‘Swing’: The hardest working theater actorBy Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
SAN DIEGO, California—The stage musical “Allegiance” is now officially open and is running until Oct. 21 which, by Philippine standards, is quite long.
Each time I get onstage, I hear Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s voice inside my head saying, “Haaay, just when you’re ready to open, the run is over!”
Well, Menchu, that isn’t the case here—thanks to that long preview period, we were ready to open when we did.
Opening night, much like a graduation day, isn’t actually the culmination of hard work, but only the start of it. Ramping up to opening night is quite difficult enough, but keeping things going, the repetitiveness of doing the same show eight times a week, and maintaining one’s health aren’t easy either.
There will always be a casualty along the way for various reasons: a sprained ankle; vocal strain; the flu; a skiing accident that immobilizes an actor for six weeks (yes, this one actually did happen to a colleague); having to take a family member to the emergency room.
Anything can happen and probably everything has happened. Which brings me to the “swing.”
A swing is an actor whose sole assignment is to learn the numerous ensemble tracks in a show. In the “Allegiance” cast, we have two swings—one male, Conrad Ricamora, and one female, Jennifer Hubilla, who also covers my principal track.
We also have understudies who are members of the ensemble, each one with a specific role to learn and cover.
The swing is quite possibly the hardest working theater actor. Imagine an ensemble of five women, and seven men, which is what our show has. Jen has to learn all five ladies’ tracks, and Conrad has to learn seven.
Now picture another scenario: One lead actor falls ill from food poisoning. The understudy in the ensemble gets bumped up to perform that lead actor’s track. However, another ensemble member calls the stage manager to say that he broke his foot, and can’t perform. The swing then has to cover both tracks at the same time.
An emergency put-in rehearsal is sometimes called to fix spacing issues, harmonies, choreography and other things that will come up. The stage manager will supervise the rehearsal, and if the associate or resident director is around, then he or she will figure it all out.
Our dance captain also has a say in what should happen. The fight captain will oversee on stage fights that may be changed due to the understudy and swing performing together for the first time.
Sometimes, a female swing, after all the male swings are on and splitting themselves into a frenzy, has to cover a male ensemble track. Our lone female swing in the Broadway company of “Miss Saigon,” Sylvia Dohi, (she covered all the Asian girls for the entire run, from 1991-2001) has actually done it. She knew that show backwards and forwards, and I tip my hat to her for having done it.
The brain of a swing is a special one indeed; there are actors who are just so incredibly great at it. It’s almost as if they have a filing cabinet in their heads, complete with quick costume changes, choreography spacing (I can barely keep mine straight, what more five tracks!), staging, lighting specifics and multiple sets of harmonies (have all those memorized).
When a company is healthy, the swings are still around, constantly keeping up with the tracks they’re covering. But when flu season strikes, the swings are on their toes, coordinating with the associate director or stage manager as to what tracks to cover. The stage manager then informs the rest of the company as to what’s going on, and how the show will continue.
Jen was having a little stress about the fact that she would now be swinging our show. Her husband, Neil Quinn (who has swung the entire male ensemble track of “Les Misérables” and is also an alum of “Miss Saigon”), told her: “If I could swing 13 tracks, you can do five.”
She has actually gone onstage for one of our ladies (MaryAnn Hu, who returned home to New York for a friend’s wedding), and performed wonderfully! There is a saying when a swing goes on: “Shove with love … push and pull a swing to make sure they’re in the right spots on stage.” And there was a bit of that going on!
In a long run, the words “We have a full company tonight” are rarely ever heard, so it’s a celebration when everyone is present and accounted for.
We’re now going into our third week of performances, with still a few more left to go. I have no idea what the next shows will look like, or whose face I’ll be looking at on any given day.
It can be scary, but always exciting. Thanks to our “dakilang swings,” the show will always go on.
To Conrad and Jennifer, and all swings performing on stages around the world, thank you for taking on such a mammoth task. Your immense contributions to your productions are never ever taken for granted, and are always appreciated.
Shove with love!
Catch ‘Nine’ at RCBC
Congratulations to Atlantis Productions on the opening weekend of “Nine” (if you haven’t caught it, run, sprint or fly to the RCBC Plaza to catch a stellar cast perform a stellar score). I wish I could’ve been there to see you all, but I’m feeling mighty proud of you from all the way over here!
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