BWW Interviews: Charles Swan Talks About His Career, Being a Swing, SHOW BOAT, and Teaching
As Houston Grand Opera began rehearsing SHOW BOAT, the Houston theatre community started to focus a lot of attention on the production. Utilizing social media, friends and followers of the artists got inside looks into the impressive amounts of dedicated labor, passion, and sheer hard work that went into getting SHOW BOAT to float and sail on stage. Yet, 140 characters on Twitter, a Facebook status update, and a photo on Instagram can only say so much. Luckily, I was able to converse with Houston area native, Charles Swan, about his career, being a swing for SHOW BOAT, and how he juggles being a professional performer and a teacher.
Me: How did you get started in acting?
Charles Swan: When I was 8 my parents took me to MISS SAIGON at Jones Hall. We sat on the very last row of the balcony. I was on the edge of my seat, while my parents sat horrified because they unknowingly had taken their young kids to a musical about strippers and prostitution. I had no idea what was happening in terms of the story. I knew I was watching something completely magical, and I wanted to be a part of it.
At almost the same time, my father was a government teacher. The school he worked for was doing OLIVER!, and they asked the faculty if they had small children who would be interested in playing orphans and pickpockets. He knew I wanted to be a part of it all and surprised me with the rehearsal calendar one night. It was a done deal after that.
Me: How did you come to be involved in Houston Grand Opera's production of SHOW BOAT?
Charles Swan: I auditioned for SHOW BOAT way back in April of last year. I honestly went on a fluke and didn't think too much of it. In addition to performing, I'm a high school teacher. April is a notoriously busy month with standardized testing, so I kind of went on a whim. I remember the choreographer told us to stretch because there were high kicks. I didn't walk for three weeks after! It was one high kick after another!
Me: You are cast as a swing in Houston Grand Opera's lavish and large production of SHOW BOAT. What exactly does a swing do?
Charles Swan: A swing is a person who understudies multiple roles in a musical. S/he literally is able to "swing" into any given role if/when someone is injured, sick, etc. In SHOW BOAT, I swing all of the male dancers and cover the role of Frank.
Me: It has got to be incredibly challenging to learn everyone's roles and be able to go on for them at the drop of a hot. How do you prepare for that?
Charles Swan: Carefully! I have a very large 3" binder that has maps, diagrams and notes of all of the various roles. Everything is written down and notated so that, if I were to go on, I would just open to whatever person I'm covering and have all of that person's blocking, costumes changes, spacing, etc. Now that the show is open and running, I make a point to watch individual people's tracks nightly. For instance, tonight I'm going to focus heavily on one of the specific dancers and make sure I have his steps and patterns down. Tomorrow night, I'll focus on the dancer who is completely opposite of him as to not get the two confused.
Me: What are the primary differences between being a swing and an understudy?
Charles Swan: That's a great question! An understudy is responsible for one role. A swing is responsible for multiple people's roles/tracks. Many understudies are "on call" and only report to the theatre if s/he needs to go on. Swings are generally on standby in the wings. We are present for all performances in case we need to dress out and go on in a moments notice.
Me: Are there any responsibilities that a swing has that people may be unfamiliar with?
Charles Swan: I don't know that there are any responsibilities that are unfamiliar, but I think the responsibilities are heightened. Audiences pay a lot to see a show, and they have paid for a polished production regardless of who is in it. So the pressure is on. No one wants to hear in a curtain speech that "So-and-so is out tonight and will be played by X" and then have that person deliver a sloppy performance. Instead, they want to see the show they paid for in its best form. So the demands of being a swing are high in that regard. I may not perform the dances nightly on stage like the rest of the performers do, but I better be spot on if/when I do go on.
Me: What are the best elements of being a swing?
Charles Swan: The best part of any show is always the people. The company of SHOW BOAT is made up of some of the most wonderful people with whom I've ever had the privilege of working. Many times there's "that guy" or the one token bad apple. Not on the Cotton Blossom. The entire company is delightful, and it's a true delight to go to work with them each night. And that starts from the top. Francesca Zambello has put together a flawless creative team and assembled a stellar company. It's hard to not smile when walking through the stage door. So that's a huge plus.
Once the production went into tech rehearsal, though, I was able to sit with the dance captain [Tobin Del Cuore] and the choreographer [Michele Lynch]. They shared a lot with me about how each dance flowed, why the spacing was created as it was and what each number was supposed to accomplish in moving the plot along. That type of insight was fascinating and invaluable. I think that getting to listen in on some of those creative conversations was also one of the best parts.
Me: Many assume the job of being a swing is a particularly thankless job. Is there truth to this assessment?
Charles Swan: Anyone who has worked in the business is aware that a swing can literally save the day. I've known of instances where someone has gotten injured in a dance sequence and the swing was called to the stage mid-production. The swing dressed out and was in the next number seamlessly. If the goal in musical theatre is storytelling-and it is-then a swing can be the most important person in keeping the story moving along without pause.
When we were in final dress rehearsals, I was going on for a dancer who was ill. That definitely wasn't thankless.
Me: In addition to being cast in SHOW BOAT as a swing, you teach at Houston's High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. How do you balance both of these time consuming responsibilities?
Charles Swan: I also teach for Theatre Under the Stars-so managing all three jobs has been challenging. My colleagues at PVA have been exceptionally generous and kind in helping me race from one rehearsal to another. My days are exceptionally long with most starting around 5am and ending some time after midnight. I'm really grateful to Theatre Under the Stars, HPSVA and HGO for working in tandem to make this all work.
Me: After SHOW BOAT, where can Houston audiences see you next?
Charles Swan: Audiences can check out RENT at HSPVA, which is my next project. I'm the co-director of the project [with Cynthia Ogden]. We recently went into rehearsals, and I'm already blown away by how our students have really "shown up" for this piece. They are so brave and willing to dive in to the material. Houston audiences won't want to miss it.
Me: As an artist what inspires you?
Charles Swan: People who work hard always inspire me. On SHOW BOAT our choreographer really inspired me. Michele Lynch choreographed this show previously in Chicago. All the steps had already been designed, the formations thought out and the transitions worked through. She could have easily demanded the exact same production in Houston. Many times directors/choreographers will "set" the same show on different people. Michele took the time to learn the dancers in Houston and worked meticulously to create movement that worked on them-that fit their bodies.
That type of intelligence and "with-it-ness" are rare. It's a testament to Michele's artistry, integrity and her compassion.
Me: As a teacher, I'm sure you get asked this often, but what advice do you have for others hoping to develop a career as a performer?
Charles Swan: I think the biggest thing I can offer is to control the aspects of the business that you can. Theatre is such a subjective art-audiences are subjective, reviews are subjective, even contracts can be subjective. There are things that are just out of your control. Accept that. However, really smart artists take control over the aspects of the profession that they can. These are things like being prepared, taking care of your body, having your music ready, showing up to rehearsal with thoughts and ideas, doing your research, etc., etc. The only thing you can really control is your preparation. So control it.
Houston Grand Opera's gorgeous and grand production of SHOW BOAT closes Saturday, February 9, 2013. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228 - 6737. For more information about the upcoming production of RENT that Charles Swan is co-directing, please visit http://www.onstagehspva.org.
All photos courtesy of Charles Swan.
Members of the SHOW BOAT cast in rehearsal.
Members of the SHOW BOAT cast in rehearsal.
Charles Swan backstage.
A view of the Cotton Blossom set from the wings.
The view of The Wortham Center's Brown Theatre from the stage.