Life as a West End Swing

January 20, 2016
May 26, 2022
Life as a West End Swing

AS Musical Theatre Alumni David O’ Mahoney

“Since doing the first Associated Studios course I went from strength to strength – I secured a great new agent who I’ve been with for many years now and who I count as a friend and a rock… and have now wracked up two West End contracts, an Arena tour around America and I know there’s still great things ahead.

Leo and the directors, MD’s and choreographers from Associated Studios have remained in my life as friends, mentors and as fellow professionals. When you’re ‘resting’ these people will be the ones who drive you forward – your friends and family will always support you – I’m very lucky to have an amazing support network around me. Having a good ‘out of work actor’ job is great… I have a couple that I actually really enjoy. But I never forget exactly who I am and what I say my profession is.

I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon performer. I love playing everything from evil psychopaths to doting lovers… I love comedy roles too. As I discovered I could do a multitude of different roles I found I became useful to casting directors to fit different roles. In the arena tour of ‘Batman Live’ I covered and played the roles of comic book villains like TwoFace and The Joker along with various ensemble roles. In The Bodyguard’ I covered and played the Stalker, The Bodyguard and an FBI agent again, along with an ensemble track.

Now in ‘Beautiful’ I am covering all three of the white male leads and the two ensemble tracks. Yes, I am tired. No, I have no idea how I remember it all! The challenge of learning all the roles is daunting. But like any job, every actor has that moment of worrying about being able to learn everything in time. Over the years, in various shows, I’ve been asked to play roles and do extra things at short notice but that’s part of the fun isn’t it?! It is brilliant to push yourself further and further. Everything is scary until you do it: it’ll always be fine.

I remember going on for the Stalker for the first time. I was stepping out on a West End stage as a lead with an hours notice, singing a duet with Beverley Knight and I was topless. As a former ‘fat teenager’ I wasn’t sure what I was more aware of!! Of course, in all seriousness it was a brilliant adrenaline rush. Frank Thompson and Thea Sharrock (Resident Director and Director) had given me such close rehearsal and confidence to go out there and own the role like I was playing it every night.

That’s the main responsibility of being a swing and understudy – the audience will be understanding to a point when disasters strike, but on the whole, they have paid a lot of money for a theatre trip that is probably a special occasion: they deserve for you to walk out and believe in yourself. This is regardless of if it is your first show or you’ve been playing the role for a hundred shows. I did my dress rehearsal as Carole King’s husband last week – he has a huge story arc and deals with lots of deep emotional struggles – when I go on, the audience need to believe every nuance that I do the way they believe Alan Morrissey (Original Gerry) every night. As a swing, the challenge is not to rely on a few shows to bed in – you go out and you leave it all on the floor. Take no prisoners and not hold anything back. I’m working with some truly remarkable actors in ‘Beautiful’ and a director and company that are incredibly supportive. I always try and be a sponge for information – I listen to the show; I watch it; I shadow people backstage; and I go over the script with other people backstage. That’s my job – to be ready.

I’m currently rehearsing Barry Mann, the last of the lead characters in Beautiful. While starting rehearsals I would write everything down and try to be around for as many rehearsals as possible. It’s also a joke how organised my script looks. I use coloured tabs and highlighters that are all co-ordinated depending on the character; there are floor plans with blocking notes and diagrams. It may seem over the top but when you’re learning five tracks, all with songs, harmonies, hundreds of lines, blocking involving many other actors and big emotional journeys you HAVE to be organised.

Some people outside of the industry don’t understand how useful and crucial being a swing can be. A recent article in the Guardian detailed all the famous examples of people going on last minute to great aplomb – including Noma Dumezweni – the new Heromine Granger and who went on for Kim Kattrall with I tiny amount of rehearsal. Some people are scared about taking a swing or understudy job, not because they’re worried they won’t be able to learn everything; or take the pressure of going on at a minutes notice… They worry that they will get seen as a swing with a career glass ceiling. Its just not true. I’m very proud to be a swing – like I’m proud of the lead roles I’ve played. There are so many jobs that make large shows possible – from the stage crew, to the costume and wigs departments; to the stage door team and front of house. The swings in any show are as critical as anyone involved in the show. My friend Hannah Shankman has swung on Broadway shows such as Hair, Les Missrables and was in Side Show recently – last week she went on for the first time as Elphaba in Wicked. On Broadway. And she’s a swing. I think most people would be crazy not to think that’s a brilliant job!

I guess my advice to anyone finishing one of Associated Studios courses and/or considering being a swing would be this: Be humble but be proud of things you have achieved; be nice to everyone today’s front of house team member could be tomorrow’s West End lead and vice versa; work as hard as you can; always keep learning; don’t ever, EVER give up until YOU truly want to; be happy with every decision you make; and everyone has to find their own path – my path has taken me on tours: Europe, The US and the World – I’ve visited over 60 different countries with work; I have done TV, Film and now I find myself in a brilliant show, with amazing people and playing roles I absolutely love. It’s a privilege to do what we do and the more you’re grateful, the easier it will be to cope with the down times.’