We are in the midst of a great drought. A drought of plus-size performers on our stages, and I think it’s running creative industries dry.
I was 17 years old when my drama teacher told me the reason that I couldn’t be part of the main cast in our play was because my hair colour wouldn’t be consistent with that of the rest of the girls. Of course, it’s only natural to get stupidity mixed up with fatness, but its only with the beautiful benefit of hindsight that I’m able to make light of this now. At the time, I sort of believed her. In part this was because I was vulnerable, and 17, and another part was because for most of my life as plus-size woman, I fail to see women like me in the places that I felt most accepted. Nowadays I don’t consider myself a performer, and am quick to notify people that I write, I don’t act. Actually, I do like performing. I don’t like being fat-shamed. The easiest solution? Don’t audition anymore.
Ok, so I used a semi-extreme example, to make a point that needs making - every time that creative artists make work that re-enforces any unsustainable representation of bodies on our stages, we’re kind of subconsciously agreeing to this being a sustained reality for young people. And whether we like it or not, we need to start accepting some responsibility for the alienation of young people of all genders, whose body types are being used as reasons why they can’t take up space on the stage, or even in the writers room. It’s difficult enough to be a teenager right now and re-enforcing superiority of the white, petite body as the only valid body-type is seriously not making it any easier. Fatness counts, plus-size artists matter, and we need to start shouting about it.
Of course, the issue isn’t always as explicit as being relegated to a non-existent part in the school play because you’re too big to play a protagonist. How much easier it would be, if that were the case; the discrimination is there, we can see it, we can call it out. Alas, we know that discrimination works in far more insidious ways and in creative industries I’m observing it manifesting in a perception of plus-size female performers being considered exclusively as comediennes, as well as in casting, in costume, and vitally, in writing. Sometimes it’s not enough for us to be non-descript about the body type of the characters we write. Let’s write plus-size characters, not necessarily to have their body type becoming a big feature of their life or as the source of all their problems, but let’s write plus-size characters as an invitation to plus-size performers. We can start to rehydrate our stages by writing the characters we want to see. For ourselves, and for a lot of 17 year old girls still getting told they ‘don’t fit’. Fuck it, let us write plus-size characters because plus-size people exist in the world. If we locate the incredible potential of theatre in its ability to represent ourselves back to us, then perhaps diversity initiatives become about being the mirrors, held up to reflect those who are so grossly missed out. And then, whilst we’re fighting the casting fight lets cast diverse bodied people in our own work, let’s fill our stages with beautiful bodies in a myriad of sizes and use them as vehicles with which to tell beautiful stories. Let’s stop letting plus-sized women think the only way they can lay claim to the stage or page is by cracking jokes directly related to their weight. It’s stifling.
Perhaps we thought we’d made a breakthrough when Tracy Turnblad graced our stages in Hairspray, perhaps we thought we’d ticked a box. We patted ourselves on the back. We said things like “Oh wow, a plus-sized woman on the West End stage! Go us!”. Tracy Turnblad was the first time I’d ever seen a woman with a body type like mine on the stage. But there’s only a certain amount of times I can watch the same musical to make myself feel good. I know there are women in the world who are fighting representation battles much greater than my own, and I am of course, allied with them the whole way. Tracy Turnblad is a brilliant example of complacency, and whilst we’re seeing a rehydration of the plus-size body on the Fringe stage, it seems that collectively, we have so much further to go to rehydrate our main stages with plus-size performers should they want to be there.
I often feel as though I’m looking out onto dried up planes of creative lands (go with it). There are pockets, of course; beautiful wells o collaboration and understanding. My intention is not to come across wholly pessimistic. I am angry, I have good reason to be. Other people’s perception of my body is a roadblock to me being able to fulfil my potential as an artist. And I’m an angry tired, plus-size woman. And I’m about to write an army of women like me into my stories.
They’re going to rehydrate the stage. With every single fantastic pound of their body mass.
Rachel is a writer and solo performer who is learning how to make people laugh. Currently studying at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.