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Swinging a Song Ryan Link covers multiple roles in Hair.
By Linda Buchwald

During the love-fest that is Hair, where a spontaneous hug or grab can occur at any moment, the audience and cast have to be prepared for anything. This is especially true for Ryan Link, who as understudy for the roles of Berger, Woof, and several Tribe tracks, has to be ready to go on at a moment's notice.

Originally from Seattle, Ryan Link, who won't reveal his age ("Young enough to do it and old enough to do it right"), moved to New York in 2001. His journey to Hair on Broadway was a long one. After auditioning for various roles before the Shakespeare in the Park run and its extensions that never worked out, Link was called in December for the role of Claude during auditions for the Broadway transfer. "They said, 'We like you, but you're not a Claude,'" he remembers. A couple of call backs later, Link was hired as the Berger understudy. 

Link went on as Berger for the first time in early June, shortly after Hair won the Tony for best revival. He has to balance sticking closely to what Will Swenson does with the role while still making it his own. "Will and I are pretty different and I think what he does is incredible. I don't think anyone could possible replicate that note for note," he says. "I just try to pay homage to what I like about it without making it artificial. Berger is such a real comfortable in his own skin character that it can't be faked and I think that's the case with all the characters in Hair. It has to be something that genuinely comes within you. No matter how good an actor you are, I don't think you could fake that loving hippie spirit without it being cartoonish or caricature-y."

Another reason Link has to be so comfortable with the character is the scene at the top of act one where Berger interacts with audience members, asking them for money or to hold his pants. "You don't know what you're going to get from those people in the front row when I go up and stick my balls in someone's face and say, 'Hey mom. Can I have some money?'" he says. "You've got to be able to improvise a little bit and stay in character and be warm and loving and mischievous and not scared of doing that in front of 1400 people."

He and the other understudies have weekly rehearsals, usually on Thursday and Friday afternoons. Most of the principal roles have two understudies, a swing (who covers multiple roles) and an ensemble member. The stage management will decide who goes on in a particular situation.

Even with those rehearsals, the best lesson was performing in front of an audience. The woman he solicited for spare change on that first night refused to give him money. "I just wish I'd been a little more persuasive," he says. "I don't think I was quite ready for that, I just went on with the monologue as it was written, but I wish I had not taken no for answer so easily. I settled for a hug. That was OK."

The understudies are at the theater every night they are not performing, either watching the show or hanging out backstage. "We do wholesome things like Scrabble and crossword puzzles and straightening each others' hair," Link jokes. He likes to watch the show from different angles, but is not required to watch the show a certain number of times a week. "It's very much a self-starter's game. Especially through the rehearsal process, when we started in January, the swings often didn't have a lot to do except sit and watch and take notes. And we're expected to be on top of all the people we cover, so it's a hard job if you've never done it before," he says. "We're not often told explicitly what to do. It's just learn the part."

Of course, no matter how prepared he is, mishaps can happen, especially when learning so many tracks. "The first time I went on as Berger I had just rehearsed Woof that afternoon. When the lights went out for 'Oh Great God Of Power' in the second act, I went the wrong way with my flashlight and tripped over Sheila in the dark and then realized I was supposed to be on the other side of the stage," he says. "But that's OK. I don't think anyone noticed. Good thing the lights weren't on."

Even if they had noticed, they may not have minded. Link describes the audience as amazing and feeds off the enthusiasm of the crowds. He considers himself lucky to be working on a show like Hair. "The producers and company management have been really good about including [the swings] in some of those bigger things like the TV commercial and the Tony Awards," he says. "I think that we're all happy to be included in whatever we're included in. It's nice because some swings in some shows don't get to do any of that stuff, so we're fortunate."

Learn more about Hair.
Author: Linda Buchwald
Linda Buchwald is the assistant editor for Scholastic Math Magazine. Her writing has appeared in various publications including The Sondheim Review, PopMatters, International Musician, and Making Music Magazine. She also blogs for Critic-O-Meter and her own blog, Pataphysical Science.