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Pretty Woman: The Musical's Actress Channing Weir Shares About Life as a Swing on a Broadway National Tour

Written by Carrie Beth Wallace

Images courtsey of RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

The national Broadway tour of Pretty Woman: The Musical is coming to RiverCenter on May 15 for one night only. Based on one of Hollywood’s most beloved romantic stories of all time, Pretty Woman has received rave reviews thanks to its dynamic cast and powerhouse creative team led by two-time Tony Award®-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Legally Blond).

In advance of the RiverCenter performance, I had the opportunity to speak with Channing Weir, one of the tour's cast members who serves as a swing for multiple female roles in the show. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a professional swing, and what it's meant for Weir in this particular production.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy tour schedule to speak with me today. If I could, I'd love to ask you some questions about your role as a swing in this production. Swings aren't often in the spotlight, but they absolutely function as a vital part of any show. Can you speak a little about being a swing so I can share your insight with our audience in advance of your performance in Columbus?

A: Absolutely. Thanks for asking. Talking about being a swing is actually one of my favorite things in the entire world.! I've spent most of my career both professionally and non-professional when I was younger, being some version of a swing or an understudy.

Q: How did you get into being a swing in the first place?

It's something I just completely fell into by accident. I grew up doing community theater. It's where I got my start in performing, and I remember the first time I kind of accidentally was a swing was in high school. I was doing a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at my hometown theater. I was playing the narrator, which is the lead of the show, but I had to leave one weekend for a high school competition.

They knew about it way in advance, so they arranged to bring in another girl who had played it a few years previously to take over and do the track while I was gone. Everything worked out, but the competition I was in ended a day early. Since I was already out, and the girl was already ready to go on that night, I decided to sit in the stage management booth and watch the show from there. In community theater, you don't really get an opportunity to sit and watch the show, because you're on stage all of the time and there are rarely ever understudies.

So, I'm sitting next to the stage manager and I hear over her headset that there's a problem with one of the ensemble members of the show. I'm 14 or 15 at the time, and I had never even touched an ensemble track! Well, it turned out that the ensemble member was violently ill and couldn't go on at all. When I heard this, I looked at the stage manager and said, "I can do it. I can do her track." Needless to say, as the show was starting, she sent me backstage where they pinned me into the girl's costumes and I performed my first swing role ever.

Q: What a wonderful experience for you at such a young age!

A: It really was. I've done mainly either understudying or been a swing ever since. I've made it my whole career.

Q: That's amazing. So, what's it like being a swing on a national tour like Pretty Woman?

A: So, I'm a swing and an understudy for Pretty Woman. For any of your readers who may not know the difference, a swing in professional theater describes an actor that covers an ensemble of the show. This can mean either a set number of ensemble members, or that the swing covers the entire ensemble as a whole. For Pretty Woman, it's separated by tracks. I cover all seven of our female ensemble members.

Q: Wow! That's wild.

A: (laughing) It is wild. I'm also an understudy for this production. The term understudy means that I specifically cover principal roles. In this case, I cover both leading ladies: the tracks of Vivian Ward and Kit Delucca.

Q: Wait. So you cover nine tracks in this production? That's a lot your brain has to keep up with every night!

A: It's pretty crazy, but I love every minute of it.

Q: Can you share any insight for us on what kind of dedication that takes? Especially in the rehearsal process? What does the rehearsal process look like for a swing learning to cover nine tracks?

A: Well, it's jarring for those who've never done it before. Because when you're specifically an off-stage swing, you sit and you watch and you take notes in rehearsals. It can be very overwhelming if it's your first time as a swing. Thankfully, I've done many productions where I've been expected to cover multiple tracks, so this tour has really been a lot of fun.

This production has lovely creative team. They're the direct associates of Jerry Mitchell who helped set the production. They've set the show all over the world, and they've worked with a lot swings. Some directors that are newer don't know how to work with swings very well. That's something that all four of us, our swing team on this show, have experienced before. Occasionally, production teams are just not as versed with working with swings. Thankfully, that was not the case with this production.

Our choreographer has been a swing as well, so on day one he looked at us and said, "I'm perfectly fine if you guys want to get on your feet and rehearse things behind the actors." It was very nice we had the freedom to do that throughout the entire rehearsal process. It's also important to sit and watch so we can learn what's happening in and around each track. We have to know what's going on at all times, so we can jump into any track at any moment.

Q: What tools do you have to keep up with everything?

A: So we have our own table at the front of the room, and we have different technologies we can use. We have a system called Stage Right where we can create our own maps, charts, and everything we need. We use that a lot, and we have a shared file we can all access at any time. We also have written notes and videos. Then, we just have to learn it all after rehearsal.

Q: How interesting!

A: It's wild. It's a lot of homework. The homework when you're a swing never ends.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Well, there are tracks in this show that I won't touch for three months, and then suddenly maybe an hour before the show I'm asked to go on for that track. If you're a swing and you let a role get too far back in your brain where you're not able to recall anything, then you're lost. You always have to be doing your homework to keep the tracks fresh in your mind.

All four of us on the swing team for Pretty Woman have been swings in multiple productions before. As swings, each of us has learned to come up with systems that work best for us. They say it's like when you're a kid in school, and you have to figure out your best way of learning. For some people it's tactile, or for some people it's just repetition. Some people have to write everything down note cards. You just do whatever works for you.

For me, I'm very visual. So every time before I do a track, I pull up the reference videos that we have for the team and I watch what that track does, who they're behind, and where they go next.

You just have to learn what sticks best in your brain. It's different for everyone.

Q: So do you have any wild stories of being called on at the last minute that you can share?

A: (laughing) Well, actually about a week ago I was thrown in mid-show for the lead.

Q: You're kidding!

A: Nope. It happens, and I was glad to step in! We've had some mid-show swing calls before for ensemble members, but this was our first principal track mid-show swing on for this production.

The thing is, our lead actress was not feeling well, but in the Vivian track, the first act is a marathon. You are never off stage. It's nothing but costume changes. You just never leave. Our beautiful lead actress performed beautifully and made it to intermission but just was too sick to finish the show. Unfortunately, there was just no time for a smooth swap over until intermission. I have my own costumes, but we have to get the microphone off of her head onto my head, and there is just nowhere to do a clean swap. So, she waited till right before intermission, went back to stage management, confirmed that she needed to come out, and I went on for the remainder of the show.

Q: Wow. What a cool story.

A: I do want to say I think it's really important for audiences to understand that an actor calling out of a show is them being a responsible actor.

Knowing when to call it when they need to is so important, and something that should be highly respected. It's also why swings exist.

We as swings and understudies, have our jobs not because we can't perform a role full time. We have this as our job because we can do multiple roles at a moment's notice.

Q: Yes. That's exactly right. Thanks for saying that. Being a swing is in it's own entire category of actors and requires a specific skillset that directors seek out when casting a show.

A: Absolutely. It's very nice that in recent years the role of the swing has become a lot more forward facing and the audience is more aware of the fact our role exists. It's kind to be portrayed as a hero who comes in at the last minute sometimes, but I actually prefer the ideology that we are professional swings because we can do every job in the room at any given time. It's not like we're heroes or anything! This is our job, and while it's great to be able to do a last minute swing on for someone, building a career as a swing really comes down to the reality that we are hired because we can do everybody else's job in the room at a moment's notice. Not everyone can do that, and for me, it's what makes swings so unique and essential to productions. I also love how every night can be so different!

Q: Does it keep it fresh? Is being a swing something that you look forward to every time?

A: I do love it. Every job is different, and just like anything else, what I prefer actually depends on the type of contract I'm on at the time. Things like Pretty Woman are long contracts. We've been on tour since September, and on long contracts like this, I do prefer being a swing. I feel it's a good balance, and it keeps the show fresh in a different way for me than it would doing one role every single night for so many months.

However, if I was in a different show that was very, very, very physically demanding, like say Cats or Moulin Rouge or things like that? It may not be ideal for me to be a swing. Those highly-physical shows are brutal on your body and are extremely difficult for swings to manage. Our bodies as swings are not as acclimated to what the show demands of each role individually, so it's a lot harder on us to recover. On shorter contracts or more physical shows, it's very difficult to be a swing because we have to keep ourselves in prime condition at all times, even if we're not going on. It's not easy!

Shorter contracts are sometimes outlined differently anyway. Sometimes, they don't have an exact swing/understudy ratio because of the length of the run. It can be a little bit of a blend, which is nice because if you're only in a show for like a month to three months, I find it can be good to do the same thing every day. All in all though, I just love my job and take every job as it comes. They're all different and that's what I love about it most!

Q: Thanks so muh for sharing about your life as a swing with us, Channing! Is there anything else you'd like for our audience to know before they see the show on May 15 at the RiverCenter?

A: Sure! I say, come to the theater prepared for a good time. If you're fans of the film, you'll be getting so many of the iconic moments that you love. But also, open yourself up to knowing we are playing the story of Pretty Woman, not the film Pretty Woman. My biggest tip is to come with open hearts about the story, which is all about watching two people fall in love. If you are fans of the movie, don't worry! You're gonna get the iconic moments in there. We've got them all for you, and you're going to have a really good time. ◼️

If You Go

What: Pretty Woman: The Musical

Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

When: May 15, 7:30 P.M.


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