Strangely enough, I’ve been all of those things in my modest career. I say strangely because, well, I’m not exactly someone you’d call…a dancer. And typically it takes a dancer’s brain to be a swing, but there are shows where we all get to “park and bark,” and I managed to swing one.
Let’s backtrack a little. First of all, what’s the difference?
Typically, an understudy is a performing member of the ensemble, who covers other larger roles, perhaps even the lead. A standby is usually someone in an off-stage position who covers the lead role or roles and is NOT part of the ensemble—roles such as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, or Elphaba and Glinda in Wicked all have these off-stage covers. And a swing is an off-stage cast member who covers multiple, if not all, of the ensemble roles. Often a swing is also the dance captain (or in my case in the 2013 revival of Jekyll & Hyde, the fight captain), as they are able to watch and note the show almost any night.
Each of these positions holds its own unique advantages and challenges. An understudy has the privilege (yes, I said privilege) and the responsibility of performing every night. So they are constantly honing and sharpening their skills and performance. But they may be unexpectedly called into action at any moment, and, since they are using their bodies and voices constantly, may not be able to access 100% of their abilities when it’s time to play the lead.
A standby does not perform except when they are needed, so it’s quite possible they are well-rested, prepared, excited, and able to give the performance of a lifetime. It’s also possible they haven’t been needed in a few months, and rehearsals have quieted, and they may be prone to mental errors or mistakes. Maybe not performing nightly has allowed the nerves to rise, or the muscles to stiffen.
Same goes for a swing, although swings are much more commonly called upon, as ensemble tracks can be difficult to repeat night after night. Really, any track in any show can be difficult to repeat. I don’t mean to show bias—but as a 6′ 4″ leading man who doesn’t dance, I’ve always thought the ensemble often worked much harder than I did, IMHO.
So who gets the call when the lead goes down? Ultimately the decision resides with either the creative team or stage management. Many shows don’t have standbys, only understudies. A standby’s sole purpose is to play the major role when required, so there’s no discussion there. And it’s the easiest switch, a 1-for-1 trade, whereas if an understudy who is also in the chorus is asked to perform, then it’s a move for the understudy, then perhaps the ensemble swing is needed to cover that role, leaving no one available should someone else be unable to perform.
Often there are two covers for each major role, and they are designated first and second, indicating who will perform when needed. Assuming both performers are equally capable, a rotation may be established, but again, these decisions rest with management.
Now, as actors there is little you can actually control on your own before you go onstage in any cover position—you may have adequate rehearsal time, you may not. No one wants it that way, but it is a reality. But there is one thing that is completely within your control—how well you know the material. There’s just no good excuse for not knowing what’s on the page, even if you’re in a new show where the script changes every day. You have to be ready. No matter what.
“Getting the call” can be packed with emotion, liked you’ve just been bumped up from Triple-A to start for the New York Yankees. You’re excited, elated, your friends and family may be able to finally see you star on Broadway (or anywhere really, not to be NYC-centric). Who wouldn’t be thrilled? It also comes with anxiety, nervousness, and maybe even doubt. If you are lucky enough to be in this position, let me pass along some friendly advice.
- STAY CALM. It’s going to be difficult, but try to remain level-headed. The best thing you can do for yourself and everyone around you is to relax. Don’t worry about your costume changes, you have professionals to take care of that for you. Go over your script again, even if you know it like the back of your hand. Oh, and by the way, know it like the back of your hand.
- BEFORE YOU POST ON SOCIAL MEDIA, THINK. Which is basically a good rule of thumb for all situations. Yes, this is an awesome moment for you. But the flip side is, your good news is often someone else’s bad news, especially if it’s a last-minute scenario. Most actors I know are hard-working, responsible people (at least when it comes to the show), they don’t like to miss performances. There could be an illness or injury involved, maybe a medical emergency, maybe a family situation—be respectful and kind. You will want the same one day.
- THICKEN YOUR SKIN. Hey, I KNOW what an awesome performer you are. But 1,200 people in your audience just got a little piece of paper stuffed in their Playbill that said the star of the show that they paid $150 per ticket to see isn’t going to perform tonight. That’s going to create some unrest amongst audiences, ESPECIALLY if the lead is a “name.” Side bar—if an “above the title star” (i.e., James Earl Jones IN Darth Vader Lives Again!) is absent, audiences are entitled to ask for a refund or an exchange for another night when the star is back. Some people simply can’t come back, like tourists from New Mexico, for example. So the lovely family from Santa Fe has to watch whoever is there. Sometimes there is an announcement (“At this evening’s performance the role of so-and-so…”), and it can be met by a chorus of boos. Yes, that stinks out loud. But you can win them back, if you are that understudy. Stay calm, do your show.
- THANK YOUR COMPANY BEFORE AND AFTER. Hopefully everyone is excited for your opportunity to share your gifts. Thank your cast mates who will be there on stage with you, giving you their energy and focus. Thank the crew for helping you do the best job you can do. And thank them again. So many people in theatre are undervalued, make a point to remind them that you couldn’t have done your job without them being so great at theirs.
- ENJOY IT, THEN LET IT GO. You may be back to the ensemble the next day, or the green room, or the coffee shop on the corner if you are so lucky. Relish the moment, relive it a little (perhaps privately), and move on. Another opportunity will come for you to step into the spotlight.
Should you be an understudy, a standby, a swing? Kind of a vague question I’ll admit, but usually the undercurrent there is that once you become known as a reliable cover, you’ll be an understudy forever. I don’t know if that’s true, I suppose you could ask Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Hopkins, Bernadette Peters, Taye Diggs, Matthew Morrison, or Lea Michelle; they all started out as understudies and moved on to exceptional careers. Maybe being a cover isn’t enough for you, only you know that answer. My opinion is that there’s so much to learn, so many terrific opportunities for you to show not only what kind of performer you are but also what kind of PERSON, that there’s no reason to shy away. The spotlight is big enough for us all.