IT’S YOUR DREAM SHOW. You’ve made it through the first round of auditions. You’ve attended callbacks and final callbacks. You’ve met producers, directors, and associates galore. You’ve given the experience your heart and soul, and this time, it’s paid off. You finally get the call: They offer you one of the swing tracks.

Now, what exactly does that mean?

There’s a degree of confusion about the difference between understudies and swings. While an understudy is usually a smaller or ensemble role within the main cast of a production, a swing is an offstage performer who only goes on if someone in the ensemble is unable to do so. A swing most often does not cover principal roles in a show. These are generally covered either by understudies from the ensemble or by standbys, which are basically swings assigned only to lead roles or specific performers. A swing or a standby can be responsible for covering any number of tracks and is expected to go on at a moment’s notice for any of them, with or without a brush-up rehearsal.

If this is your first time swinging, you’re in for quite the whirlwind. Swinging is one of the most demanding, exciting, and important roles in theatre. Broadway stars including Megan Hilty, Shoshana Bean, and Bernadette Peters all got their start as offstage swings or standbys, so you’re in fantastic company. The right swing gig can help launch a career, and no matter what, it will teach you a lot. In fact, some performers find it so rewarding they make a career of it. However, it is a challenging job that requires a special skill set.

The primary challenge of swinging is that you can expect significantly less rehearsal time than the main cast. Depending on the production, you may have periodic understudy or swing runs of the show, but you may not get to rehearse regularly until previews or even after opening. The rehearsals you do have will likely be run by an assistant director or stage manager. You won’t have the luxury of extended time with the director to mine everything about a role or to learn the show physically by doing it repeatedly. A large part of your job will be working things out on your own.

Additionally, the job of a swing is to replicate as closely as possible the performance of the actor you are covering. All creative decisions about your roles are made during the rehearsal period by the production staff and the main cast of performers. Your job is to replicate what they set. It doesn’t matter if you usually sing alto and you’re covering a mezzo part, or if you would have taken a cross downstage at a different point during your big scene. You are not there to change what has been determined but instead to mimic it with precision and enthusiasm.

It’s easy to see this as a bit of a curse. You are required to do all this independent work without contributing to the major creative decisions about the roles you are playing. However, being a swing or standby will test your skills and teach you how to be a reliable performer and collaborator, which can help get you hired again and again. Here’s how to ensure you’ll be remembered in the best way.

Take notes
First, you’ll need to take meticulous, well-organized notes. You probably won’t have the luxury of ingrained muscle memory, so your notes will be your friend. Write down everything ― every cross, every entrance, every prop change, every piece of choreography. You’ll rely heavily on those notes if you have to fill in. That means they have to be readable and easy to understand so you can check your book on the fly, even backstage during a performance. Tricks like color-coding different tracks, drawing diagrams, and even using different scripts for each role will help you keep details clear. Make sure your handwriting is neat and any shorthand you use is memorable and easy to decipher. Think about it as teaching the show to your future self ― what information would you need to record to learn a show from notes alone?

Get used to working on your own
Next, given the limited rehearsal time swings usually receive, you’ll need to learn a lot of the material and choreography on your own time ― and quickly. Start figuring out what memorization tools work for you. Those meticulous notes we just talked about will help, but there’s nothing like video footage for learning particularly complicated dances. Your stage management team may have recordings they can share, but if they don’t, ask if you can record your own. (Always check first, as sometimes there are copyright issues around new choreography or performance footage.) Absolutely nothing compares to practicing the material for yourself with other performers. See if other production swings or standbys would be willing to run sections of the show with you during mutually free time. Collective memory is often better than what you can recall on your own. As every performer knows, the show changes immensely when there are other bodies in the space to consider.

Ask questions
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Watching choreography and blocking is very different from doing it, and even the best notes won’t help you learn if you don’t understand what’s going on. Ask your stage management team if you can look at their blocking notes. Pull aside the actor whose track you’re covering and (politely) ask if they would be willing to review it with you. Speak to the assistant choreographer or director to see if they’ll go over a sequence with you. If you don’t understand something and you don’t speak up, you won’t be able to replicate it later. It’s much better to clarify confusion early than to find yourself onstage with no idea what you’re doing because you were too afraid to ask.

Find enjoyment in the work
The trap of swinging is to feel undervalued because you’re not the “star,” and that simply is not true. A good swing is integral to a production’s success. Being cast in a swing role means the production staff trusts you to keep up on your own and deliver when asked. It shows faith in your ability to work quickly and independently. Swings also may be required to play a variety of roles, requiring stamina, versatility, and range. The fact that you were cast is a testament to all your best qualities as a performer: the ability to transform completely and convincingly into different roles at the drop of a hat, reliably and consistently.

A theatrical swing covers multiple tracks in a production and must be prepared to go on at a moment’s notice.
A theatrical swing covers multiple tracks in a production and must be prepared to go on at a moment’s notice. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Be ready to go on
Prepare like you will go on in the first preview. It’s tempting to assume you won’t have to fill in for someone during the first few weeks of a show. Most of the time that’s true. You probably won’t go on that early, unless it’s a preplanned absence. However, one of the worst things that can happen to a production is for a performer to miss a show in the opening weeks without a swing or standby ready. It’s much better to be safe than sorry, so do not procrastinate learning the show. Let me say that again: Do. Not. Procrastinate. Someone likely won’t go out that early. But it happens sometimes, and nothing will label you unreliable more quickly than being the swing who wasn’t prepared. On the flip side, being the swing or standby who stepped up to the plate under duress and triumphed will get you hired, again and again.

Stay calm
Finally, keep your cool. In the event you must fill in for someone, unless it’s a planned absence, there’s a good chance a lot of other people will be stressed. Your job (and the number one thing that will get you rehired) is to be the person who keeps their head. If you’ve prepared, if you’ve done the work and taken notes, and if you fully understand every moment there is to unpack, there is no reason you won’t nail the performance.

Everyone wants you to succeed ― from the audience to the ensemble to the production staff. Furthermore, they believe you will succeed, or you wouldn’t have been cast. You have the tools, you have the knowledge, and you are more than capable. Do the work, keep your head, and don’t forget to breathe. Break a leg!

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