The linked-to article in this post originally appeared in Mental Floss: “14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Broadway Understudies”, by Erin McCarthy.
I normally report on content that is video/recorded. However, the world of live theatre also fascinates me. Someday I will work behind-the-scenes in a live production. I love going through a Playbill and looking at the credits. There are some terminologies that are used to describe the actors that are not applicable in filmed projects. One reads about which actors are the understudies, standbys, swings, and alternates. An actor may fall into multiple categories of the above, or may play multiple characters (tracks).
What is colloquially called an understudy is really an understudy, standby, or swing. The alternate is different; the alternate fills a role of a principal performer on a scheduled basis (the Playbill often says: “Joe Jones plays the role of Sam on Tuesday, Wednesday evening, Thursday, Friday, Saturday evening, and Sunday. Joe Smith plays the role of Sam on Wednesday matinee and Saturday matinee”. Joe Smith is the alternate.
Read more about the understudy, standby, and swing.
The linked-to article begins below …
14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Broadway Understudies
On Broadway, “the show must go on” isn’t just something people say; it’s a way of life. Even if a star is out because of vacation or illness, the show can’t just close its doors. Instead, the star’s talented understudy steps in to make sure that audiences aren’t disappointed—and that the production doesn’t lose money. Mental Floss spoke with Broadway musical understudies past and present to bring you behind-the-scenes secrets of the job, which is harder than you might think. […]
Read full article>>
So, to summarize the hierarchy of understudies, swings, and standbys:
An Understudy is traditionally part of the ensemble (not playing a “named” character”; in Playbill, the actor’s role is literally listed as “Ensemble”) and is on-stage for every performance.
Standbys and Swings are normally “off-stage”, i.e., not performing.
A Standby performs for a Principal, if the Principle is not available. If the Standby for the Principal is not available, the Understudy fills in for the Principal.
A Swing “swings in” to cover for an ensemble member, if that ensemble member is filling in for a Principal (i.e. acting as an Understudy).
Here is a bonus link, an article about the life of a swing. ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Those Broadway Swings | Playbill.com
In addition, browsing the Vault of Playbill.com, which shows Playbills of current and old shows, is so interesting to see the billing of principals, ensemble, standbys, swings, and understudies. Or, take another look at any physical Playbill you may have.
Please provide your thoughts and questions in the comments. I would really enjoy hearing from you. If you have a topic in mind you would like me to cover, please let me know.