I’ve been doing theater since I was in the third grade. But until about a year ago when I really immersed myself into the theater community, the words “standby” and “swing” had no definition related to theater at all in my dictionary. “Understudy.” Yeah! I know that one! That’s the person that goes onstage if the star is sick or on vacation or whatever. I didn’t even think about what would happen if an ensemble member suddenly was bed ridden with pneumonia. What if the lead was on a two-week vacation and the understudy twisted her ankle in the first performance? No fear fellow thespians! Whether you had never asked yourself these questions and have no idea what a standby or a swing is or how they’re different from an understudy, or you simply keep getting the three vital roles confused, I am here to clear things up!
Understudy: Let’s start off with the basics. According to Google an understudy is “a person who learns another’s role in order to be able to act as a replacement at short notice.” A synonym listed coincidentally is “standby,” but we’ll get to that later. In most non-professional performances (youth and community theater, for example), if there is a backup at all, they are typically referred to as the understudy. They are cast as the understudy for a specific character and are required to know that characters lines, choreography, songs, and anything else they would need to perform. In youth and Community Theater, there usually aren’t standbys because those theaters need an ensemble too. That’s right, on top of all of that madness, an understudy performs in the ensemble as well. Not only do they need to be able to step in for the lead at a moment’s notice (usually at most only a few hours!) but they also need to know their ensemble role. The life of an understudy is overwhelming to say the least.
Standby: The role of the standby was brought to my attention when a movie aptly named The Standbys was released in May 2012. The movie was a true eye-opener and even made me tear up a few times! Usually only demanding lead roles have standbys, so not every show will have them. For example, Shoshana Bean was Idina Menzel’s standby in Wicked. This time, Google took a less theatrical approach to the definition of “standby” but nonetheless, it fits perfectly. The “readiness for duty or immediate deployment” is the life standbys live. Unlike understudies, standbys do not have an ensemble role and are wholly dedicated to filling the role of a lead if needed. They watch the show backstage and note any changes in choreography or blocking. Sometimes they’re even rushed onstage mid-performance, if something really goes wrong! Standbys need to always be at the theater ready to go, but they may never even set foot on the stage in front of an audience.
Swing: And last but not least: the swings. What would Broadway do without swings? Not very much! Swings are the understudies for the ensemble. Though they may have their own role in the show, they are extremely flexible and versatile performers who may know as many as ten other performer’s exact track. That means when one of the ensemble comes down with the flu or twisted their ankle, a swing in ready to hop in the show for them. Swings are constantly learning the show, because even knowing two people’s roles would be challenging! Imagine needing to know ten or more and knowing that you might have to perform one of those tonight! Swings have noted that sometimes they won’t perform a certain ensemble role sometimes for a year, and then suddenly will have to perform it again. Swings are undoubtedly constantly busy!
So that’s that! You have your swings, your standbys, and your understudies. Though they may not be the most publicly appreciated members of Broadway, they certainly should be! Without any of them there would hardly ever be any shows that went on with an entire cast. The theater world would be a mess without them. So from the audience to the swings, standbys, and understudies we tip our hat to you!