We’ve all seen those little square slips of white paper in our playbills: “At tonight’s performance, the role of so-and-so will be played by so-and-so.” Unless it’s a big role, we don’t play much attention. We talk to our theatre buddies, turn off our cell phones, unwrap candies (hint, hint )…
But back stage, it’s a much different story. The understudy sometimes has blessed little notice that they’re going on. They have to do a quick costume fitting, review blocking they might have only seen in rehearsals… it’s not an enviable job.
But imagine being a Broadway Swing. What does that mean? It’s a triple threat actor who is hired to cover several different roles or tracks in the show. One night, they might be on for one character and another night the next, doing completely different staging and choreography for both.
My brain doesn’t work that way, but there are actors who excel at this kind of work. Meet J. Austin Eyer and Lyndy Franklin Smith. They met each other working on The Little Mermaid and have continued to have active performing and teaching careers. Their new book, Broadway Swings (available on Amazon.com), talks about the soup to nuts life of a swing on Broadway and beyond, chock full of anecdotes, great insider tips and arresting war stories.
We recently sat down with them to discuss their careers and the book.
Tell us a little about your backgrounds as performers and your impetus for writing this book.
J. Austin Eyer: I started pretty young in Musical Theatre and made my Broadway Debut at age ten as Colin in The Secret Garden. I received my BFA in theatre from NYU and two years after my graduation I was cast for the first time as a Swing in a new musical called Curtains. It was during my first experience as a Swing that I thought, “There should be a book that not only helps to prepare actors for this job, but also celebrates these hard working Broadway Swings that save the show each and every day.” There isn’t enough history, training or information about Swings out there. In fact, most people outside of show business have no idea what a Swing is. It was my goal to help change that with this book.
While working as a Swing on The Little Mermaid, Lyndy Franklin Smith joined the cast as a Swing. We had worked as Assistant Choreographers together on a prior project so we already knew that we would make great writing partners! Lyndy received her Bachelor of Performing Arts Degree from Oklahoma City University, and made her Broadway Debut in the Original Revival Company of A Chorus Line, where she was a Swing, Understudy and Dance Captain.
Together we began interviewing over 100 Broadway artists including Swings, Stage Managers, Directors, Choreographers and Casting Agents. We set out to create a book that was part “how-to” and part “Stories from the Swings.”
Swings are unique artists who have to maintain a cool head while being able to process an unfathomable (to us, anyway) amount of information on several different roles in a show. Tell us a little more about the job of a Swing.
Lyndy Franklin Smith: Swings cover the ensemble members of a musical. The number of “tracks” or ensemble roles that a Swing might cover varies from show to show, based on size of the cast and the number of Swings in the show. About 4-10 tracks is pretty average, but we’ve heard of people swinging up to 15 or 20 tracks for a specific scene or production number in the show. Swings come to the theatre every night, but only perform in the show if a regular cast member is out of the show due to illness, injury or vacation. Sometimes, Swings can get advance notice that they will be “on” for a particular performance. But, more often than not, they get called on a couple of hours before the show – or sometimes at half-hour or even during a show. The Swings’ job is to fit into the show seamlessly. They must know all the elements of each track they cover (including what happens onstage and backstage). They must be ready at a moment’s notice to jump in for anyone they cover. It’s a thrilling job!
Is it possible to train oneself for this kind of work?
LFS: Absolutely!! That is why Austin and I wrote this book. When we both were learning to Swing, there was no codified training, class or book about how to swing. Most of the time, Swings had to figure things out for themselves or ask cast mates or fellow Swings for help. The craft was passed down from one Swing to another. What we’ve done is collated as much of this material as we could into one place. Our idea was that current and future Swings could pick up this book and learn how to create a “stage chart” and “tracking sheet;” how to properly notate staging and choreography; how to prepare for the first time on in a new track. We combined our own experiences along with tips and advice from many other Broadway Swings. The book provides insight on how to prepare to become a Swing, how to successfully audition for a Swing position and what is expected of a Swing from the first day of rehearsal to closing night.
It seems much of a swing’s success depends on the kindness of others: permission from stage management to be on stage during breaks or in the wings during previews, asking other actors for any updates to blocking, asking wardrobe to try on costumes, etc… How can swings best deal with being put in what may often be viewed as a mercenary position?
JAE: It is true that sometimes you can be at the mercy of your creative team and cast. But I have to say that most anyone who is consistently working on Broadway, in whatever capacity, knows that Swings are the lifeblood of the cast. Directors, Choreographers, Music Directors and especially Stage Managers will often go out of their way to make sure that you have everything you need to do your job well. The main issue that some Swings may encounter is a lack of knowledge or understanding of how mentally and emotionally challenging the job can be. There are many aspects of Swinging that are simply just part of the job. Coming in prepared is this best thing a Swing can do. Know what questions to ask, learn what notation system works for you, and quickly recognize who are your allies in the building. Because each show is different, understand that there will be an adjustment period for even the most experienced Swing. My biggest piece of advice is–don’t be afraid to ask for anything that will help you do your job better.
What recommendations do you have for performers dealing with the challenges of being a Swing on a new musical with several changes during previews?
JAE: Patience! Those notes you stayed up all night finalizing can all be thrown out in rehearsal tomorrow. You can’t become attached to anything. You have to do a mix of notating everything so you can remember choreography and blocking changes if you are thrown on, but not setting things in stone just yet. Most Swings that we interviewed echoed the same thing, “Only use a pencil and have a big eraser handy.” It is also my suggestion to watch the show every single night until all of your notes are done and/or the show has been frozen for a few weeks. You should know the show backwards and forwards as soon as possible. You have to expect that this will be the most difficult time as a Swing. But, if you put in a lot of work now then after about three months or so it will be smoother sailing for you.
Both of you are now teaching. What skills do you feel have transferred from your swing life to the classroom?
LFS: I think so much of my Swing experience informs my current work. I teach and also direct and choreograph quite a bit, and I rely daily on the knowledge and experience I gained while swinging shows. Swinging helps you to look at the big picture of the show – how everything works and fits together to best tell the story. As an educator, I am always trying to find ways to give a Swing lesson here and there within the context of the subjects I teach and to encourage students to give it a try.
JAE: Ditto, and once you’ve been a Swing it takes a lot to feel truly stressed or anxious in any situation. I believe helping my students to develop their ‘Swing Brain’ will not only prepare them for Swinging, but also understudying, choreographing and auditioning. I have my students reverse choreography often, and I teach them to watch for and apply very nuanced details quickly while learning choreography. A great thing that Penn State does is to cast a male and female Swing on every musical that we do. It’s a great learning experience and I often have those students in my office asking for advice and guidance throughout the process.
Beyond the book, what are your next steps in educating actors (and educators!) about the life of a swing?
LFS: We have a website (www.broadwayswings.com) where we are starting a blog to keep everyone updated on new Swing ideas, stories, updates, etc. We also have developed a Swing workshop for university/college programs. We do a lecture/Q&A to go over some nuts and bolts of swinging and then get students on their feet with some exercises in learning to swing a choreographed number. You can click the “Book a Workshop” section of our website for more information. We are so excited to share our love for and knowledge of this craft with as many people as we can.
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