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Matter and Myth

Rethinking the Body Onstage

The way people cast a play!
As if all cooks were fat, all farmers tough, all statesmen stately!

—Bertolt Brecht

Who looks like a lover?

Picture the lover: The lips, the eyes, the arms. Cast the romantic lead and watch them declare love beneath the footlights. What do you see?

Now picture those you have loved, and everyone you know who has ever loved.

Who looks like a lover?

We cast based on age, gender, and race. We cast based on size and conventional attractiveness and whether or not a dude’s face looks kinda smarmy. … Physical discrimination is a normative feature of theatre that we not only accept, but demand in the name of aesthetic integrity. 

There is already a vital movement toward inclusion in theatre. It challenges the industry’s racial and gender biases, and, increasingly, discrimination against transgender and disabled artists. But there is a dimension of theatre that these demands both obscure and bring to light:

Physical discrimination is a banality of our art form.

We cast based on age, gender, and race. We cast based on size and conventional attractiveness and whether or not a dude’s face looks kinda smarmy. Playwrights imagine and describe characters within physical parameters. Physical discrimination is a normative feature of theatre that we not only accept, but demand in the name of aesthetic integrity.

In my own writing, I’ve reserved the right to specify that Anna is an older woman, LJ is Egyptian, Leif is “uber hot.” Why shouldn’t I? Our characters become flesh and flesh moves in singular shapes, marked with freckles and wrinkles and hair and teeth. The matter of blood, skin and bones—and the transformative potential carried therein—is integral to theatre-making. But flesh tells its own stories, and our culture tells stories about flesh.

Hollywood illuminates the problem. A USC study of top-grossing films from 2007–2012 analyzed onscreen demographics. The study found that “Hispanic females are more likely to be depicted in sexy attire and partially naked than Black or White females. Asian females are far less likely to be sexualized … Hispanic males are more likely to be depicted as fathers and relational partners than males in all other racial/ethnic groups. Black males, on the other hand, are the least likely to be depicted in these roles.”

The prejudice extends also to the politics of size. Tom Ford’s 2016 thriller Nocturnal Animals opens with a stylized dance of naked fat women. Ford said his intention was “to talk about America today: Gluttonous, overfed, aging, sad, tired.”

When we decide that certain bodies make better fathers, better lovers, better metaphors for America, we usurp the creative process. Instead of inviting actors to summon a character with their bodies, we use actors’ bodies as props that refer to conventional symbols and stereotypes.

Are we writing for the body, or are we asking the body to write for us?

It’s not enough to sneer at Hollywood without recognizing how theatre traffics in the same stereotypes. Look to our shared jargon: “Character actor,” “ingenue” and “personal brand” all impose social myths about the body onto embodied stories.

I moved to Los Angeles after earning my MFA in 2015. For a recent collaboration, I had to write a piece for specific actors, known only by provided descriptions: This woman (Latina, short hair) is a quirky best friend and this (cis, white, able-bodied) man is an everyman, etc. This is a casting strategy, this is the game of selling and branding. It’s the code that tells us a fat body is funny and a skinny one is sad. It’s a horrible premise for writing. The code short-circuits the imagination, creating a character—quirky best friend!—from a presumed story written on a face.

How do actors stand it? I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle; capitalism grinds all of us up and there’s rent to pay. But I didn’t get into playwriting to make rent, and certainly not to make brands and products of people. I talked to actors and directors about the relationship between their appearance and their art.

“I’ve been playing grandmothers and men since I was in elementary school,” said Mo Perry, Minneapolis actor and writer. She offered an explanation on the theatricality of height. “Height weirdly translates somehow to age on stage. Shorter actresses play teenagers or ingenue roles well into their 40s, but tall actresses start playing roles far beyond their years at a young age—it's true for every other tall actress I know.” 

Our visual medium makes it easy to reduce random genetic byproducts (height) to lazy equations (TALL=OLD.) And while female writers and writers of color experience forms of discrimination and exclusion, playwrights hardly ever have to include their height on submissions packets.

Can we imagine a theatre that relies less on physical reduction while still embracing the radical diversity and possibility of the human body?

Bryn Boice, Boston-based actor and artistic director of the Anthem Theatre Company, spoke about being “typed” by a casting director in grad school. “[My type], at 27, ended up being ‘Cameron Diaz with more balls.’ When I got to NYC, a very important casting agent said to me, ‘You are fantastic. I won't be able to stop casting you in your forties. Right now, though, you’re an in-between, I don’t know what to do with you.’ And so I started directing.”

Who looks like a best friend, who looks like every man, who looks like a grandma, an in-between, Cameron Diaz? Our embodied art form lets us share experiences that are intimate and urgent. But the threshold between visual possibility and visual reduction is thin and wavering. Plays may reflect human truths or wild invention—but they can also mirror myths born of social prejudice.

As a writer, I feel more and more uncomfortable imposing on actors—the breathing humans whose bodies make matter of stories—physical and aesthetic limitations I would never accept for myself.

“But Abbey, writing isn’t acting! With acting people have to notice what you look like, and writing is a different thing where you never want people to look at you.” Yes, duh! Why do you think I stay in this lane? I have reverence for the bravery and vulnerability of actors. While I know their craft will always demand a unique physical courage, if there are ways to imagine a freer, less discriminatory and more humane theatre, I want in.

I don’t trust the stories we’ve inherited about our bodies.

Can we imagine a theatre that relies less on physical reduction while still embracing the radical diversity and possibility of the human body?

These are the approaches I observe in contemporary theatre:

1)    Subvert Expectations with the Hyper-Specific

Write characters for different, particular bodies. Center bodies that have been historically excluded—and cast them in roles that do not conform to stereotypes. A fat ingenue, an elderly romantic adventurer, a black Thomas Jefferson. A play where all the characters are women and yet they do things. A transgender protagonist whose story is not entirely about the drama of being trans. A transgender protagonist played by a trans actor. 

This isn’t new; it’s rooted in August Wilson’s “The Ground On Which I Stand.” Wilson called on theatres to honor the specificity of black experience. “Our manners, our style, our approach to language, our gestures, and our bodies are not for rent,” he wrote. “The history of our bodies—the maimings … the lashings … the lynchings …the body that is capable of inspiring profound rage and pungent cruelty—is not for rent. … We are unique, and we are specific.”

There needs to be artistic space for unique and specific bodies, and not just the occasional vacancy offered in benevolent departure from the norm. (Hamlet again, but this time a girl!)

Three pregnant actors in a circle
The Bumps by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Photo by Adam Moskowitz.

We need more programs like Mixed Blood Theatre’s Disability Visibility Project, and Red Theater Chicago’s Access Initiative for differently-abled artists. More musicals like Gigantic, a rock comedy about fat teenagers that doesn’t pathologize their size. More plays like Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s The Bumps, which features a cast of pregnant women who breakdance, break down and break norms. Drama that celebrates the theatricality of the body and defies conventions as to which bodies belong onstage.

It doesn’t eliminate physical discrimination—this is theatre that demands recognition of particular physicalities—but works to liberate the body from popular myth. Bearing witness to the body complicates hegemonic narratives. Consider Tom Ford’s desire to use fat women as symbols of bloated, greedy America. When the performers arrived at the shoot, Ford’s intentions shifted. “I found them so beautiful, so joyful and so happy to be there … I realized that actually, they were a microcosm of what the whole film was saying. They had let go of what our culture had said they’re supposed to be.” Or perhaps it’s Ford who let go of what he assumed their bodies were supposed to mean. This is the power of the body in the room.

Five actors on stage
Gigantic. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

2)    Radically Limit or Eliminate Physical Description

Write characters that can be played by different types of people, and remove the myth of the body from the imaginative process while preserving its reality in performance. It’s not “colorblind casting” (which tends to impose white male identities onto diverse bodies)—rather, a process of appearance-blind creating. Characters who have no physical designations from their inception.

A thought experiment: How do I write a character that many (perhaps infinite) bodies can inhabit? How do I do so without resorting to a conservative false universal notion of the cis, white, male “neutral?”

Some works don’t include race or other specifications in character descriptions, but pointedly call for casting a diverse ensemble. There are also experimentalist approaches to character embodiment: the biopic I’m Not There saw several actors portray different facets of the life of Bob Dylan. In theatre we are used to an actor performing several roles; several actors tackling one character is less common.

Directors can also broaden the scope of “nontraditional casting” beyond colorblind and cross-gender. Juliet can be fat—she can even be tall.

In our discussion of appearance, Mo Perry brought up the benefits of having a company of actors. “It forces a certain amount of flexibility on everyone’s part, and while there are still people falling into their usual archetypes, you also end up with some more surprising and novel casting that challenges everyone’s—director’s, actors, and audience’s—assumptions about who belongs in what narratives in what way.”

It may be that this approach lends itself to speculative theatre. When envisioning new worlds it is easier to rewrite the rulebook that governs the aesthetic and the physical. What if beauty is measured in tentacles? What if there are nine genders, or none at all?

It is worthwhile to step back from our casual acceptance of the aesthetic necessity of physical discrimination and consider what this does to our humanity and our imagination.

How can we not, when we know what destinies our leaders would write for those bodies they deem unworthy?

And here we’ve arrived. Yes, this is an act of political as well as theatrical imagination. Untangling the corporeal person from restrictive social narratives is the crux of many liberation movements. What if identities could rebel against gender assignations? What if size did not reflect virtue? What if we stopped believing the lies grafted onto black and white skin?

Theatre exists, ultimately, not exlusively because of stories, but because of bodies. Stories we can access anywhere. The phenomenon of live performance is a different magic, and to not engage radically with the potential and meaning of the bodies we bring together is to disregard what makes our art form matter.

Literally. Matter.

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Thought provoking article, relevant to the creative growth of theatre. I do think there are iconic, archetypal images associated with iconic, archetypal characters for a reason, seeing how they have been in existence for thousands of years. A skinny Falstaff is certainly possible, but portly does seem more appropriate. I do applaud the capacity to expand those images to reflect more accurately and creatively the divergent complexity of our world and its relationships. There are times as a playwright that I keep the physical descriptions of characters very minimal (or nonexistent); and there are other times I have them in for various reasons. As a director I have fallen prey to a preconceived idea of 'preference' for how I see or want a certain character to look. On the other side of the coin, if I'm directing a show with a transgender role, and I do my networking to locate and invite transgender actors to audition, IF a non transgender actor seems better suited for the role I'm going to cast that person. Political/social sensitivity has its place, an important and necessary place. And I support it. However, it does not mean that persons who are often seen as prejudiced against, and are prejudiced against, in terms of casting, are always the best casting choices simply because they belong to a particular group, category or classification. There is such a thing as 'level of acting skill.' There are obvious no no's of course. Like white actors playing characters that would normally be another race: Asian, black, native american etc. There is a common sense dynamic to this of course, yet casting non white actors in roles that within the world of the character and play would be white is recommended and applauded. As an example the mixed race marriage of John and Elizabeth Proctor in the recent Broadway revival of 'The Crucible.' Historically I believe, the community would not have allowed a mixed race marriage. So do I have a right as a white actor to proclaim possible discrimination? I know, I know, I know what most reading this would probably say; "it's because America is and has been primarily a white privilege society that I really don't have a right to proclaim possible discrimination. It's because white privilege has been the problem." And this is a correct observation, which is why it's an appropriate no no pertaining to casting. Basically I guess I'm saying by all means lets expand, broaden and deepen our casting horizons, AND also not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Thanks for these thoughts, Abbey Fenbert. It's an important part of any conversation we have around creating. As an actor I'm too familiar with the concept of casting for looks in order to satisfy the stereotype in the mind of the viewer. As a playwright I've struggled against assuming all my characters think the same way I do, and I tire of seeing the same conceits repeated, that a "look" equals a particular character trait. It will be a long road to sort this all out and I greatly appreciate your contribution to the journey.

This is such an important issue!! I feel like alot of actresses sink or swim based on conventional atttactiveness and its just depressing. I love the idea of eliminating physical descriptions and epanding our imagination about what kinds of people can play what roles. This article rocks!!