Swing, Standby, Understudy.

Our bedtime reading these days is Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (one of our favorites); much of the plot involves actors who are putting on a performance of Our Town, a famous play I have somehow managed never to see, and they keep talking about “swings,” a term neither my wife nor I was familiar with. So of course I googled and found multiple sites explaining the difference between a semantically related set of terms, e.g. Swing, Standby, Understudy: What You Need to Know:

A swing is an off-stage performer responsible for covering any number of ensemble tracks, sometimes as many as 12 or more. An understudy is a performer cast in the ensemble of a musical (or a minor role in a play) who is responsible for covering a supporting or lead role. A standby is an off-stage performer whose sole responsibility is to cover the lead (usually a star) in a production.

It’s interesting to me that understudy is a universally understood term, whereas the other two are (I’m guessing) known only to theater aficionados. It’s amusing that the antiquated (1921 vintage) OED entry defines understudy as “An actor or actress who studies a superior performer’s part in order to be able to take it if required; also, the study of a part of this purpose” (I have bolded the harsh and doubtless often inaccurate modifier that will certainly be removed when the entry is updated). And it’s curious that this sense of track (apparently equivalent to what the layman thinks of as a “part”) is not in any dictionary I have access to; perhaps when the OED updates its 1913 entry it will get around to including it.


  1. not, i think, so much afficionados as theater workers (though technical terminology, as always, bleeds through from workers to connoiseurs). though i do wonder when “swing” and “standby” started to appear routinely in playbills, as they do now.

    “track” puts the emphasis on a performer’s action on stage, as opposed to “part” or “role” which emphasize the words spoken by a named character. so in the ‘legitimate’ theater, “track” is especially used in talking about what’s done by a specific ensemble performer, who may or may not be embodying named characters or have any lines. in my parts of the theater world, which are not primarily text-based, “track” gets used for everyone. i wouldn’t necessarily say, as the blockquote does, that a “swing” is an off-stage performer (i.e. someone who is not consistently performing as part of the ensemble); but it may be that it always means that in the Broadway/Off-Broadway levels of the industry (or in shows done under Equity contracts).

    the 1921 definition for understudy is pretty precise and accurate if you consider “superior” as having to do with the internal status hierarchy of roles within a show, and thus of the performers who embody them, as opposed to a judgement of skills/talent/experience. in any show, there’s a clear ladder (institutionally recognized in, for example, the Tony Awards’ categories of Leading vs Featured performers – with ‘lower’ roles and ensemble performances not even acknowledged), and there’s a lingering assumption that the roles a performer who manages to escape “gypsy”* chorus/ensemble status takes on will advance up the ladder. i don’t think that reflects reality at this point – it’s based on 19thC practice within standing companies, as translated into the 20thC world of Broadway at its height – especially as stunt casting becomes more and more prevalent.* regardless, who understudies who is structured by that hierarchy (as inflected by performers’ individual styles and capabilities, costume sizes, etc), with the replacement of a lead or featured role creating a chain reaction where (at minimum) a swing steps in to replace the understudy who moves up.

    * it’s good that Equity isn’t using an anti-roma slur anymore, but i haven’t heard a solid replacement term for performers who are career chorus/ensemble members.

    ** stunt casting doesn’t always mean bad performers/performances. daniel radcliffe is quite solid as Merrily We Roll Along’s charley in the current Broadway production, and jake gyllenhaal was surprisingly good as seymore in the 2015 Encores production of Little Shop of Horrors (especially given that he was performing opposite ellen greene). folks i know are waiting to see who’s announced to replace eddie redmayne before getting tickets to the new revival of Cabaret, though.

  2. The quoted explanation uses cover informally for what the secondary performer does. I believe that term is used more exactly in the context of opera productions, such that a bio might catalog “covered this and sung that.”

  3. As rozelle suggests, many theatergoers found themselves learning the term “swing” when swings started being listed in Broadway playbills. A look at the online archive suggests that that was roughly the early 1990s.

  4. Thanks for an extremely informative comment, rozele!

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