You may never have heard the term "swing." But as the performers who stand by to go on for several different ensemble roles whenever necessary, swings may be the most valued members of a Broadway cast—especially during flu season. Just ask Jennifer Dunne, a swing who's been responsible for six ensemble tracks in Chicago on Broadway for more than five years.
"As a swing, there are plenty of moments when you feel like you've got to rescue the show," Dunne says. "When everyone in the cast is sick, and there aren't enough people in the building to keep things going, that's when you really feel like a superhero. I very well might have the flu too, but I have to overcome whatever's plaguing me to perform for someone else."
Swings have not only triple-threat talent, but also super brains for choreography and stage directions. They may not get the accolades that come with leading roles, but these uniquely gifted performers form the support system that props up a show's entire cast—and they like it that way.
What It Takes
How do you become a swing? A choreographer may cast you in a traditional audition or book you through other channels. For long-running shows, potential swings may get a call because they have history with the production and already know one or more of the tracks they'd have to cover.
Whatever the scenario, choreographers are looking for one simple asset, besides talent and a good work ethic: "The most important thing you need is a positive disposition," says Kelly Devine, choreographer for Broadway's Rock of Ages and Come From Away. "I've never worked on a show where a swing didn't have to go on in the very first week. The rest of the cast has gone from rehearsal into tech and then right into previews, so something's bound to happen." It's a stressful position, and you have to be able to handle moments of confusion or panic with grace.
Once a swing is cast, the work of learning multiple tracks begins. "A swing has to be able to multitask, pay attention to detail and pick up choreography really quickly," Dunne says. "Six tracks in a two-hour show is 12 hours of information that you need to take in." And you'll probably have little time to absorb it all. In a brand-new cast, swings might be learning choreography from the sidelines until the rest of the performers are done rehearsing—and then it's on them to do their homework. Early in Dunne's first Chicago tour, the swings sat and watched rehearsals, then jumped up during 15-minute breaks and lunches to get the choreography into their bodies.
The Good Book
Every swing has her own system for remembering her various tracks, and almost all of them involve a detailed cheat sheet. "I made a book of color-coded notecards," says Bravita Threatt, a swing and dance captain for The Lion King on Broadway. "Each track is a different color, and each scene has a card filled out with mini diagrams of the stage and my spacing, entrances and choreography." Hitting every mark is especially important for Threatt, because the puppetry and mechanical stage in The Lion King make spacing critical—it can be downright dangerous if a swing is in the wrong spot. "The floor moves, drops and raises, and you have these heavy headpieces on," Threatt says. "You can't be on autopilot."
Similarly, Come From Away relies on the performers to move set pieces, so there are many landmines for swings, Devine says. "That's why we created an ironclad bible for the performers, with notations of every single movement."
You're Either In or You're Out
Frequently, Broadway swings have a chance to perform each of their tracks during scheduled put-ins, allowing them a little time to prepare. But otherwise, their lives are pretty unpredictable. A swing has to be at the theater for every show, and is usually onstage a couple of times a week—or more. "Especially in a long-running show, you might be onstage a lot," Dunne says. "There are the last-minute moments when someone suddenly gets sick or injured, but you might also be in for a stretch while someone is resting a knee. And there are scheduled put-ins for vacations and personal days." Leads come and go too, and if there's any lag time between two contracts, swings cover the understudies who go in for the lead. "One week I might not be on at all, and the next week I could be doing five parts in six days," Dunne says.
The Undeniable Perks
What makes all the hard work and unpredictable scheduling worth it? One upside is what Dunne calls the "stress tax": Swings are paid more than ensemble members, because they're responsible for more information. "And probably to say, 'Sorry, you don't get all the glory,' " Dunne adds.
Threatt also loves that swinging lets her grow into roles over time, while keeping an interesting mix of challenges in her day-to-day life. "It exercises different parts of my brain," she says. "Plus I get to be a cheerleader for the performers who have a single track." Dunne agrees. "You can tell it's like a breath of fresh air for the ensemble performers when we step onstage," she says. "Their regular partners are great, but I'm like the fun babysitter who lets them watch movies."
It's also humbling and gratifying to play such an important part in the larger production. You allow cast members time off to get married, take care of family members and nurse injuries so they can perform at their best. "We have a big cast, and life happens—that's a beautiful thing to be a part of," says Threatt. "I never go on for someone and say, 'Here comes Bravita!' It's not about you—it's about the bigger whole." Swings may not be stars, but they regularly save the day.
You Might Be Swing Material If…
…you can't stand dancing the same role night after night.
…you always liked pop quizzes.
…you're self-motivated enough to rehearse yourself and keep each role fresh.
You Might Not Be Swing Material If…
...you don't work well under pressure.
…you've only got eyes for the white-hot spotlight.
…you're not OK with a less-than-perfect performance—because you probably won't get many perfect ones.
Ones to Watch
These three swings are pulling superhero duty for Broadway's newest musicals:
Kathryn Boswell, a swing and understudy for Anya in Anastasia. She previously swung for Gigi on Broadway in 2015. She received a BFA in musical theater from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music.
Susan Dunstan, a Toronto native who's currently a swing in Come From Away and made her Broadway debut in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Her regional credits include Kinky Boots, Lord of the Rings, South Pacific and The Lion King.
Amy Quanbeck, making her Broadway debut as a swing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, having previously appeared in the Wicked national tour. She has a BFA in dance performance from University of California, Irvine (and was featured in Dance Spirit when she was just 13 years old!).