Part 2 Of Series from Janet Conroy-Quirk, Official Bold Boss

By Janet Conroy-Quirk, MSW

A few months ago, I responded to a Backstage casting notice that described a role as “a heavyset, husky woman who will be fighting with the lead; her weight will be mentioned.”

The description, to me, was not particularly problematic. A bit clumsy, but I’ve read worse. As an actor, I’m used to hearing many euphemisms for Fat. And as a Fat Acceptance advocate, I understand that fat terminology is a constant debate, even within the movement. Words are personal. There are plenty of words that my colleagues and I disagree on. So I wasn’t offended. “Heavyset” struck me as a bit antiquated, if anything. I could sorta hear my grandmother describing a “heavyset woman in slacks with a pocketbook”, circa 1985. Not a mean phrase, just…not current. As for “Husky”, I don’t hear it much, and I don’t exactly love it. Lotta animal connotations. Yet, I try to keep an open mind about the intentions of others when dancing around the sensitive issue of size. 

The idea that “weight would be mentioned” (presumably in a negative way, given that conflict was noted), wasn’t a deterrent, either. Depending on how it’s done, I believe intense discussions of weight or size in a story can lead to education, epiphany, or even just awareness of language. There were no sides provided online for this particular role, so I applied. I decided I’d see if I was contacted for next steps and go from there.

I was, in fact, contacted by the director, who sent the sides and requested an audition.  After reading the sides, I saw that the role was not only a typical fat stereotype- a bullying, bumbling, gossipy, unhappy woman-but also just a punching bag for a particularly harsh, unnecessarily abusive punchline/slur. I decided that I didn’t see any potential “awareness” blossoming from this piece. It was just your average fatphobic writing and I didn’t want to play the fat fool, paid or not.  I responded and politely (no, really) explained my concern, and declined to audition. It was a reasonable move at an appropriate point in the audition process. I hadn’t wasted anyone’s time and I communicated with honesty and professionalism. 

I received a response from the director.  She began by claiming I had seen the sides prior to submitting my initial application. That’s not true. They were not made available, which is why she, uhh, sent them to me. She then wrote, “We don’t like to sugar coat things with any of our productions as I can understand the lines could be offensive for the faint of heart.” 

Ah, yes. Because that’s what fat people, and fat actors in particular, get calIed when we try to set boundaries about how we’re willing to be treated. Faint of heart. We’re told it’s about us. We’re weak. We just can’t take it. Other people can take it! In fact, the director’s response built upon this theme when she added that she had many other people applying who were “willing to do the role and be paid for their time.” Odd claim, given that an hour later I saw that she was desperately advertising the role on Facebook. Her profile is public, so I took a look at the conversation. I was appalled. 

The director complained about “thin-skinned people” who “couldn’t handle the role.” Several of her colleagues joined in, making fun of fat people. One man stated,  “If you need a dude to say something vulgar about fat  people in a scene, I’m your guy!” Another (ahem) gentleman commented, “I’ll be your big mama….strap 60 lbs on me and I’ll get the walk down, I won’t shower for two weeks.  I’ll just smell like a great big old stinky woman, sign me up. Ok sacrifice I’ll even go to a funeral home lay in a casket you know get that really neat filling. The air.”  

The Director LOL’d at each comment,  encouraging the hateful language. The thread then somehow escalated to hatespeech about the transgender community. At this point, I logged off, blocked her due to genuine safety concerns, and was never more confident in a choice NOT to pursue a project. I can only imagine what my experience on that set would’ve been like, under the direction of a woman who not only creates abusive content, but gaslights those who refuse to perform in it, and then engages in hateful, disturbing conversations online to fuel her bigotry. Terrifying.

We’ve all heard that actors should know their type, accept it, and work with it. I admit that I don’t believe that. I was told a few years ago in acting class that my type was “Nurse, or Single Mother.” Nurse is rather broad- I know hundreds of nurses and certainly my friend Nick has a different look than my mother, who certainly doesn’t resemble my friend Katy, etc. So what are we saying about a nurse? Given my social work background, I’m sure I make facial expressions that hint of compassion, and I like to think I project competence. So Nurse might make sense. As for Single Mother. Hmm. Dare I unpack all that? Why Single? What does that signify? Again, I know many single mothers. And I can’t say they have a common “look.” 

I get it. This is the work, Janet! This is the reality. You wanna work, suck it up! I know, and I do. But this is also my chance to push back a bit. So I’m going to. In writing this series, I consulted with a very diverse pool of actors, writers, directors, some of whom have additional expertise in areas such as costuming, stage combat, dance, even circus performing. I wondered what they thought about roles, opportunities and language. 

I explored the concept of roles and casting notice language with Kelly O’Donnell, currently in her second year of Columbia’s MFA program. Kelly’s background includes co-founding the Flux Theatre Ensemble, and she is a writer/director for Scholastic Book Clubs. 

Kelly commented, “I don’t think casting notices that say ‘all races, ethnicities, sizes, etc. are encouraged to apply’ are helpful. I mean, of COURSE everyone is encouraged to audition. This is a no-brainer. It’s also lip service and it does nothing to actually help diversity on stage. When it comes to plus actors, we need to cast plus actors in a wider range of roles- and not just roles that are traditionally reserved for plus actors. Juliette played by a young plus actor would be beautiful! But it shouldn’t be done as a tokenizing gesture. It should be done because that actor kicks ass at that role. As theatre makers we have a great opportunity to lift up the voices of plus size people and to help change society’s bias about what an actor is supposed to look like.”

Kelly’s ideas pinpoint another aspect to this discussion- the roles that are traditionally played by larger actors. In her book The Female Body On Stage: Enter Fat Actress, Jennifer Scott Mosley describes typical roles for fat women in a chapter called “Monsters, Maneaters and Fat Behavior.” The first two descriptions are clear (surely we can all name examples of characters who embody these categories), but she elaborates on the definition of “Fat Behavior” by explaining that it “refers to the qualities and characteristics that Western culture, Americans in particular, attach preconsciously to fat female bodies. These include the assumptions I describe in chapter one of a fat woman as out of control on a physical and emotional level, outspoken, and voracious in her appetite for food, sex, and power.”

It is difficult to come to terms with roles available to me, because it often means confronting the roles I’m presumed to hold in the world. I’m aware of what society sees in me. “Society” isn’t shy about telling me that, whether it’s through movies that use fat suits and tropes about improving life through weight loss, or in everyday conversation. 

I recently played the role of a corrections officer in a brilliant off-off Broadway play, “T.R.U.T.H.”,  about the mass incarceration of men of color in America. In discussing the role with another actress, she shared that she had a relative who worked at Riker’s island. She commented that she had expressed interest in learning more about job opportunities there but, “He (her relative) told me I’m too pretty! (Pause) This is a really good role for YOU, by the way.”   

Some people put it right out there. But in casting these days, euphemisms are safest. Even when a role description clearly lays out size preferences, I’ve learned to read between the lines. I know I’m not what’s envisioned when I read the terms: fit, wealthy, sophisticated, chic, upper class, bombshell, sexy, stylish, athletic, takes care of herself (can we get rid of that forever?), health-conscious, hot mom, etc. Not because I’m not some of those things in real life. But because I know I won’t be considered “believable.” Not necessarily by the audience. This type of bigotry is an insult to the audience, actually. 

Sometimes,  I apply anyway. Occasionally, I acknowledge my size in a cover letter and explore what  it might bring to the role. Other times, I let my headshot and additional photos speak for me. I’ve made the decision to make my size a factor, and maybe even an advantage. I know that comes at great risk. But the way I see it, I’d rather know before I show up that I’ll be accepted for how I look and respected for who I am. Better than finding out once I’m involved that I’m around the type of people who joke about fat women smelling bad in a coffin.

Sometimes, though, we find the good people. In 2017, I was cast in “A Sketch Of New York”, a long- running satirical sketch comedy show in Manhattan, a show that many actors refer to as a necessary rite of passage for NYC actors at all stages of their career. It is written/ directed by Joe DiNizzi and Darien DeMaria.

I joined the rehearsals a day late because I had a schedule conflict. I was given a sketch called “Diva”, in which a famous actress engages in some very funny verbal sparring and stage combat with another actor and a director who will do everything he can to placate her. As I read it, I loved the role! But I wondered how it would translate. Would the audience remotely believe that I could embody a Hollywood starlet kind of look? There were about ten other women in the room, all thinner than me, all very beautiful. I worried about my dexterity and precision, and my hair and my stomach and the fact that I sweat. 

I expressed my worries to Joe and we kept working it. My castmates were extremely supportive and my scene partner, Matt, who had extensive training in stage combat, did a fantastic job of covering some of my missteps. It remains one of my favorite memories on stage. 

Joe DiNozzi, who, in addition to his Sketch Of New York success, is a fight director, choreographer, and stage combat teacher, shared his thoughts on the direction of options for plus actors. He observed that, “I think all casting is limited.  In acting you always have to know your type.  Even for the stereotypical 100-pound leading lady it’s limited.  But plus actors have opportunities they will never be considered for, and it seems like those opportunities are getting more respectful recently too.  This is an exciting time to be in media in that regard.  It’s the advantage of us reaching media saturation.  There are more stories being told than any person could possibly consume.  We don’t get everything from six broadcast channels and a handful of movie studios anymore.  When there are thousands of stories being told there’s more and more room for stories of every possible shape.  I’m seeing more plus leading roles out there.  I definitely feel there’s a shift occurring.”

[Editor’s Note: Here is the “Sketch of New York” Facebook Page]

I think there is, too. When I think about all the roles I’ve played, I’m lucky enough to say that my favorite role (other than Diva) was actually five roles in a show. My first off-Broadway experience was in January 2018, performing a romantic comedy called “The Twelve Dates Of Christmas” by  Ginna Hoben at the Davenport Theater. I was approached about the role by an fellow actor and friend, Ambrealys, who chatted with me about the show. I read the script and enthusiastically said, “Cool! Which role were you thinking of for me?” I had noticed an Aunt and mom and both were very funny. “Well,” she said, “I thought you’d play them all!” 

And I did. I played a kickboxing sister, a boozy aunt, a meddling mother, a mysterious woman (with “incredible legs and good hair”), and a five year old Tiny Tim.  It was perfect. It was fantastic. It was what I want more of. It’s what we shall need more of. 

The casting, the auditions- they’re all just the first step. But what happens when we Fat Actors join a cast, or start to do the work? Story for next time, I guess.