Thursday, July 2, 2009

Swinging: Theatre Thursday

Last week I wrote about understudying. Being a swing is similar. I was a swing for Tony n Tina's Wedding, a popular interactive show, for a whole season. As a swing I was ready to go on as several roles... a few main characters and then one of the caterers. Playing the role of one of the caterers was a cheap way for them to get servers... I'm sure we didn't make as much as paid restaurant staff. We had characters and names and interacted with the audience, in addition to serving food. We just weren't one of the characters in the storyline.
I actually really enjoyed playing Pat. I made her a bit of bad @ss, and spent a lot of time talking up the customers. I would have whole tables chanting my name when I walked by. Without having to follow a script I had a lot of freedom to just play. I learned a lot about improvising and interacting.

As a swing you're pretty much guaranteed that you'll get to go on eventually, and very likely you'll be called on to take over a role. I never ended up taking over a role because I really enjoyed the benefits of swinging for this show: I could work when I wanted to, and could take off when I needed to. The year I was a swing with TnT I did at least three other shows that required me to take a month of weekends off. I just told the stage manager I would be unavailable those weeks, and gave her a reminder call when my run was over. I was usually back on the dance floor dancing to the Macarena and YMCA the very next weekend.

The basic structure of this show is that it begins with "wedding guests" arriving, and the caterers serve hors d'ouvres and mingle. A few of the other characters arrive and mingle. Then the wedding ceremony begins. The ceremony itself is completely scripted. Then comes the reception, complete with food, dancing, etc.

The actors are given a timeline based on the songs that are being played at the reception. There are things that have to happen at a given time. It might be a scripted moment out on the dance floor. Or it may be a more improvisational moment, like snorting cocaine at a patron's table, having a fight with X person in the corner about Y situation, bumming a cigarette over at the bar. The audience is sure to get all the key points of the plot, but there will be nuances and subplots that not everyone will be in on (part of the mingling with the crowd is gossiping about all the things going on, directing attention to certain places, etc).
Leading the crowd in singing "Sons of God"

I was hired to swing as Sister Albert Maria, formerly known as Terry, cousin to the bride. The script gives detailed backgrounds, descriptions of the characters and their relationship to the other characters in the show, and asks some leading questions about what will happen to that person this fateful night. "The nun," as we all took to simply calling her, is defined as a "pretty... turdball... full of complexities and thus unpredictable." I played her with a lisp.
My mom came and saw the show. Here she is hanging out with the sister after the nun has loosened up with a few too many drinks (occasionaly men at the bar would buy us drinks... of course the bartenders knew to give us the nonalcholic version during the show... but after the show we could collect on the real thing!)
Here's a little tidbit of unexpected information... the men attending the wedding (i.e. THE AUDIENCE) cannot keep their hands off the nun. Every night I played her I was pinched and grabbed. Men tried to lift my habit. Everyone wanted to dance with me. Perhaps they are playing out repressed Catholic schoolboy desires? It was wacky. All the men in the show are given explicit instructions to help defend the nun. And it is needed.

I was also hired to play Marina, the geeky, young bridesmaid who everyone tries to ditch all night. I played her once.

The part I ended up playing the most was that of Connie, the 8 months pregnant maid of honor. I never expected to play her. It was towards the beginning of my time as a swing. I had gone on as Marina the night before, and hadn't done "the nun" yet. I walked in at call time expecting to get ready to play Pat. The stage manager approached me and told me that the girl playing Connie couldn't be there. And that I was going on. She handed me three pages of a photocopied timeline proclaiming "Connie" across the top, and told me I would be fine. I had not learned her dance moves for the Spice Girl number (fortunately, since she is preggers, she fakes most of them anyways). I sat at the makeup mirror next to "Tina" and she talked me through the show (meanwhile I was getting the evil eye from other swings who HAD been hired to swing for Connie. I'm not entirely sure why I was asked. I guess the stage manager just liked me). I went out with a copy of the timeline in purse. I stole glances at it in the bathroom and under the dais during dinner. I did indeed make it through the night just fine, and went on to play Connie many more times... under far less stressful circumstances.

Working on Tony n Tina's was an experience. It's not high art, that's for sure. But the audience loves it, and working on it for an extended time and in unexpected circumstances taught me a lot about developing a character and thinking on my feet. There was also a great lesson in finding ways to keep things fresh over a long period.

But the most lasting lesson I took away is that every wedding has a bit of TnT in it. I will never, EVER be able to attend a wedding without thinking about a moment from that play. Certain bible readings, songs (for years I ran for cover at the first strains of The Hustle), toasts... sometimes I still can't quite contain the snicker. And it's been a decade.


Anonymous said...

That looks like you had a ton of fun. Thanks for sharing that. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow. Every week your career sounds like more and more fun. Years ago, I narrowly missed attending one of these "weddings" with my husband's predominately Italian co-workers. I'm sure they were nun-pinchers.

Magpie said...

i've never seen that show, but i've been to those weddings. the chicken dance, the emcee. oy.

Furrow said...

Wow. That sounds like so much fun. Maybe the dj at my wedding had seen that show. He kept playing songs we specifically asked him not to play.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I've always wanted to go to TnT and haven't quite managed it. I have a wedding coming up, however, that has great TnT potential to it.

alejna said...

These stories are just fascinating, Maypole! And loads of fun.

The show sounds like an interesting one. I've never been to anything interactive like that.

imbeingheldhostage said...

I love that you're educating me! Seriously, these posts about what you do are really fascinating. What great memories you have (and great pictures-- you can have your nun pictures and preggo pictures on the same page in an album).

flutter said...

you are seriously so cute

JCK said...

What Flutter said. are having SO much fun! Your adrenaline must be racing and your blood singing.

I was living in NYC when Tony & Tina's wedding premiered. I'm kicking myself that I didn't see it then, but hope to some day. And wish I could see you in it!

Woman in a Window said...

It's so funny to see you playing such strange and wild characters. Giving me a big hoot!

Anonymous said...

that is totally the Actor's Nightmare

Louise said...

This is a fun post! Seems like a very fun thing to do,and still having memories at weddings is amusing!