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Actors prep for weeks for a single role. This Mesa swing actor can fill in for anyone

We all know what an understudy does in a live theater production — but have you ever heard of a swing actor?

It means an actor has to be able to fill in for anyone on stage, pretty much at the drop of a hat.

Zack Pepe joined The Show to talk about what that's like. He’s an actor with Mesa Encore Theater, and he’s the male presenting swing in their latest production of “The Lightning Thief,” based on the Percy Jackson book of the same name.

Interview highlights

ZACK PEPE: I really like, got into theater in high school. So that's kind of really where I started doing plays. I did my first musical, my senior year, and then I've just been basically going ever since. So it's been 14 years.

So what do you love about it? What do you love about being on stage and sort of that energy of live theater?

PEPE: That's a great question. I love being able to like escape the real world and just basically play pretend for a few hours. I also love, you know, all of us theater, people are a little bit narcissistic, so we love getting laughs and people applauding for us. So that's always a great feeling as well.

So we've heard of an understudy. But you are doing something a little different in this latest production at Mesa Encore Theater, which is like being a swing actor. Describe this for us.

PEPE: Yeah. Yeah. So typically they're not used in community theater all that often. But it's basically, if any male-presenting person cannot go on for any reason, I would fill in their spot. So I essentially need to know what's going on with everyone.

So, any part, ou've got to know it and be ready to go?

PEPE: Yes. Yeah. Pretty much. With this show, luckily we have understudies for our lead. So I don't have to worry about those as much, but especially any of the ensemble tracks. I would definitely need to know those just in case I need to go on last-minute.

So what's the biggest challenge in this? Was this the first time you've been the swing actor and had to approach it in this way?

PEPE: Yeah, I mean, I've never done understudy or anything. It was definitely fun during the rehearsal process, but it is like a little bit stressful — because you never know what can happen. And since you don't really get to practice it in rehearsals, you kind of just go on on a whim and just hope for the best, really.

So did that happen so far? Have you been able to practice a few of the parts that you may have to fill in on?

PEPE: A little bit during the rehearsals just cause people were out of town for this competition. So I kind of filled in for all of them, but I didn't 100% know what I was doing. It was fun, but it definitely was challenging.

Is the chorus one of the harder parts to fill in on just because it's, you know, like there's so much involved in that and there's so many people to, to sort of sync up with?

PEPE: Oh, absolutely. I am typically an ensemble member when I'm in a musical. And ensemble is like the unsung hero of every show because we do so much more than people think. Sometimes we even do more than the leads. I mean, even with this show as an ensemble member, there are things I do on stage but there are also things I do offstage with our puppetry in the show. We sing offstage. So it's really like, it is, it's a lot.

So what do you want folks to know about the role of the swing actor? Especially, when it comes to somebody like you who has to be so versatile.

PEPE: We kind of command more respect because there is so much we need to learn and know for the show, so much more than the audience would ever think. Especially if they're just seeing us in our normal track on stage. They, they wouldn't even guess that we're supposed to know everything else as well.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.