Let’s be honest, at some point in our lives, we’ve all been disappointed upon arrival at a show to find that an understudy or swing is on. Usually, for most people that initial disappointment soon fades when they see how amazing and talented the understudy actually is. After all, so many of today’s theatre stars started off being understudies. If Kerry Ellis, star of Wicked, We Will Rock You, Cats, and many more, had not have been an understudy for My Fair Lady then her career would likely have taken a different path. Bernadette Peters, Kelli O’Hara, Natasha Barnes, Ria Jones and Catherine Zeta Jones all started off as understudies. There are so many performers out there that have started off life as an understudy or a swing and these are often the most talented. They not only have to learn one role, the staging, blocking and choreography that this character entails but also other characters, tracks, dialogue and choreography and yet still are able to perform with commitment, passion and confidence.
Many shows, such as Hamilton and Six are now valuing performers health and well-being and are starting to use alternate performers who take on the roles of specific characters so that the principles can have shows off as well as covering holiday and illness. Not only is it great that shows are recognising that the lead performer inevitably needs time off to be able to perform at their best but it is also a brilliant marketing strategy. After all, many audience members will make return visits to see different performers in different roles therefore generating more ticket sales. Through word-of-mouth, reviews and comments on social media more and more people are setting out with the intention to actually see the understudy/alternate. This is amazing and something that I don’t think would have happened a few years ago. When there is a small cast, such as in the case of Six, without alternates the show would not be viable and inevitably would end up being cancelled. Six are actually one of the best shows for appreciating and celebrating their alternates. The three alternates are always included in promotional events, awards ceremonies and social media platforms therefore making a bold statement that they are valued just as highly as the principle cast. Grace Mouat, Courtney Stapleton and Vicki Manser are all extremely talented and versatile performers who manage to keep the show going nine times a week. Without these performers; whether an understudy, swing, alternate or standby, the show could not go on! Quite literally if these performers were unable to step into so many roles then shows would be cancelled, refunds would be made and theatres would be in darkness.
There has been continual debate about the importance of recognising the performances of understudies, swings and alternates. Often audience members comment that they didn’t even know it was an understudy performing until they looked at the programme on the way home. Whilst this is great as it just proves that their performance is as good as the principle, it also leads to questions about why the show hasn’t informed the audience that the role was being covered so that the performer gets the credit they deserve. Things are slowly improving and now a lot of theatres post up-to-date cast boards on display in the foyer, some even put slips into the programmes or offer free cast lists at the door. Often understudies and alternates are also given permission to post their cover dates on social media which again will prompt more audience members to book tickets to specifically see them. After all, a lot of the marketing for newer shows relies heavily on word of mouth and social media comments that the performers themselves help to generate. A fantastic Twitter account called West End Understudies do their best to tell everyone when an understudy or swing is on in both the West End and regional touring productions but they rely on audience members or the actual cast messaging them this information. What can be done to make sure that all understudies, swings and alternates are celebrated for their vital role?
It is understandable that sometimes you will be disappointed if your favourite performer or the ‘star casting’ of the show is not performing. Often people buy tickets to see one performer something that is even more prominent with the rise of ‘star casting’ for some shows. However, you are going to see a show – a story which will be the same regardless of the performer. So instead look at the incredible understudy, the swing who has replaced the ensemble member, and all of the other superb performers in the show. A show is not about one performer. It is a group effort from the cast that you see perform on that specific day to the creative team, the backstage crew who work endlessly to ensure the performance happens and the musicians all of whom are often not recognised. Fair enough, feel disappointed but don’t let it effect the show, its affect on you, and the performance as a whole. You never know you may be seeing the next West End ‘star’!
Unfortunately, recently there have been more and more cases of people commenting negatively on social media platforms about the stars of the show being off. People commenting without a care as to who reads it; whether it is the performer they really wanted to see or the understudy who went out and performed their best so that you could see the show. When you buy a ticket to a production you are not guaranteed to see any cast member be it the lead, the ensemble, the swing – anyone. You are, however, guaranteed to see a show – a show that an entire team have worked incredibly hard to ensure has gone on for you and your fellow audience members. Quite literally without these talented understudies and swings there would be no performance. So if you do see an understudy, alternate or swing look at their bio in the programme, look at their social media, celebrate their achievements and their talents just the same as you would if you had seen the ‘star’ for without them you wouldn’t have seen the show at all!