Life As A Swing: How Theatre Prepped Me For Ministry In A Pandemic

In most theatrical productions--particularly large format musicals--the cast consists of
  • leads--those who are featured the most in a show
  • ensemble members--those who support the show tremendously, providing vocals, wonderful dancing, and often, facilitating set changes
  • understudies-- those who are the next in line for lead roles should the performer call out sick or have an important engagement that forces them to miss a show. Usually, understudies are also in the ensemble, so they learn their ensemble track and the lead role
  • standbys--those who understudy a very prominent role in the show that's usually the lead or a major supporting character. Many times, the standbys are not in the ensemble. They just cover that one lead track and are to be at the theatre during the entire show or within 15-30 minutes of the theatre should they need to go on at a moment's notice
  • And finally, the swings

No. No, I didn't say swingers😎 ... though, I mean, nothing's wrong with that. To each their own. 

Swings are the lifeline of every major large format production. I was a swing for the musical Oklahoma! in college. I had to learn and know all 8 female ensemble tracks--
  • their entrances and exits
  • their vocal lines (so, I had to learn soprano and alto)
  • their choreography (I had to learn the 'ography and the mirror of the 'ography because in this particular production, the ensemble would often do the same steps but in different directions. For example, one side of the stage might kick their left leg up while the other side is kicking their right leg up...stuff like that)
Swings usually understudy several ensemble or minor lead tracks. One time, I was cast as a swing for three lead roles in an Off-Broadway show. I only ever went on for one particular role, but they had me on call to be prepared to learn and go on for any of the three leading ladies. Swings have to be organized. They have to be flexible. They have to be ready to jump into anybody's shoes at a moment's notice and produce the same quality of work that the performer (who normally does it 8 shows a week and has digested their track) does.

When I was swinging Oklahoma! I had a 3-ring, 2" binder full of notes. It had 8 different sections, one for each track, with a full, detailed summary of everything that track had to do, down to costume and wig changes. 

Swinging taught me a lot about ministry long before I knew I was called to this work. 

Since our world started slowing down in early March, eventually coming to a quasi-halt before prematurely picking up again (that's another blog for another day), I've become a swing again--from editing online content to executive producing weekly worship services, to dibbling and dabbling in liturgical curation, to teaching myself how to customize zoom backgrounds and add logos--the list could go on...for all of us, not just me. So much of my ability and willingness to jump in the gap was cultivated in the theatre. The agility required to--at a moment's notice--completely shift and shift quickly was nurtured in the black boxes and playhouses of my yesteryear. The propensity to compartmentalize--to be able to stretch my tentacles in several directions at the same time while simultaneously maintaining a birds eye view comes from swinging and dance captaining. 

A dance captain is a member of an ensemble who is responsible for overseeing and preserving the artistic standards of all choreography and musical staging within a production. The dance captain works closely with the director, the stage manager and the choreographer, to make certain what the choreographer has created is up to the standard needed for the show as the show continues it's run. 

In 2014, I dance captained my 3rd production of Hairspray. Similarly to swinging, I had to learn all the choreography--not to step into any roles, but to be able to preserve the integrity of the staging once the show opened and the director and choreographer departed. Like swinging, I had to be super organized; I had a binder full of notes--entrances and exits, special tricks for certain tracks (like back flips or splits)--and I had to be on call at a moment's notice to co-facilitate a day-of "put in" rehearsal when a swing had to fill in for an ensemble member or an ensemble member had to fill in for a lead. That particular run of Hairspray, we had SEVERAL put-in rehearsals (it was flu season and that thang spread like wildfire. Whew! God bless that cast).

Lately, I've been thinking of the team effort that has been required to transform many of our ministry contexts so that our work may be useful during this time of quasi-isolation and virtual content overload. I've been thinking about the effort required to preserve the integrity of our individual and collective ministries. I played team sports as a youth but nothing has been as urgent as getting a show on it's feet or getting a swing through their first show. Everybody's show is dependent on the swing getting their sh*t right and tight--on the understudy or standby knowing their lines and their notes, their blocking and their cues. Though we live in an overwhelmingly individualistic society, theatre is a team sport. When that understudy, standby, or swing goes on the first time (or first few times), it can't be "every human for themselves", not when your audience has paid anywhere between $75-180 per person for their evening out on the town (and that, my friends, is the cheaper end. We can talk about the exclusivity of ticket pricing in another blog). 

I remember my first performance in the Off-Broadway musical Sistas. I only had two weeks of solo rehearsal before stepping into one of the tracks. I'd learned my lines and I had my put-in merely hours before the curtain went up. Still, I was fumbling through blocking in some of the longer scenes and my sistas had to whisper my movements to me underneath the dialogue to get me from Point A to Point B! 

Sometimes, your fellow players have to literally push you into your position onstage 
(okay, that's a sermon!) so you won't get kicked in the face. 
Ha! It's really about your safety and everyone's else's safety/sanity at that point...nothing personal. Those moments are both terrifying and exhilarating! Such has been the "work of the Lord" during these uncertain and chaotic times. There are days when we have to whisper movements to each other to get us through the blocking of the day. There is no "every human for themselves" in this work--not right now...not ever. We are all trying to reimagine our duties--redesign or do away with our job descriptions--amidst political discord, economic dysfunction, and personal distress exacerbated by a global health crisis. Many of us have figured out how to be quick on our feet--ready for our put-in rehearsal at any moment--ready to jump into the producer's chair--ready to revamp our liturgy--ready to redirect our outreach funds--ready to rethink our spiritual formation opportunities--

Not for the sake of our egos or for the most view counts on YouTube,

But for the sake of life and the survival of our institutions and communities.

Easter Sunday 2020 was like opening night for many of us church folk. We had about 3 weeks from the time we closed our doors to the time we were to resurrect our Lord and Savior on April 12th to GET IT TOGETHER. It was nothing but adrenaline that got most of us through. It was all so new to us, so those services might not have been our best product, but they were our best for the amount of time we had in our put-in rehearsals to figure it out; but after that Sunday--once we realized that we'd be swinging into this role a little (or a lot) while longer--we began working on perfecting our product. What was acceptable in April would not remain acceptable in June or August. Yes, our cast mates might've had to push us around the stage during our debut in March--Yes, your fellow players might have to whisper your lines and movements to you in the wings before you walk onstage during your first show, but as time goes on, the swing must digest the track; they must get the roles in their bones, perfecting the craft, one show at a time. I certainly have felt that in my role as "Worship Production Swing." Every service, I get better and better--the editing gets tighter, the quality gets higher. I'd have it no other way, as a swing or as a pastor. 

This is the work of the Lord. Flexibility has become us--well, those of us who are open to the agility of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with our unknown futures (::cues:: "Into the Unknown" from Frozen 2). Every trial run on Zoom--Every unstable internet connection that has us saying "you're breaking up" during bible study--is a put-in rehearsal. "Unmute yourself" is your castmates whispering your movements to you in the midst of the exhilaratingly terrifying storm. When the livestream fails us on Sunday morning at 10am, a swing should be waiting in the wings, ready to go on--ready to save the day, as swings do--not with perfection, but with enough unfettered willingness to ensure our survival. 

This is who we are called to be in this moment. 
Swings. 
I've never been more sure of it. 

As the months go on (we are now in our 5th month of quasi-quarantining or whatever, cuz some of y'all don't listen), we are willingly or unwillingly being thrown into the unknown or the not-as-familiar. All of my actor friends have had "The Great Theatrical Nightmare" where you are in rehearsal or doing a performance of a show and you don't know any of the lines or blocking! Sometimes, you're naked onstage and you don't even know how you got there or what show you're doing! (I had one the other week!) For many of us--actor, pastor, or otherwise--we are living this nightmare, day after day. My prayer for us is that we venture into the unknown abyss with courage, trusting that our fellow players will push us into position. I pray that we have colleagues we trust, who can whisper our lines and blocking to us in the wings of despair before we step out onto the stage--castmates who can offer tender loving care and support us in our sermonizing and our liturgizing and our fall planning. If you are not called to swing-dom, at least be called to role of supportive castmate. 

Every morning, I get out of bed both exhilaratingly terrified by the idea of what I may have to troubleshoot that day--the role or track I may have to swing into at a moment's notice--and comforted by the idea that I am more than prepared for what lies ahead. At the end of a swing's (or understudy/standby) first performance, they are usually applauded ferociously by their castmates, and even the audience if it's a big role. There's a collective "whew, we made it" happening in everyone's minds as the adrenaline of the evening pushes passionately through veins. 

That's it--the adrenaline of swinging. 

It's the thing keeping me sane. It's the thing keeping me moving. It's the thing keeping me alive. 

Will you swing with me?

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