Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
This week's question comes from Hernán Espinosa of Argentina.
Question: "Could you tell me what is the exact role of a swing in a show?"
Answer: Maria Somma, who is the spokesperson for Actors' Equity Association — the labor union that represents actors and stage managers who work in the theatre — told Playbill.com, "A swing is a non-performing member of the chorus who goes on when a member of the chorus is absent or [is] performing as an understudy in place of a principal. A swing 'swings' the chorus, that is, functions as an 'understudy' to the chorus."
Jay Douglas, who is a swing as well as the assistant dance captain in The Drowsy Chaperone, also spoke to Playbill.com about the job of a swing. The actor — who chatted during an outing with his sons, four-year-old Jackson and 20-month-old Will — said, "It's interesting because what I think of as a swing is actually not what I am in the show necessarily. There are standbys and then there are swings, and I'm sort of a combination of a swing and a standby. I think a swing is defined as an offstage member of the company — in other words, someone who is not onstage every show — but he is there and available for any number of different people in the show in case any of them are sick or on vacation. . . . A standby is somebody who does the same thing basically, except for a principal role, and I kinda do both. I swing two ensemble men in the show, but then I am also technically a standby for four of the principal players."
Drowsy marks the first time Douglas has worked as a swing on Broadway, although he was an understudy in Miss Saigon and The Full Monty. "An understudy is even another definition," he says with a laugh. "An understudy is an ensemble member that does the show every night in an ensemble position, but then covers the principals." The main difference is an understudy is part of the ensemble of the show — he performs each night, while a swing only performs when he is covering a role.
In terms of the chain-of-coverage for principal roles, Douglas says that usually a standby would cover a role before an understudy. "A lot of times for a big role, they'll hire a standby who specifically covers one of the lead roles." [Think Karen Mason for Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard.] Some standbys even have it written into the contract that he or she will be the first cover of a role. Should the standby be unavailable, then the role would be covered by the understudy (who is normally part of the ensemble of the show) or a swing. That decision is left to the discretion of the management.
"Assuming that everyone is competent," Douglas says, "[management] likes to spread it around and give everybody a chance." That way, he adds, all the performers stay familiar with the various roles they cover. The only people who can cover ensemble parts, however, are the swings.
Douglas covers the two ensemble men and is also the standby for the principal roles of Man in Chair, Robert Martin, Adolpho and Feldzieg; he has performed each of those six "tracks "(or roles) several times. The other male swing in Drowsy is Kilty Reidy, who also covers the two men in the ensemble and the remaining four male principals: Underling, George, Gangster #1 and Gangster #2.
Although learning six different roles would seem daunting to any actor, Douglas followed a plan that was suggested to him by a former swing in Les Misérables. "When I first started swinging [Drowsy Chaperone]," Douglas says, "I basically went through one track at a time. What I did is I sat out in the audience with a pair of binoculars in one hand and a tape recorder in the other hand, and I would follow each of my people around one person at a time. I would pick Aldolpho one night, and I would watch every move that he made onstage, and . . . I would speak every move that that character made into a microphone, and then I would go back and actually type it out in a Word document. Then I'd go back and review it and see what I had done wrong and correct things. But after going through each track two or three times, I had a very accurate description of what every character did. And then once I had all six of them, I have a copy on my computer, and I also keep a printed out copy in my bag. And that way, if I ever find out last minute that I'm on, I can always pull out my notes and just look them over on the train on the way to the theatre."
Douglas' first time onstage at the Marquis Theatre was in one of the ensemble roles. Although it was the role he has was most prepared for, the actor didn't learn he would be performing until five minutes after the show should have started. "They were holding the curtain," Douglas explains, "because they were expecting somebody who was going to be arriving. And then, as it turns out, they weren't going to be arriving, and we basically didn't find out until curtain time. So I was called to wardrobe very quickly — they slapped the costume on me. There are some lifts in one of the numbers [where] we have to lift the [character] of Janet several times, and I had never gone through that with Sutton Foster, so we ran it backstage pretty much in the dark just so we could run through it once. But it went very well, actually."
In terms of remuneration, Douglas' pay increases only when he performs one of the principal roles. "If I go on for my ensemble track," he says, "that does not pay me any extra. . . . [but] even if I am not on once during the course of a week, I still make my full paycheck, [and] any principal performances that I have is additional money on top."