What is the difference between an understudy and a swing?

Back to the Future‘s Matt Ives explains all…

The cast of Back to the Future, © Johan Persson
The cast of Back to the Future, © Johan Persson

A lot of people ask what the difference between a swing and an understudy/cover is – and they’re actually two quite different roles. A swing has the responsibility of learning and covering multiple ensemble roles, whereas an understudy/cover learns and covers principle roles. So, a swing could actually also be an understudy! 

Being a swing, one of the most important skills you can have is focusing on detail, like tuning into the details of a routine. You need to have a good brain for retaining multiple tracks within a show. Another top skill is being able to remain calm and focused, especially when you are on for a new track. My advice would be to, when training, start testing yourself. It can be as simple as reversing choreography to the other side or learning other people’s blocking – but it can help you set you up well.  

Another great skill that is actually more than a lesson is to learn that you’re only human. As a swing / cover, you’re understandably aiming to get it 100 per cent correct, which is a great aim but naturally, little bits might go wrong and that’s okay. Accept it, move on and fix it for the next show! 

Being a swing / understudy is honestly one of the most fulfilling jobs. There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline of going on for a track or a role for the first time and I know that I’ll remember and cherish my George debut forever. Obviously, there are also challenges – learning multiple tracks in the first place is hard but more than that, there’s the challenge of staying on top of your knowledge when you may not perform that role for days, weeks or even months as a time. However, that’s part of the fun. I get bored easily, so it’s a great way to keep your brain engaged and switched on. 

One of the things that people don’t often know about being a swing is that whilst everyone learns all tracks, there are usually priorities in who covers who first. Particularly with Back to the Future, whilst there are certain parameters within the script and blocking, it’s fun that you don’t have to be a carbon copy of the person playing the role. There is a level of freedom to find your own version, which I love.  

Speaking of fun, a fun fact from Back to the Future to end on is that when we George covers write in the ledger during “Hello”, we sometimes written messages for each other to find. Such as Ollie wishing me luck for my first show, or me leaving him a merry Christmas message.  

Featured In This Story