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Broadway League President Charlotte St Martin is under fire after her comments about the role of understudies and swings amid Broadway COVID-19 closures angered the theater community.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter on the reasoning behind the recent spate of canceled performances, St Martin said, “My educated guess is the newer shows maybe have understudies that aren’t as efficient in delivering the role as the lead is. Some of the older shows have more experienced understudies and more experienced swings. I know one show last week where the lead was out, the understudy was on vacation, the swings were covering other parts, and they just didn’t have enough people to stand in.”
St Martin’s comments lit a fire within the beleaguered theatrical community, which has already suffered substantial job losses and a lack of infrastructural and financial relief from state and federal governments. In particular, St Martin’s assertion that understudies and swings were not as efficient as their leading castmates led to a plethora of demands for her resignation, citing a lack of respect for some of the hardest-working actors in the industry.
Understudies are prepared to perform multiple leading roles in addition to their regular duties in the ensemble. Swing performers (both onstage — in which they regularly perform in the ensemble when not covering a role, and offstage — in which they remain in the wings until needed to perform an ensemble role) cover a multitude of ensemble tracks. Those who serve as dance captains not only work as swings but know every role in the show in order to teach new company members, run rehearsals, and give notes throughout a run. Standby performers often cover multiple leading roles and remain at the ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
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OnStage Blog founder Chris Peterson stressed the crucial need for understudy, swing, and standby performers — “They need our support more than ever. They need our applause more than ever. They don’t need to be disrespected or blamed for cancellations by a ‘leader’ making ‘educated guesses’ about their talents or experience. Not now. Not ever.”
Peterson also cited a lack of perspective and empathy from St Martin, who makes over $500,000 a year, to a community of actors who have lost significant income (and often, health insurance coverage) during the global pandemic.
St Martin has been the spokesperson for the industry over the last week. On Friday she told Broadway News that the Broadway League was not currently considering an industry-wide shutdown. “We have always said that safety is our number one priority. Of course, I’m sorry that four shows have to go down, but I’m also proud that we have 28 shows performing,” St Martin said.
Across the internet, a wave of theater professionals spoke out against St Martin, emphasizing that many shows have been buoyed entirely by the support of understudy and swing performers. A recent performance of “Thoughts of A Colored Man” in which playwright Keenan Scott II stepped in to perform with script in hand alongside two understudies highlighted the delicate balance that many shows have had to strike between keeping the lights on and keeping everyone safe.
Jimmy Larkin, a casting associate, actor, director, and creator of the popular Instagram account @letshearitforthechoice (celebrating the often unsung performances of understudies and swings in the theater), said:
“I believe (or at least hope) that what she was trying to get at is that these covers in new shows are under-rehearsed and are being thrown on left and right without proper care during these trying times; this is an oversight of the higher-ups in the industry, not the covers themselves. These performers are truly the superheroes of our industry. During this surge in cases, and always, they have been carrying the weight of these shows on their backs, and I think they need as much praise and support as we can give them. As somebody who has performed as a swing and has also sat behind the table casting them, I can say that these covers are some of the hardest working, most talented people in our industry, and I only hope the powers that be are really asking what these incredible people need to feel safe, appreciated, and seen right now. After all, they are the ones out here saving our industry.”
St. Martin went on to issue a statement of apology this afternoon: “I sincerely apologize about my recent comments about understudies and swings. I clearly misunderstood and for that I am truly sorry. After speaking with several understudies and swings this morning I realize how this mistake has hurt many people. There was never any intention of disrespect. I do not make theatre but am committed to its success and to acknowledging the immense work of those who bring it to life eight shows a week and 52 weeks a year. Again, please accept my apology.”
The jury is out on whether the theater community will demand industry leaders who hold more experience in making theater.