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BEHIND THE SCENES: The Swing Of Things

If you asked the average theatregoer what a swing was, they'd probably tell you it was either a piece of garden furniture, or a style of music. If you type in the words 'swing' and 'theatre' into Google, you pull up a Wikipedia entry of a staggering three lines and that's pretty much it. You might be fooled into thinking it's a somewhat insignificant role, but in fact, the job is one of the most important in the industry.

It's a swing's job to know every single ensemble track (or role) and to be prepared to go on for anyone at a moment's notice. Swings save the ensemble's bacon on an almost daily basis, coming to the rescue when people go on holiday, get sick during the show or are unexpectedly away at late notice. It's definitely not an easy job - and it's one many people don't know about.

Scott Spreadbury and Matt Krzan swing at La Cage Aux Folles, covering all the Cagelles as well as the role of Etienne, while Melissa Green and Tim Stanley are two of seven at Mamma Mia, covering all ensemble tracks for women and men respectively.

All are from very different backgrounds and different levels of training. Tim, who is also dance captain for Mamma Mia, never went to college, rather teaching himself through a series of hard-won jobs and self-tutelage in the back garden. More traditionally, the other three all graduated from theatre schools - Mel from Italia Conti, Scott from Brent Street and NIDA in Australia and Matt from London Studio Centre.

Swings can be asked to go on stage at a moment's notice and to perform any number of tracks - this is called split-tracking. Both Melissa and Scott have had to go on when the show has already started; Melissa when an ensemble member broke her toe as the overture came to a close, and Scott when one Cagelle began the show but felt he couldn't continue. "I was sat without any make-up on - and usually our make-up takes an hour, so I had to rush it," says Scott. "I had about fifteen minutes to get ready! You need to be very cool and calm to be a swing, you can't get too worked up."

Scott believes a good swing should be an intelligent dancer. "You have to be really aware of everyone else around you," he says. "You can't just go out and do your own show, do what you want, because actually you could injure someone, especially if you're not too sure what you're doing.

"Because you're not getting the acclaim, the rounds of applause and taking a bow all the time, I think you have to be at a point where you know you don't need that. It's about the show," he adds. "It's completing the show. If someone's out, you have to fill that gap. You still bring a lot of yourself to it, but the show's bigger than you as a performer. You can't be selfish - I find it quite a selfless job, actually. It's not just about you going out and giving what you want. It's about you having to worry about everyone else, being in the right position and being there for that person when they need you to."

"Swings are often the most important piece of the jigsaw," says Tim. "They have to fit into wherever they're needed - so to have a good group of swings is essential and I do think they're often overlooked...everybody in the show sees swing as a promotion."

All the swings agree that though the work is challenging, once you've been doing the job for a while things start to slot into place more easily. "Like with anything," Matt says, "once you've done each track maybe three times... it's like knowing six, seven different shows in your head. You can differentiate them - weirdly, when you do something a lot, you don't even have to think about it. It's in your body."

Scott and Matt say that they enjoy the variety of La Cage Aux Folles - although no one Cagelle has a big speaking role, each has a distinct character. "It's an acting challenge for us," explains Matt. "It's not just dancing, it's playing different acting roles - the moody one, the showgirl, the fierce one..."

Mamma Mia, meanwhile, is a completely different challenge. It's a bigger theatre and a bigger ensemble, meaning lots more stage traffic than La Cage gets. "The first week of rehearsals," Melissa says, "we spent five days learning 26 songs in three-part harmony. When I started the show, I didn't even know the tune to some of the songs! It was so hard at the beginning - it's ludicrous to learn [that much]!"

But being a swing isn't just about knowing the songs and choreography; you have to know what's going on offstage as well. If a character has a quick change and you go to the wrong dresser, or haven't checked what bits of clothing go on in what order, you could end up derailing the entire production while you sort yourself out.

Swings are certainly a valuable commodity. Being able to hold, as Matt says, "six or seven different shows" in your head is not something everyone can manage to or would like to do. Many performers prefer to just have the one track, to know where they go and that's that. This value can hamper swings if they want to break out and perform lead roles, because their versatility can, ironically, leave them 'typecast'. Tim, in his role as dance captain for Mamma Mia, runs cast-change auditions.

"When we're looking for people, if you see someone's been a swing before, it's very easy to turn around and say, 'They've been a good swing before, let's give it to them again'. It's important that unless it's what you want to do forever, you need to put your foot down at some point and say no, I want to be on stage."

The nature of being a swing means you miss out on some of the more glamorous parts of being in musical theatre, like opening and closing nights, big celebrations and extracurricular gigs. As Scott describes it, "you're waiting in the wings."

It's also a nerve-wracking job, even for the most level-headed performer. Your first time going through everything is usually when you get on stage for the first time, so quick changes are often not practised in advance.

Additionally, swinging on touring shows is very different to swinging in the West End, because people rarely go 'off' when touring, meaning a swing can end up sitting in the dressing room for the majority of a tour's duration - not what performers sign on for.

"People think because we're not on stage that we're undervalued," says Matt. "People who've never swung before - they say, 'Why do swings get more money than me? I'm on stage every night!'. They don't get at all that we are in the building every single day, even if we're not on stage. We have to cover all the tracks - it's eight times what they do."

It's a different story in the States, where swings are often cast first and paid more than the rest of the ensemble. "Here there is a thing of people saying 'just swing', which is people who don't really understand it," Scott explains. "Someone asked me about staying on - they asked me if I was going to go full-time, and I was like 'I am full-time! I'm on all the time!' If people think being swing is part-time, they're wrong."

This is something all the swings have personal experience of - from Tim's friend asking if he worked "really hard, will they let you be in the show next year?" to Melissa's grandparents not realizing it was a conscious choice for her to stay on as swing.

However, on the plus side, Melissa says Mamma Mia management try to make sure everyone in the cast feels included. Unusually, they regularly include swings in promotional gigs, which doesn't always happen. "I don't think for one second I've missed out on anything in this job," she says. "We spend a lot of our time off organizing things for the company to do - like going bowling, or just social events, we had a Chinese in between shows the other week."

"You need a good group of people who are going to gel," agrees Tim. "You're not just mixing with your dressing room but with the whole company. In auditions we call it a Mamma Mia spirit - which I know sounds a bit naff, but having done it for years, I can honestly say it works! You need to have a vibe. The auditions we have pay off, because we have a really strong company who work really hard."

For the La Cage boys, swinging has helped expand their repertoire. Scott learnt how to drive when performing in Shout back in Australia, while La Cage has meant working variously on acrobatics and falsetto singing. These are things that a swing may already be able to manage to some extent, but not so well that they would necessarily be solely employed to do them.

"You have to make the audience think you're so confident doing it, they have no idea that it's not your thing," Scott says. "The appeal for me is that in a year contract or longer... it keeps it fresh. Our brains are constantly on. When I did ensemble in We Will Rock You, I could have gone on stage with my eyes closed and done that track. I could switch off and think about my shopping, or what I was going to have for dinner after the show, and that was fine, but with this, there's never a time when you can switch off, which is good, because it means you're there. It keeps your brain going."

Mel agrees. "Doing the same track would become boring. If you can do it blindfolded, you're on autopilot. You don't get a buzz from it and it's not fresh every night."

Thoughts for the future are mixed for these swings. Scott and Tim seem happy where they are for the time being, while Matt and Melissa are looking at potential new challenges - returning to ensemble, covering lead roles and so on - though all agree that the future is uncertain and anything could happen.

"It's the best job in the world," grins Tim. "The adrenaline and buzz of doing it is fantastic. I'm very happy to be a swing!"


From This Author - Miriam Zendle