Elon University Alumni Become Hidden Theater Heroes
The show must go on” is a common theater mantra, and the Omicron variation proves that it wouldn’t be possible for the show to go on without swings, stunt doubles and vigils. These performers cover the main and ensemble tracks of a production and become a new type of essential worker in the theater field.
Conversation surrounding theater ‘heroes’ comes after Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin questioned the experience level of stunt doubles and swings when asked why some shows see more d cancellations than others. His answer was dismissed by many people in the arts and entertainment industry, and the original interview has since been updated to clarify his answer.
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Just over a week ago, Elon’s Musical Theater alumnus JJ Niemann ’17 received a phone call to join the Broadway cast of The Book of Mormon. On his first day back at work, he made his stage debut as Brother Harris. That role is the same one he covered as a swing performer when he made his Broadway debut in the summer of 2017 just days after graduating from Elon. After a two-and-a-half-year absence, Niemann said he was nervous to continue at first — and his hands were shaking for the show’s first two musical numbers.
“All the nerves I used to feel when I was doing a show for the first time kind of went away, which is good, and I kind of trusted my knowledge and the dance captain who trained me “, Niemann said. “I had such a blast, it was so in my body again, like it was so familiar in a good way.”
As a swing performer, Niemann is an off-stage cover who is responsible for learning the entire show and seven ensemble tracks. He re-learned the entire show within a week and said he kept all of his notes from when he had performed before, but the hardest part of it all was picking up on the nuances and changes made. at the show that weren’t in his old or new. Remarks.
“I was really, pleasantly surprised that when I relearned everything, my body remembered all the choreography, my voice remembered the harmonies,” Niemann said. “Of course there are little changes and tweaks, but I was like, this is so cool. Like, the human spirit is just awesome.
Performing in eight shows a week on Broadway is comparable to being a professional athlete for Niemann. He said some shows are more difficult vocally, while others physically or emotionally. Between injuries and illnesses, Niemann is on stage almost every night performing various ensemble roles.
“It’s kind of fun to feel like you’re saving the day a bit,” Niemann said.
Swingers and one-liners often don’t get much notice before they start each night, or even a lot of rehearsal time before they make their stage debut. Musical theater alum Elon Haile Ferrier ’21 is a stunt double on the Dear Evan Hansen National Tour. She said she was lucky to receive scheduled rehearsal time in each new city, especially since this work is her first since graduating last May. She feels ready to play the two roles she is studying, but her notice could be two hours before the series is even halfway through.
As an understudy, Ferrier said she had a lot of responsibilities and taking care of her physical and mental health had become a priority since booking the role.
“All the cancellations just reminded me that, ‘oh, I’m like the backbone of this show if anything happens,'” Ferrier said. “So it’s certainly a big responsibility, but I’m grateful for that.”
The cancellation of shows also occurs in the regional theater. Elon’s Musical Theater alumnus Jacob Major ’18 worked as a swinger in a production of Carousel for the past six weeks, but the show closed its run less than a week due to health-related reasons. COVID-19.
“It was a flurry of thoughts: ‘Okay, when do we leave now? How does that affect our future plans for the next rest of the month?’” Major said.
Major covered 12 tracks in his production and said he liked the variety that comes with the work. He said playing as a swing now is similar to what he did during his time at Elon, as he would usually be picked overall and he was versatile due to his wide vocal range.
“I just like being able to wake up every day and be like, ‘Whew, there’s a possibility, a new possibility that something could happen and my services will be needed in a new and new way than they don’t. were yesterday,'” Major said. .
Even though the production couldn’t go through in its entirety, Major said it was the first time the theater he worked for had rented swing sets. He said it was a “big move” for them, but hiring more swingers should become more common practice as the job was just as difficult before the pandemic. Although swings and one-liners help cover performers who call out of a show, there are only a limited number of people who can be absent before the show has to cancel a performance.
“If COVID-19 had started circulating in the business, you have a guy and a girl off the show, you could do the show, but if you have more, how are you?” said the major.
Major said there’s also been a lack of lessons and training opportunities for artists to learn how to swing, so they’re scared because they’ve never done it. He thinks creating an environment where it’s safe to learn to swing and make mistakes while doing so, as well as hiring more swings, could be a possible solution to performance cancellations. Major added that inconsistencies with cancellations can frustrate those buying long-term tickets.
Most swingers and stunt doubles also start and learn to cover tracks on national tours before hitting the Broadway stage. Ferrier said some people are disappointed when they arrive at shows and see that a stunt double or swing is in progress, but it’s actually an honor.
“You see people you don’t even know what they’ll be doing in five years. You don’t know, they could be the lead on Broadway, and you could be like, ‘Hey, I saw her do this and now she’s doing this,'” Ferrier said. “You never know what these people are going to do and I would just be grateful to have the opportunity to see them bring a different life to a role.”