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Ask BWW: Understudies vs. Swings. vs. Standbys

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You asked, and we've answered! We asked BroadwayWorld readers to give us their most burning questions about theatre's inner workings, and we received a question about the difference between understudies, swings, and standbys. So we've put together a guide to understand the differences and to give you a peek into what it's like filling these roles on stage. Check it all out below!

UNDERSTUDIES

Understudies are cast members who go on for the show's principal roles when the actors who normally play the roles are unable to be in the performance, whether they have sick, injured, or taking a personal day. Understudies tend to be members of the show's ensemble, meaning that they are still on stage for every performance even when they are not playing one of the principal roles.

Understudies have to be ready to go on at a moment's notice. While they are sometimes given advanced notice when the principal actors are taking a planned leave or vacation, they could be told that they are going on hours before the show, minutes before the show, or even during the middle of the show.

Devon Hadsell - Understudy for Karen and Gretchen in Mean Girls

Anthony Sagaria - Former Understudy for Fiyero in the Wicked National Tour


SWINGS

Swings differ from understudies in a few key ways. The main difference is that swings cover a show's ensemble tracks rather than principal roles. Swings need to know a very large number of ensemble members and be ready to go on for any of them at a moment's notice. Depending on the size of the show's ensemble, a swing could cover anywhere from five to fifteen tracks.

The other key distinction between swings and understudies is that swings do not appear in the show every night. While the swings still always go to their theatre every night just like every other cast member, they only appear on stage if they are going on for an ensemble member. They still need to be in the building even when they are not on just in case there is an emergency where an ensemble member is unable to finish the show.

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A post shared by Amber Ardolino (@amberardolino) on Jul 20, 2019 at 8:43am PDT

Amber Ardolino - Swing in Moulin Rouge

Kathryn Boswell - Former Swing in Anastasia


STANDBYS

Standbys are hired to cover principal tracks, but similarly to swings, standbys do not appear in the show every night. They still come to the theatre every night with the rest of the cast and stay there throughout the show in case of any kind of emergency where they would have to go on during the middle of the show.

Not every show has standbys, but there are a few key reasons why a show would include them in their cast. Sometimes standbys are included because the show does not have an ensemble and, therefore, doesn't have any understudies to be able to cover the principal roles. Dear Evan Hansen is a current example of this use of standbys on Broadway. The other times that standbys are hired tend to be when the principal roles are very strenuous on the actors who play the roles eight times a week, such as Elphaba and Glinda in Wicked.

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A post shared by Ashley Loren (@ashleyloren) on Sep 11, 2019 at 5:45pm PDT

Ashley Loren - Standby for Satine in Moulin Rouge

Tee Boyich - Former Standby for Cady, Janis, Gretchen and the Adult Women in Mean Girls


A BACKSTAGE LOOK AT SWINGS, STANDBYS, AND UNDERSTUDIES

Get a peek behind the scenes at what it takes to be an understudy, swing, or standby by checking out the videos below featuring cast members from Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked, Miss Saigon, and more!

American Theatre Wing's Working in the Theatre Series

Colby Dezelick - Understudy for Chris in Miss Saigon

Loren Lott - Understudy for Ti Moune in Once on This Island

Garrett Long, Asa Somers, Colton Ryan, Olivia Puckett, and Michael Lee Brown - Standbys in Dear Evan Hansen

Viveca Chow - Swing in Miss Saigon



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