Too many of us went to expensive, well-regarded musical theatre BFA programs and walked away with everything we needed to play a role and nothing we needed to cover one.
How Has Anyone Learned To Be A Swing?
Historically, the only ways to learn how to be a swing were to:
1. know someone who’s been one and is willing to tell you about it
2. fly by the seat of your pants.
And sure, working as an understudy is pretty easy to navigate logistically - until that person hates your very existence because they’re worried everyone thinks you’re better than them so they make your life miserable (it feels like someone could’ve mentioned that it might happen…just saying.)
But if you get cast as a swing and no one has ever mentioned to you that the job even exists, things get a lot harder.
Why We Ignore Coverage In Our Teaching
My running theory is that we, the musical theatre industry, have seen our swings do the job in such a vast number of ways, that we assume there’s nothing to be done because you just have to figure it out for yourself.
And part of that is true - every swing works differently. But all good swings are hitting the same mileposts. There are common denominators.
And those are what I’m proposing we teach.
The COVID → Swing Pipeline
Swings have become more prominent since theatre’s return amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
We’ve seen more of them in action. Hugh Jackman has pointed them out during the Music Man’s bows. We know that they’re essential to keeping our shows running.
And yet we teach like they don’t exist.
But having the skill set required to be a swing is one of the most effective ways to make yourself marketable - even if you don’t ever want to do the job.
Swings are who you want around if the sky is falling. It’s a difficult job that requires an excellent actor, not a downsize from other positions in a show.
This doesn’t mean that we should all be aspiring to swing a show. Not everyone will want to. Not everyone should.
Some people prefer to live their life without that level of stress. Others have goals of becoming theatre-kid-household names. These are excellent reasons to avoid it if you can.
But it isn’t always that simple.
Sometimes, we get an offer too good to pass up that brings us into #swingnation and we should be prepared to do so - even if it’s just understanding what the goal is with more clarity than “fill in for that person.”
Making It Work
Okay, so there’s a case to be made for why young actors need to learn how to be a swing, but how do we go about doing it?
Is it enough to talk about the job? Maybe.
We could cast students as swings for the fall musical, that’ll fill the gap! It will. For a small number of your students.
But we can do more.
We can give students the opportunity to try it on and begin to understand the work.
Implementing Swing Workshops
A swing workshop is an immersive learning experience where we:
- Teach students the theory behind the practical and show them the mileposts they’ll need when developing their own process
- Stage movement with a variety of complexities and let them learn, take notes, and check their efficacy by actually swinging in
- Allow for real-time, student-led assessment of what’s working and what isn’t
Can we cover every possibility? No, of course not. But we can’t do that in any of the things we teach.
We can equip students with the foundations, allow them to curiously approach developing their own note-taking and practical processes, and give them a roadmap for how to continue to hone their skills over time.
So that when the moment comes and they get the offer, there is preparation instead of panic (okay there might still be a little panic, but at least they’ll have a plan.)
Speaking From Experience
I made a lot of mistakes my first time as a swing, and almost all of them could’ve been avoided if I’d better understood how it would work when I actually swung in.
I wasn’t practical. I was focused on creating elaborate systems that charted everything out to the letter, but I ignored my own strengths and skills in doing so.
Ultimately, I was left with a useless document that had been a huge waste of time and only a couple of weeks to start over and get it right. I figured it out the second time around, but I could’ve skipped the mess altogether.
And that’s my goal in my swing workshops, to help students skip the clunky learning experience and work through the inevitable trial and error without risking their paychecks.
I know I can’t give them everything, but I can give them a better start than I had.
And that’s worth it. Every. Single. Time.