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   January 28, 2016

Unsung Heroes

by Kate Shindle


AEA President Nick Wyman

President Kate Shindle

This month, Equity celebrated the first-ever National Swing Day (and if any non-theatre people out there are reading this, calm down to quote Inigo Montoya: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”) The celebration was the brainchild of our 2nd Vice-President, Rebecca Kim Jordan, who has spent most of her considerable tenure at Equity fighting for what we call Chorus Affairs. Since Equity’s 1955 absorption of what was originally a separate union called Chorus Equity, chorus and principal constituencies have been represented within our Council by designated officers — as are stage managers. Although we all try to be mindful of the greater good of the membership, it’s never a bad thing to have reminders of what is good for ensemble members. Or middle players. Or ASMs. Or, in this case, swings.

To me, swings are among the most fascinating creatures among us. These performers — who I tend to think of as superhuman — are collectively responsible for covering every role in a musical. It’s one thing to understudy a single character; I’ve done that and it ain’t easy. You have limited rehearsal time, you sit on the sidelines a lot, and when you do go on, you are often asked to stick as closely as possible to another actor’s performance, so as not to disrupt the usual flow of the show. But swings go a significant step further than this. Whereas I only ever had to learn one character’s lines, blocking and music, a swing has to know those things for five (or ten, or 20) different people.  All of whom often sing together in harmony, dance together in formations and have specific offstage traffic and costume changes. When you swing a big musical, you are responsible for multiple ensemble tracks, which you have to call up from memory at a moment’s notice. You have to know which harmony each performer sings, so that you don’t throw off the balance of the music. You have to know the traffic in musical numbers, which can be wildly confusing when some dancers go left (for example) and others go right. You may have to move set pieces. You may have quick changes. You may cover principal roles. And you have to do all of this, on very little rehearsal, so that it appears absolutely seamless to the audience. 

It’s basically my personal idea of a waking nightmare.
But swings are a special breed of performers. Obviously it takes major chops to play numerous roles, often of varying ages and backgrounds, as well as a significant brain to maintain that kind of information. Being a swing also requires huge dedication to the well-being of the show, because a) you don’t know if you’ll ever go on, and b) if you do go on, and you’re good, your chances of getting promoted actually diminish. A reliable swing is like gold to producers and stage managers, so when another actor leaves the show, it’s much easier to train a new person to take over that one track than it is to promote and replace a swing who covers five, six or seven tracks. Being a swing takes talent, and it’s under-the-radar talent that can go unrecognized.
Which is why I was so delighted to see — on Twitter and in the press and at the Broadway theatres and everywhere else I looked on January 13th — theabsolute joy our community took in celebrating the most undercelebrated members of our casts. Over and over, it was enthusiastically acknowledged that without swings, our shows would simply not go on. Over at the Richard Rodgers, Lin-Manuel Miranda took time out of his pursuit of total world domination to tweet about each swing individually and their value to Hamilton. Wicked made fan art. Infographics bounced around the internet with terms like “MVP” front and center. It was pretty awesome.

We should actively remind ourselves to recognize our unsung heroes. In a culture that is, by any reasonable measure, remarkably and consistently star-obsessed, it’s amazing to have a day dedicated to some of the hardest-working and least-acclaimed people on our stages.

Hug a swing, everybody. And don’t be afraid to notice what he or she does for your show. 


Contact President Kate Shindle at president@actorsequity.org.

 

From the President Archives

President Shindle's Inaugural Column

Labor Day, Unions for Artists and the Value of Unity

When in doubt, ask The Actors Fund

On Gratitude

Unsung Heroes

Changing the World, One Benefit at a Time

Evolution

On Progress

 
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