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Feature: An Interview with the Six Merry Swings of CHICAGO at the Stratford Festival

BWW sat down with all 6 Performers for an in-depth chat about the life of a Swing

Feature: An Interview with the Six Merry Swings of CHICAGO at the Stratford Festival As live theatre has begun to make its return in full force at the Stratford Festival and around the world, a lot of attention has (rightly) been given to the hard work of Swings and Understudies who quite literally exist to make sure that the show can go on. During COVID times, it is far more likely that due to a positive test or symptoms, performers will miss days at a time. As such, it is more important than ever to have ample coverage - especially in a big musical like the Stratford Festival's production of CHICAGO, which has multiple ensemble tracks.

If you happened to be at the Opening Night of CHICAGO, you may have noticed a few extra stars on stage as the company took their bows at curtain call. In a moment that was unprecedented but incredibly deserved, all six Swings for this production were given the opportunity to take a bow as well.

Lakota Knuckle, Breanna Willis, Devin Alexander, Kyla Musselman, Christine Desjardins, and Jordan Goodridge are the Swings for CHICAGO. Their job is to know every ensemble track and be ready to go on at a moment's notice if an ensemble member is either out, or is going on as understudy for someone else. Recently, Broadway World had the opportunity to chat with all six Swings over Zoom to learn all about what it means to be the unsung (until now) heroes of theatre and how this unique season is providing even more unique challenges and opportunities.

"The interesting part about our Swing situation is that none of us were Swings in the original [2020] production [that was cancelled due to the pandemic]." Devin Alexander shares. "I went into an audition in October...Some of us were brought on at that point and some of us were brought on later because of different COVID cases in the cast and stuff like that, just to find proper coverage...This contract has been very specific because of the pandemic and has given us an opportunity that maybe we wouldn't have had before."

Kyla Musselman was supposed to be making her Stratford debut in the 2020 season-Just not for CHICAGO! "I was set to be in the 2020 season at Stratford, but in different shows. I wasn't part of the CHICAGO company, and to come in and get that call, I was like 'heck yeah, let's go!' I've never swung before. I have Dance Captained a bunch before...And I've always wanted to try to Swing. I like the brain power and the formation changes that is [needed for] this and I think its super fun so it's been awesome. I've really enjoyed it so far."

In fact, this is the first time being a Swing in a musical theatre production for all six of these performers. Breanna Willis shares that she has been a Swing for cruise ships and commercial gigs but never for a musical theatre show, and Lakota Knuckle has experience covering multiple roles in a show but notes that this is a very different experience: "We have so many different people to cover and can go on for any of them at any time."

In 2020, Christine Desjardins was supposed to be a Swing at the Charlottetown Festival so she had started prepping only for it to never happen. "I already had the books and binders and all of the highlighters prepped for that (laughs)...So getting the call for this, I was like alright! I can go back into the thought pattern I had [for the other job], go through my notes that I had organized for myself and just hop into what could be and what is now, and it's kind of wild- here we are!"

It's particularly "wild" for Desjardins and for Jordan Goodridge because they were not part of the company when rehearsals for CHICAGO began. Desjardins joined right after Easter weekend and Goodridge explains that he ended up getting the job in the middle of May. "I got brought on last because there was a big COVID outbreak a while ago, so they needed a little bit of extra coverage." At the time of this publication, Goodridge is the only one of the six who has not yet made his CHICAGO debut. "I've just been trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. It's been really fun to jump into the show in the middle of previews and get to be there for opening...Overall, I'm just having a really good time. It's very fun and there's a lot to try to get your head around but I love it!"

When it comes to the logistics of being one of six Swings, BWW just had to know how it is determined who goes on...

"We do have primary and secondary tracks, so we know who is getting the first call if certain people are out." Explains Musselman. That in no way means that they won't be kept on their toes though. "In COVID, maybe you have five days that the person is off, so that's multiple shows, but then maybe somebody else is injured or maybe gets COVID as well - And maybe it's your secondary track, but it doesn't matter. You go in."

There was no hesitation in identifying the wildest Swing story so far. One of Willis' primary tracks is that of Bonnie Jordan, who has a very impressive acrobatic moment in the second act involving a silk trick. "Typically every show, I warm up the silk trick with her - just like a fight call or the dance lift warmup." But for one particular show, Willis was on for a different track, so she didn't do the usual warmup. "Halfway through the show, the lead got sick and so she was out and Bonnie's her understudy. So at intermission I had to go on for Bonnie... and then Kyla jumped in and she covered [the track I had been on for] which was her secondary track...So I went in and did the silk trick without warming it that was pretty wild!" It went off without a hitch. "I think all of us are so well prepared and we're ready for anything all the time-especially under COVID circumstances." Willis explains.

Alexander adds: "There's never been a time where any of us has gone on stage and been unprepared... It's been amazing to get to work with a group of people who have been lifting each other up and getting each other ready to be able to do that."

So what are some aspects of being a Swing that are the most challenging?

"The prologue at the beginning of the show is like swing hell!" Jokes Alexander. "Everyone is doing a completely different thing...It's just a wild start to the beginning of the show. I don't know about Lakota or Jordan, but I usually wind up just looking at my notes beforehand trying to just do short-term memorizing, go on, do the thing, and then go off and then I can get through the rest of the show usually. Everything is so different, everyone has such a different track, some of it is musical, some of it is not...And there's so many props! So before even going on stage, you're like 'Ok do I have this, this, this, this, and this with me, because if I go on and I don't have them, what am I going to do? Nothing - because you can't run into the wings because of the way that the stage is! It's pretty wild."

Musselman points out that the Swings don't always have access to the props during rehearsals and have to find ways to learn what they need to learn. "Every break and lunch and whenever we could touch stuff and get our hands on stuff, [we would]." Musselman explains. "But yeah, you're learning the hoop choreography during "Razzle Dazzle" and you're on the side going (mimics hoop choreo) 'I don't have a hoop. I don't know what that feels like!' (Laughs). So I found touching things really important. At least for me."

And it's not just the big props...

"There's so much dancing and lifting and you think about all the entrances and exits and all these other things. For me, the little props were like the last thing that I was thinking about." laughs Knuckle. "We all spend so much time studying the videos of the show, but we can't see anything that happens during a blackout or backstage on those videos, so there were a lot of times where...It was a last minute Swing-on situation, and then I'd get back stage and be like 'Oh crap! I don't know where that prop is normally kept!' " And which prop gives Knuckle the biggest headache? "For me it was the newspapers. Those newspapers, there's like a thousand of them and there's a very specific headline on it!"

He notes that in rehearsals and early previews, he really had to rely on the stagehands and backstage crew to show him where to find the props he needed. "And now we have the opportunity to track backstage but there was a time when we didn't really have that. It wasn't a priority necessarily - another COVID [protocol] thing."

On the topic of the backstage crew, Musselman praises the crew for helping the Swings seamlessly jump into the ensemble. "The number of people who help us every time we're on-All of the wardrobe attendants, everybody backstage-We have our own dressing room, but when you're on, you move into whoever's spot you're taking and so...The wardrobe attendants are moving your costumes in there and helping you and making sure that you are comfortable and great...The backstage crew is just so helpful."

It's one thing to be prepared to go on for any ensemble track, but BWW was curious about transitioning from one track to another...

Musselman shares that she recently had an experience where after covering one track for a few shows, she switched to another that was on the opposite side of the stage. "That first transition [from one track to another], there were some times where I was like 'This feels off!' (laughs) because I got used to the other way, so that was funny...But I like it because you've got to keep your wits about you... You've got to think three steps ahead, which I love."

And with the Festival Theatre thrust stage, a different ensemble track can literally mean doing the choreography facing a completely different direction!

"I found really visualizing what it looks like in the round is helpful." Musselman explains. "I sit and I close my eyes and think in relation to what am I looking at...You can look at something and be like this is a different picture that I'll be looking at as opposed to this one, and that helps me to figure out exactly where I belong in space."

It was very interesting for BWW to learn that no two Swings had the exact same learning styles or strategies...

"It was such an interesting learning process in rehearsals to get to know myself as a person." Knuckle shares. "The way I thought at the beginning how I would need to do things to pick up as much information as possible - from like week one to even week two in rehearsals I completely changed the way I did everything because I started realizing...I [was] taking in way too much information and I can never look at that much information. You start to learn what's important in the moment, because you can only take so much in at a time." ...It's so funny because even me and Devin when we were in rehearsals - sitting next to each other every day, the way we'd pick things up was completely different. He uses a program on an ipad called Stage Right which is meant specifically for swinging and tracking on stage, and I just use a notepad...Me and Breanna are a bit more similar in how we did things, you know pen to paper, and then Devin and Kyla, I don't know, it was funny because I think they were much more similar in the way they took their notes. Colour coded, meticulous, beautiful, all written out and me and Breanna- our notebooks were a scribbling mess (laughs)"

"And they still are!" Willis adds.

Desjardins and Goodridge had the luxury of seeing how everyone else did things and then picking and choosing what worked best for them: "I had such a unique position coming into this because everyone already had most of their blocking done and organized and everyone was so kind and generous." Explains Desjardins. "They were like what do you need, what do you want?...Everyone does everything so differently but I would grasp things from each person on how to have it laid out and what worked best for me...Everyone has different [strategies]. For me personally, it's my papers [and cue cards] and having a glance at the video. That's what works best for me personally but everyone's different."

Although they may have different learning styles, there is definitely one trait that any Swing must have...

"I think all of us are extremely hard workers." Willis shares. "Not a break would go by where literally all of us were not on stage practicing with each other. I've never had a swing experience where I had a team. We really are a whole team where we work together and we help each other. I've only had the experience where I was the only female and there was one other male, and you don't have anyone to go to or chit chat with or check notes, etc. So yeah I think all of us together are super hardworking, selfless in a way - we really want to help each other and we want the very best for the show. So I think that's something we have in common for sure."

And so what does a Swing get up to when they are not on for one of their tracks?

"We're kind of all over the place." explains Alexander. "There are quite a few different options of what we can do. A lot of the times we're in one of the rehearsal studios and we'll just be either running numbers in time with the show-because we have program sound backstage, or sometimes we'll play mind games and run the same number over and over again with different people...Sometimes you can go to the director's booth which is by the balcony level, so you can watch up there and still be able to take notes and stuff because it's separate from the audience...We can do backstage tracking, which is like watching the backstage traffic and seeing where those props are put and watching the set pieces get moved and seeing if anything has changed since the beginning of previews because the flow is definitely a bit different than when we were there at the beginning."

Speaking of the show evolving and changing, BWW was curious about how the Swings kept up with all the little tweaks to the show that happen during previews...

"Sometimes...You just get to be nosy." Musselman explains. "And you sit there and you observe everything...Your eyes have to be open at all times." She notes that sometimes a dance captain or the associate director will pull the Swings aside and review changes as well and that the Swings also rely on one another to fill each other in on any changes that they noticed."

Willis adds: "The cast is really great too at letting us know of little changes that they had worked out between them...They're all so generous and very giving with the information. They want the best for the show and for everybody too."

What is evident with this group is not just how much they are enjoying the challenges of being Swings, but also just how meaningful being in this show, on this stage, is to each and every one of them.

Musselman is originally from Stratford and finally got to debut on the Festival theatre stage after seeing shows there all her life, and after thinking she was going to make that Stratford debut back in 2020. "I haven't lived in Stratford for a long time and so coming back and being able to be here for so long and enjoy the town again and see all the new things - the evolution of it since I really lived here has been amazing, and I tried not to get too overwhelmed in the first Swing-on and feel those emotions about being on that stage, having looked at it, of course, my whole life...But the moment right before we start cell block tango and we're behind the bars and [we] can see the audience and the audience can't see [us] yet - That moment in my first Swing on...That was pretty cool."

Knuckle shares that his grandparents introduced him to both CHICAGO and to the Stratford Festival. "I remember coming here to see OLIVER! And then chasing the geese across the field by the theatre." He describes CHICAGO as his "number One Dream show" but explains that when it was announced for the 2020 season, he couldn't even audition because he was recovering from knee surgery. "When I got the call in October that they were looking to fill a couple of spots...after three years for me of not working and not being able to do what I am meant to do and what I've been doing since I literally couldn't stand...It's been an absolute dream to be here doing this show and to have met so many great people and to have such a community of Swings."

Goodridge has a similar story: "I used to come and see the shows with my grandma and my mom when I was really young." He then got to come watch a Stratford production while in first year at Sheridan, and even saw and loved this production of CHICAGO during previews before he even knew he would eventually become a part of it! He describes being there for opening night, in a sold out house to be nothing short of "a dream come true."

Devin Alexander has wanted to work at the Stratford Festival, and specifically with Director Donna Feore for years. "I saw A CHORUS LINE...and I just knew from the second that I saw that show that I needed to work with Donna. It was on my bucket list. The way that she creates choreography, the way that her shows are run, like it was just such a huge thing for me that was on the top of my list and I had auditioned I think the summer after first year and got cut first round so that was a very humbling moment, and so it's really cool to fast forward now, a couple years later and have the chance to really just like expand myself as a performer and as a human."

Desjardins, who was in the 2018 season at the Festival, has been on the Festival Theatre stage before, but now she gets to share the stage with her partner who is also in the show. What's more, CHICAGO has always had a special place in her heart: "My first dance solo that I ever did, I was like 9 years old, was to "Roxie" and I had this beautiful sparkly costume that looks just like the "Razzle Dazzle" costumes weirdly enough...And when my sister and I were little we would always dance to "Cell Block Tango" together. We would take turns being all the different characters and do it in the living room...So I always grew up with this show and when I got a chance to go to New York City, my first show that I booked a ticket for was CHICAGO...It just holds a very special place in my heart and to now get the opportunity to be in one of my most favourite places to perform, with my partner and with this incredible company...I'm literally pinching myself daily."

Like Desjardins, Willis is also returning for her second season. She shares that she and her partner both booked shows at the Festival in 2014 and relocated here from Edmonton to do the season together. "He's worked here every year since...We have two children. My oldest is five and he actually came to watch the show when I was in it and it was just, indescribable. He's a little bit older than I was when I started dancing, so to see him be able to sit through's very emotional for me, but yeah, it's just magical. So to move here to make these roots, to have two children, to have a family, to own a home here and now have them experience the Festival and watch their parents on stage after the last two years, it's really amazing. Speaking of her kids, Willis shares that she actually auditioned in 2019 for what would have been the 2020 production of CHICAGO. "I was nine months pregnant at the audition. Just me in my bodysuit, tights and LaDuca boots high kicking and pirouetting! I gave birth 2 weeks after auditioning with my youngest boy who is turning 3 in July!"

It is clearly an exciting and magical moment for each of these performers when they get to Swing on for this beast of a show, but Musselman points out another unique aspect of being a Swing: "Swinging is this weird thing where you're happy to be on and you want to do it and I want to tell people to come see the show, but then of course [it means] one of your castmates is obviously not doing well, like something has happened that they are not on...So that juxtaposition was so strange the first few times. I feel really bad being like 'Yay I'm so excited to be here, somebody come and watch (laughs)' because [it means] somebody that you really care about isn't doing as well as you want them to. So that's been an interesting thing. She adds that occasionally, no one is hurt and there are just scheduled 'Swing-ons" in which case, it's "glorious!"

And how was it getting to take that bow on Opening Night?

"I don't think it has ever been a thing for Swings and Understudies to get to bow like that." Knuckle comments. "I hope that it becomes the standard in the industry. The whole point of us Swings is to not let the audience know that we're on. We're supposed to just go into the show and it's supposed to be completely seamless. So on top of the fact that we're not on stage all the time so obviously we don't get to bow when we're not on stage - the audience isn't even supposed to know that we exist, really...So I think even just letting us bow to let the audience know what we do and who we are, because every show I think especially going forward in COVID, needs to have swings or people to cover those tracks, because with the new way things work, there's always going to be [times when] people are out. I've heard of other theatres around Canada doing that same thing, giving their Swings and Understudies a bow, so I just think that's so special that that's changing and I hope it continues like that."

CHICAGO is still young in its run and is scheduled through the end of October. BWW was curious about how everyone is feeling right now, in this moment and Alexander sums it up beautifully: "We're doing the thing. The thing that I always dreamed of doing and at the caliber that I've always wanted to be doing it at too. It's just so incredible to be working with such a wildly talented group of people who also love doing it just as much as you do. It's such a cool feeling to be part of that community."

Photo (And T-Shirt) Credit: Christine Desjardins

From This Author - Lauren Gienow

Based out of Stratford, Ontario, Lauren is an Occupational Therapist working in mental health by day and a BWW Contributor by night (or by matinee). Lauren enjoys daring new productions, classic plays,... (read more about this author)

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