by ElAna Rebitzer
Tess Ferrell was onstage when she got the news, whispered from her stage manager from the wings, that a different ensemble member was hurt. Within seconds, she moved to take over this new track, which she hadn’t performed in over six months, and her muscle memory wasn’t as helpful as she would have liked.
“I was mid-air, with my leg up, asking my dance partner where my exit was,” she recalls with a laugh.
For a swing, a performer who is responsible for knowing multiple understudy roles and being prepared to jump into them with only moments of notice, Tess’s story doesn’t sound out of the ordinary. Often, a swing will be responsible for all of the roles of their gender in a show; sometimes needing to know five or more different tracks throughout the show. And since most shows with ensembles need at least one swing, many different performers have, at one point or another, had experiences swinging and jumping into roles last minute.
Even more rare and challenging, however, is the role of universal swing. Universal swings, like Tess was in Wicked for two and a half years, are responsible for knowing ensemble tracks in multiple different companies of the same show.
“I have to know what all of these men do in the show - all of their choreography, all of their blocking, how their set moves,” says Antuan “Magic” Raimone, who is beginning his second year as one of two male universal swings for Hamilton. “I have to know what each of those six men do, and that exists for all the companies. I’m currently in New York, but I could be sent to Chicago, or California, or maybe even the new Phillip tour.”
Because the position necessitates having multiple companies of the same show running simultaneously, most shows will never need to employ universal swings. According to Magic, only a few shows, normally ones that have sent out multiple tours, ever create that position.
“It’s also a matter of having multiple companies of the same show that are also equity,” Raimone says. “For instance, when and if there is a non-equity tour of Hamilton that goes out, I will not be able to perform with that show, because I am in the union.”
Even for the few shows that do necessitate universal swings, the role differs vastly between shows. For example, Tess did not have a full time contract with Wicked.
“If I was not on contract, I was not working,” says Tess, “and I was on unemployment for those weeks. You basically have an understanding with Wicked that you do work for them, and if you were to audition for something else and get far in the process, they would want to be kept abreast of that kind of information.”
Magic, on the other hand, is attached to Hamilton at all times, and is expected to show up at the theater just as a Broadway swing is.
“The biggest difference between me and a non-universal swing is that I could be called to leave the city,” he says. “Everything else outside of the title and position is the same - we all have rehearsals together, we all have the theater together.”
Since universal swings have to move from company to company, they sometimes get more notice about upcoming roles than a swing who is only attached to one company does.
“I knew my tracks months in advance sometimes,” says Trevor Leaderbrand, who was a universal swing with The Book of Mormon for four years. “It just would be filling in for someone who’s on a vacation. In some ways it was easier than being a swing, because I wasn’t as stressed unless i was covering a swing.”
Despite this advance notice, the role of universal swing comes with its own unique challenges. Though each company is technically performing the same show, over time, each of them develop small differences from each other, whether because of changes to accomodate a different set size, or different ensemblists having different solo moments.
“It’s kind of like building a puzzle,” Tess says. “It’s the same picture, but it’s cut into different pieces.”
These slight variations mean even more tracks for universal swings to memorize. According to Tess, while covering two tours and the Broadway company of Wicked, she was responsible for knowing 19 different tracks. In order to avoid confusion, Magic tries not to think about the tracks for other companies while he’s based in New York.
“I do not watch or review shows for other companies, because that would only confuse my brain,” Magic says. “The only time I concern myself with what’s happening in Chicago is when I get to Chicago.”
Unfortunately, sometimes swings have to switch companies without time to review all of the differences between the two. According to Trevor, one of the challenges at a new company was making sure he had enough time to recall the different tracks and adjust to any changes that had been made while he was away.
“You would assume someone who was a veteran would know the show better,” says Trevor, “but when they have dance brushes or clean ups sometimes they make changes and I wasn’t there for it. it never really got easier for me, it always was sort of like an uphill battle in some ways.”
In addition to the challenges of recalling all of the different tracks, being a universal swing occasionally brought with it social challenges as well. Stints with a company could vary from a single week to months at a time, but, according to Tess and Trevor, it could be isolating.
“You’re not a permanent member of the community,” Tess says. “You’re perpetually an outsider. Every time you go somewhere, there’s a person there that you don’t know, who maybe has been there for months.”
“After a year or two I kind of realized that I was never a part of anyone’s idea of their tour family,” Trevor adds. “Sometimes it was a great thing to just be alone for a week ... but the other side of the coin is i never felt really at home in one single company, especially as people kept leaving and coming.”
Though Tess, Magic, and Trevor all noted that their stage management tried hard to keep them with companies for longer periods of time, the nature of the job makes it hard to plan vacations or time off.
“When I was an understudy, I wouldn’t know where i would be a month out,” Tess says. “If I was trying to get to a wedding, or go on vacation, I was never really sure where i’d have to book my flights out of. I booked flights with layovers that would be near the touring companies.”
Though Magic still works as a universal swing, both Trevor and Tess came to a point where they felt like it was time to leave their positions.
“It just got very hard to have the motivation to remember the fine details with a smile on my face,” Trevor says, “and that’s just sort of when you know you need to leave. Performing eventually became stressful for me and I just really stopped enjoying it.”
While Trevor stopped performing professionally after he left Book of Mormon, Tess’s journey with Wicked continued on. After she quit her official title of Universal Swing, she remained a vacation swing, and worked on-and-off for the show for almost a year before accepting a position as a swing attached to the Broadway company.
Magic, Trevor, and Tess all agreed that being a universal swing was invaluable training for them in their future careers.
“I think it was necessary to learn that you’re never going to be perfect,” says Trevor. “I wish everyone could start as a swing, because it is an intense education on picking up fast, knowing awareness, and selling something you may not be ready for!”
While an intense, exhausting, and sometimes frustrating experience, Magic notes how being a universal swing brings with it some unique reward.
“It is such a beautiful gift to see material that I am so familiar with become so brand new because it’s a new set of people doing it,” he says. “There’s something familiar, but also so original and unique. The cast who does it every night, they don’t get that. That’s something that I get to have.”