Using Luke’s words, “it’s an incredibly exciting job” He continued “If you were in Les Mis, you could be playing Grantaire in the matinee and Courfeyrac in the evening performance.”
Understudies and swings never know what’s going to happen, so they need to be ready for anything and everything.
I also managed to get an insight into the topic from Megan Louch, who is currently performing as an onstage swing in the UK tour of Annie. She said to me, “Both understudies and swings are massively important, they have to have a really good brain. You could be learning 6 tracks that all have different choreography, harmonies and partner work.” Clearly it’s not always just about remembering the dancing, singing and acting as an understudy/swing. Megan also said “you have to learn their costume changes, onstage traffic and backstage traffic.”
Taking on a swing or understudy role is a big responsibility, because if someone can’t make it, it all comes down to you. You have to be very aware, responsible, switched on and ready for anything. She told me, “It’s a very demanding job, so people are going to get overtired or injured etc.” The job of a swing is often made even harder when they are pushed onto the stage, regardless of whether they feel well or not. They are the most relied on in the show, so if they’re not feeling 100%, it doesn’t matter, the show must go on.
She went on to say, “it’s a very rewarding and varied job.” People don’t realise how valuable it is to have the experience of a being a swing under your belt, it takes so much work to pull it off successfully and be able to remember every single thing that happens on stage. Megan’s aspiration is to be a dance captain and she believes that a swing is a good step towards that, as a dance captain is responsible for knowing everything that happens in the show.
Being an understudy in the professional world is totally different, as some shows hold performances where the understudies play the leading roles, however being a swing doesn’t change. But both of these parts are mighty important, as you never know what’s going to happen on that stage or if you’re going to get called in. So don’t be disheartened if you get cast as a swing or understudy when you were desperate for a lead, you’re probably doing a more important role than you think.