The number one goal of a performer is to land a leading role in a play or musical. For some of those not experienced with the industry in the professional sense, an offer of understudy, swing, or standby, is met with disappointment and even slight embarrassment. It’s time for that reputation to change and for the unsung performers of the production to get the recognition and appreciation they so deserve.
We’ll start with the most well-known term, Understudy.
The Understudy is responsible for learning their own part in the ensemble or a smaller role, and be ready to perform either one of two of the leading roles at a moment’s notice.
There are two types of Swings and it’s important to know the difference. An Off-Stage Swing is a performer who is only in the show if they are covering a role for a missing actor. An On-Stage Swing may be a part of the ensemble and may be asked to cover up to twelve roles, commonly referred to as Tracks in the show. Any casting director you ask will tell you that the most talented performers are cast as Swings since the production team needs to be able to trust that the Swing can remember blocking for multiple parts and deliver a performance like they do it eight times a week in that role.
A Standby is not common for school or community theatre productions. Like an Off-Stage Swing, a Standby is not in the show unless the lead that they are covering is absent. There is no guarantee that the Standby will get a chance to perform but they must always be ready. As cast members take vacations, have family emergencies, or get injured or ill, the Standby is there to jump in where it be 1 hour before curtain or during intermission to take over the second act.
Sure, it might be more attractive to say you are the lead in a production, but mastering the skills needed to become a great Understudy, Swing, or Standby, will make you an invaluable part of the cast. There are several reasons why these people are the most impressive performers in a show.
Mary Claire Miskell was an off-stage swing in the musical “13” and covered five different tracks. Her experience and tips for future swings will make the difference between overwhelm and outstanding.
“I had a separate script for each of the two leads and one for the three ensemble tracks. I had a highlighter with a matching pen for each and a million photocopies of a diagram of the stage to insert into my script for musical numbers and blocking. Never assume something is too easy to forget because you will. You want everything in writing but keep your script clean and simple for last-minute reviews when you go on. Sometimes you have set dates to go on for certain tracks but keep lightly reviewing the other roles as well because you might (probably will) have to go on sooner than planned.”
In the role of Sven, in the Broadway musical, Frozen, three to four performances a week are played by the Standby. The role is incredibly physically demanding and requires not only an hour of pre-show stretching and warm ups, but two hours of stretching post-show as well as physical therapy and massage therapy in order for Andrew Pirozzi to stay healthy and ready for the next show. Although Pirozzi is the creator of the Broadway role and sometimes wishes he could be at every performance, he knows that it is not safe for him to push himself into more shows. Sven is a very specific track that requires not only an incredible amount of upper body strength, but also requires puppetry to move parts of the head.
So, should you accept an offer to be an Understudy, Swing, or Standby? Yes! Especially if you are just starting out in the business, you want to build a reputation that you are a hard worker, dependable, and a pleasant to be around. The less a creative team has to worry about you, the happier they’ll be. The most important thing for an actor to remember, regardless of the role, is that the story is not there to serve your ego. YOU are there to serve the story. Like the saying goes, “there are no small roles, only small actors.”
For further tips and tales from the Broadway Battlefield, we recommend checking out Jennie Ford’s book series, “Be The Best on Broadway.” Not only will you get real stories from Broadway productions, but you’ll see examples of how to organize blocking for different roles.