by James Spencer Dean
Where does one even begin when trying to explain the life of a swing? Do you say “it’s a constant adventure” or do you admit “I had nightmares four times a week the entire month leading up to my first rehearsal?” Both of those statements would be categorized as TRUE.
In 10 weeks, I performed in roughly 40 of our 70 performances, three of my five tracks, two WILD split tracks, and I even had one mid show swing on. Also - what is a “real” swing experience? I’d love to know. Did I mention we went into tech after six days of rehearsal? How does one learn five tracks, when most of the cast hasn’t mastered their own track?
Before rehearsals started, I met up with a friend to discuss swinging, and she taught me so much. She showed me her charts and cheat sheets for her NINE tracks she covered in West Side Story. She lent me the incredible book, “Be The Best Swing On Broadway.” This book should be an assigned read in every BFA program. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s an easy read, and I learned SO much about both the biz and swinging. I did my best to prepare for the unknown. I made a color coded chart for the guys I was to cover, and I was ready with all the pens and highlighters. I reached out to the SM prior to rehearsals and got a sketch of the stage and made 100 copies so I was ready to CHART.
Even with all of the preparations, on the first day of rehearsal I was scared shitless. We all piled in a van to head out to the theatre. Rehearsal started at 10am with a short meet & greet, and we immediately started learning the score, which we finished in under two hours. Then it was time to dance. Tap shoes on. In Annie Get Your Gun? Why not?! THIS is where I learned my first lesson as a swing. Learn the choreography, and THEN chart. I was trying to do it all at once and I was not succeeding. Even if I was, I was stressed!
Day two was HARD. Too much was being thrown at me and I was on the sidelines by myself. This led to a plethora of issues. Our associate choreographer pulled me aside. She told me to calm down and breathe. I focused as time went on and she blessed me with a set of all of her charts in black and white so I could color code them how I wanted. This saved me. Once the creatives left, our dance captain kept me sane through this process. Working with him was a great joy and gift.
Tech for a swing is……fun? It was a great chance to update my charts and notes because the run was constantly being held. The bad part? No notes for me. No “you looked great at this part, Spencer!” You just hang when everyone gets into costumes and mic’s for the first time. You aren’t in the cast photos. You sit at a table in the dark theatre, and in my case, I was alone. It can feel like a thankless job, but in the long run, it’s not. I remember opening weekend, our SM came up to me and said “you’re on, both shows, for M5 next Sunday.” I instantly had something to look forward to! I split my time between watching the show from the house and practicing M5’s track backstage.
Our show was….special because the female swing was an onstage swing, and we did A LOT of set changes. Anytime a girl was out, (and let me tell you: the gravy boats on their feet caused for many an injury) our dance captain would cover that girl’s set changes, and I would cover his track. After nearly 18 swing ons in just M5’s track, I unintentionally dropped the ball on knowing all of my tracks thoroughly. Of course, this is when I get the call. “You’re on for M1.”
Three hours before curtain on a Friday night. I almost threw up! Then I realized it: my charts were at the theatre. My dance captain was an angel, and talked me through the track during our hour commute to the theatre. Thanks to his guidance, I nailed it! This was the moment I started to understand what swinging meant. I understood how to separate everything in my brain.
I learned to love swinging and the opportunity it brought to be aware of EVERYTHING going on in the show. I’ve never known a show inside and out this way. I felt like I could take anything that was being thrown at me, such as a split track where I played almost every male ensemble bit role! Aside from the occasional mid-show note from an actor (yep!) and occasional “which track am I on for?!” moment, I learned so much about being aware of my surroundings and always present onstage.
I’m anxious to swing again and continue learning. This contract introduced me to NYC and helped me transition smoothly when I moved. I’ll carry this experience and all I learned with me for the rest of my career.