You are not supposed in 2018 – George Orwell’s Thought Police have certainly arrived – to notice or comment on the body shapes of actors. Critic Philip Fisher offended actor Nicola Coughlan and many other people this summer for referring to her character in Donmar Warehouse’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as an “overweight little girl”, for example
It’s a strange mindset, when you think about it, because actors have always been cast for their ability to look the part as well as act it. The text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, demands that Hermia be shorter and darker haired or skinned than Helena. Falstaff is definitely a fat man although most actors playing him don fat suits.
Odd is it not, that it’s perfectly acceptable to cast a slim actor (remember Simon Callow as Count Foscoe in The Woman in White on TV and in the West End?) and fatten him or her up with prosthetics. No one says “You should have cast an obese actor – opportunity missed”. And of course, it is quite easy to make a thin person fat. But all the clothes and clever devices in the world will not make a plump person thin on stage at least. It might be different with film.
And that’s why I worry about some of the young people I see graduating from drama schools these days. Of course, I’m as delighted as anyone to see that size and weight are not precluding recruitment as it once did. Talent and potential should be the criteria – always.
I recently watched a technician making a tutu for a corps de ballet member of the cast for Royal Opera House’s Swan Lake. Yes, each one has to be individually made to fit because dances are no longer a stick thin uniform size, I learned. And it’s true. When I saw the production I could see that they varied – but, of course, none was obese.
There are, though, very often obese young actors in a drama school cohort. And very good some of them are too. Then you see their graduation shows and showcases and notice that they are – especially if they’re female – almost always cast in older, matronly or very bossy roles even at drama school. And it will apply even more out in the working world. If you weigh 12 stone you are unlikely to be cast as Juliet or Viola. It’s possible but the odds are against you. And that’s not me being judgemental. It’s a fact of the industry. Does anyone tell these young people this?
At my younger son’s recent wedding I had a long chat with his nice new father-in-law, who is keen on theatre, about this very topic. He was troubled because he’d just seen a professional performance of a well known musical and been distracted by the unhealthy size of several cast members. He felt, rightly or wrongly, that they’d been miscast. Well it’s this sort of widespread “traditional” attitude amongst punters which producers have to negotiate in order to ensure bums on seats – which is why my point stands. It isn’t a criticism of chubby actors.
Rotund performers, however good they are, will almost certainly have more limited opportunities than their svelte mates. That’s why drama schools – who have these people in their hands (as it were) typically for three or two years – should be doing everything they can to support the transition to a healthy weight during training. Yes, of course I know that the causes of obesity are many, various and complex but no one is born fat. Almost everyone can maintain a healthy body shape – and that doesn’t mean whippet-thin either – if they eat and exercise appropriately and get all the help and advice they need. It’s no good getting all huffy simply because someone had the temerity to mention size.
There’s another issue here too. Actors and other performers have to work incredibly hard. This is not a profession for wimps or the faint hearted. And in order to maintain that energy and stamina you need to be as fit and healthy as you can possibly be and that is unlikely to include being several stone overweight.
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