What is a swing in theatre?
Broadway swing Esther Antoine talks about what the difficult job entails.
If you’ve ever opened your program before a show and read the word “swing” and wondered what it means, don’t sweat. We’ve all been there. (And no, it has nothing to do with actual swings.) We’re here to help.
A swing refers to a member of the company who understudies several ensemble roles. These ensemble roles are called “tracks.” The only time a swing performs is if an ensemble member is out of the show or if an ensemble member is covering another role in the show, as many ensemble members also have understudy duties.
Swings do not perform every night. The number of tracks a swing covers depends on the size of the ensemble. Each swing needs to know the lines, choreography, blocking (i.e. where to stand), and costume changes of every track they own.
We recently chatted with Esther Antoine, the sole female swing in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, about her journey making her Broadway debut in the show. Antoine currently covers four tracks, one of which is legendary Motown star Diana Ross. You may have seen her busting a move at the Tony Awards.
We talked to Antoine about what she does during the show (when they’re not covering someone’s track), what the most challenging part about being a swing is, and the advice she’d give someone who wants to pursue a career in the theatre. She also talks about meeting the real Otis Williams (the founder of The Temptations) and what telling his story every night means to her as a performer. “Otis is still doing it. He is still performing. He’s still doing what he loves to do,” Antoine said. “Once you find something that you love to do, go for it.”
What is the most challenging part about being a Broadway swing?
The most challenging is maybe not knowing when you’re going to go on. At times, we have a list of when the people will be out — whether it’s a personal day or vacation. But every once in a while somebody might get sick, or for some reason, they’re not able to make it for that show. It’s always a beautiful thing when you at least get a whole day’s notice, but sometimes it might happen just before the show, or right in the middle of the show, which has actually happened twice so far.
One of the guys had to go on for one of our leads at intermission, and I went out for Diana Ross this past weekend, after the intermission started. So, it’s one of those things that you just have to be on your feet and ready to go, and pray that you have your tracking sheets in order, so you know when to enter and when to exit and where to go.
How do the swings manage to remember the details of all their tracks?
I cover four ladies. Some of our guys cover up to nine people in a cast. The guys have a little bit more to do on stage, so I think it’s a matter of writing down what character they are, where they stand, and the traffic. When I was first asked to be a swing, I called one of my friends. I said, “Help, what do I do? I’ve never been a swing before.” He pretty much said, “Okay, the first thing you want to do is, when you first go on, just make sure you’re standing where you’re supposed to stand and that you don’t bump into anyone.”
As a swing, organization is key. How did you stay organized and learn your tracks?
While we were rehearsing, I was on my feet, doing the choreography along with the cast. For example, The Supremes, they dance together. There were three of them dancing together, but I was by myself on the side. One day, I would say I’ll be one character, and then I’ll do her dance. And then the next day I’ll do the other character so I could do the other side, to make sure I’m doing both sides correctly. And then the third day would be the lead, making sure that I’m doing her choreography correctly. So just taking one character at a time, from start to finish, from the top of the show. When do they come on? When do they exit? Where do they stand? Do all that for the whole show, for one character. Once you have that down, then jump to the next character.
What advice do you have for Broadway swings?
You’re going to make mistakes. Things are going to happen and you can do one of two things. You can make a mistake, and then the next time you go on you make the mistake again. Or you can make the mistake and learn from it and fix it, so that you could check that off your list. You will make mistakes, but you learn from them and you don’t repeat the mistake over and over again. Give yourself enough room to be able to say, “Okay, this wasn’t perfect, but it’s okay. I will get it next time.” But make sure that you do get it next time. That, along with taking taking the one character at a time, one track at a time. I think those are the two things that really helped me.”
What’s the day-to-day life like of being a swing?
We have three new guys that are with us now, so we are rehearsing [their tracks]. During the day, we’ll rehearse a specific track. For example, one of our guys is learning the Eddie Kendricks track. We’ll teach them the choreography, starting from the top of the show. We start with “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” which is our first number. We’ll talk about where he should stand when he first enters, where he enters, where he should land, where he does the choreography, and if he moves to another number. We’ll continue to teach the choreography until he buttoned [i.e. the end of a number].
Repetition is key, you know? The more you do it, the more it’s in your body, the more you feel comfortable doing it. And also, with Ain’t Too Proud, there’s a certain style to this show that’s a little bit more grounded. It’s different from what we usually see. So, along with teaching the choreography, along with teaching the steps, they have to find that groove. There’s a specific groove that goes along with the choreography in this show. So that takes time to learn.
How did the cast support you as you were learning your tracks?
It’s a big, huge family. We really look out for each other, which is a beautiful thing. I’m definitely thankful for it. One day, I had to go on for a track, and I wasn’t exactly sure where to stand. One of the cast members, she guided me. She was like, “Okay, you go this way and you stand there.” Had she not helped me, I don’t know where I would have been. It’s nice to have that help, people looking out for you, so you know that as a swing or understudy you’re not on your own out there.”
What do swings do during showtime, if they’re not covering a track?
If we’re not on, we’re either rehearsing — we do a lot of that — or we’re actually watching the show from the back of the house. Then we can pay attention to a specific track, a specific person, where we can watch that person the whole show, so we make sure that the information that we have is what’s actually going on on the stage. Sometimes we’ll be in our dressing room, maybe doing the choreography to make sure that we actually know it on our own. Sometimes we’re singing along in the dressing room.
The one thing that’s very helpful is that we trail or track offstage. For example, if I have to go on for Diana Ross, I would walk along with Candice, who plays Diana Ross. From the top of the show, from the time she puts her wig on. I write down what time she goes on for her wig time, because everybody has a set wig time. And then after that she goes to change, she goes into fitting her first costume. So I would follow her and write down where she changes, what costume she puts on, and then where she goes to enter for that first scene. There’s a lot going on offstage as well, that you have to take into consideration.
Being a swing is a constant adrenaline rush. What as it like when you went on for the first time?
The first time I went on, I went on for the Josephine track. She’s Otis Williams’s wife. That was my first time on the Broadway stage, my Broadway debut. It was a lot of fun. Thankfully, I knew way ahead of time that I was going to go on, so it’s not something that just happened. I had time to learn my lines. I had time to watch [Rashidra Scott] offstage, when she changes, where she enters, where she exits, who does she stand next to. I got to do a lot of that. I had a lot of time to prepare for that. So, it’s not always last minute. A lot of times it’s because we know that they’re going to go on vacation, or they put in for a personal day ahead of time. I’m grateful for that.
Why should everyone see Ain’t Too Proud?
One thing that we are constantly reminded of is that these are actual people. It’s not a make-believe story. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with make believe stories, more just saying that these people were actually alive. These people, they actually went through what we’re showing here on stage. Even though people are coming in to see a show and sing along to music that they grew up listening to, they’re actually getting a little bit of history, a little bit of history lesson of The Temptations and who they are and the kind of relationships that they had.