The struggles of the theatre industry have been well publicised. Forced to close for months on end due to Covid, with audiences reduced and isolations enforced, many who worked in the industry have lost their jobs. One study suggests that UK theatres have lost more than £1.04 billion in box office revenue since March 2020, affecting their employees in equal turn. As many as 1 in 4 freelancers have lost employment since the start of the pandemic.
And even with theatres open once more, their revenue has been severely depleted thanks to Omicron, with many audience members too nervous about attending packed auditoriums. And, to top it all off, there are constant Covid cases amongst casts that force productions to halt performances temporarily.
That being said, a recent viral video might give us a new take on the whole situation.
On Thursday 23rd December, Hugh Jackman made a speech at the end of a performance of ‘The Music Man’, at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. It appeared that the production’s leading lady, the renowned Sutton Foster, had tested positive for Covid at the last minute, leaving her understudy to take her place with only a few meagre hours to spare.
“A swing covers up to 10 roles. Kathy, when she turned up for work at 12 o’clock, could’ve played any of eighty roles” he is recorded saying, praising the role of swings and understudies, shedding some light on the difficulties of their often unrewarded job. These actors, who learn multiple roles and perform them with little rehearsal and even less notice, often go unpraised.
“She found out at 12 noon today, and at 1 o’clock, she had her very first rehearsal as Marian Paroo”, explained Jackman. He asked the understudies and swings in the cast to step forward for a special round of applause.
And so, while the narrative of theatre’s sufferings, due to Covid, is pervasive, perhaps there is also an opportunity that the pandemic presents. Frequent positive cases mean a frequent need for swings and understudies. A frequent need for swings and understudies means more jobs in the theatre industry. And more jobs in the theatre industry means more opportunities for actors. After all, never before has such attention been raised for understudy performers.
So while the pandemic has undeniably reduced employment opportunities for actors over the past twenty months, perhaps it might also encourage a new focus on swings. In such uncertain times, double casting might be the preferable option.
It was uplifting to see such hard-working actors receive praise and recognition. I just hope that the trend of allowing understudies to share the limelight continues.