An interview by Janet Conroy-Quirk
“If we were to cast based on storytelling ability, plus-sized women would rule the stage.” -Stephanie Lexis
The Ingenue. The Disney Princess. The Leading Lady Soprano. We all have a mental image of what those roles typically look like, based on what we’ve been exposed to in media. But what if we challenged those images? What if we broke those limitations? What if we rewrote the script?
This is the work of Stephanie Lexis. Stephanie, a classically-trained singer and actress, founded the Broadway Body Positivity Project in January of 2019, with the mission of “promoting body positive casting in musical theater for all shapes, sizes, and abilities.” The project quickly gained momentum on social media as Stephanie engaged numerous performers in sharing their stories of being denied opportunities or subjected to unfair, abusive feedback based on their size.
The personal accounts include a lyric soprano with a range of up to E6 who was told by a voice professor, “Are you sure you’re not a contralto? You don’t LOOK like a lyric soprano.” Another singer shared that she had recently sang at a panel audition in New York and received excellent rankings and comments from the judges. But one comment stood out. It was the one that said, “And yes, weight matters, unfortunately.” So many more testimonials were offered. College performers being told to go to the gym despite excelling at auditions, dancers of a size 8/10 being treated with condescension. It’s heartbreaking and enraging, but sadly, not surprising for many performers, particularly singers.
As the online community grew, Stephanie decided to take bigger action. Which is why, on October 8th, she announced that The Broadway Body Positivity Project is launching an Indiegogo campaign to produce a photo/cinema shoot in which seven plus size theatre actresses from NYC, Chicago and Minneapolis will take on romantic leads, ingenues, princesses and other roles. The project is perfectly summarized by Stephanie’s message, “As plus size actresses, we know our talent and worth, and we are tired of being overlooked! We’re going to stun you with our portrayals of iconic roles like Glinda, Angelica, Anastasia, Eliza, Audrey, Christine, Elle, etc.”
Stephanie explains why her work focuses on musical theater, stating that size plays a significant role in casting, and adding that typecasting is problematic not just because it is unfair, but because it has the potential to put a performer at risk of vocal damage. She discussed the situation of being told that her body doesn’t match her vocal type, saying, “I’ve been told I’d make a great Madame Thernardier. I can’t. I’d think I’d fry my vocal chords trying to sing the part. I’m a lyric soprano. I can beautifully act or sing Fantine or Cosette, though.”
Stephanie is a graduate of Millikin University, and found an essential group of collaborators in college. Her team includes Dani Morhbach, Ben Locke and Grace Barnett, all Millikin graduates, as well. They each specialize in a different area of the project, including diversity awareness. Stephanie recalls college as being a place where she met a “wide variety of the shapes and sizes and abilities that people can be packaged in.” She discussed her exposure to actors with visual impairments, as well as little people. She is passionate about the fact that these and other marginalized groups are left out of body positivity advocacy, and is clear that her mission of inclusivity and representation recognizes and welcomes all bodies.
“The only requirement to being bodyshamed is to have a body. I created this to advocate for actors in marginalized bodies, but also to represent every actor. Anyone can use Body Positivity.”
Stephanie states, “I don’t believe that layers of fat ( or lack thereof) affect ability to tell stories. Most scripts don’t reference body size or shape but we perpetuate the idea that one must be slim in order to play roles -and with that, we’re promoting the idea that slim equals beautiful, likeable, worthy of love.” She compares that to the practice of casting plus actors as villains who are presumed to be associated with “gluttonous, laziness, undesirable qualities.” Stephanie emphasizes how dangerous this practice is. “2.1 million kids in the 2018 season saw a Broadway show.. They learn from what they see.”
As for adults? They, too, are watching. 68% of American women are plus-size, and it makes sense that people want to see themselves represented, positively.
In discussing the myriad of problems with only representing narrow depictions of beauty in media, Stephanie considered what it will look like to challenge the status quo.
“What makes theater so exciting is that the craziest things can happen on the stage, but suspension of disbelief allows us to accept it. Casting productions the same way every time resists the magic of theater.” She comments that the industry “needs exposure therapy, as their resistance comes from fear, and a need to see a depiction.”
After all, as Stephanie concludes, “If theater wants to be the most progressive medium of entertainment, we’ve got to honor the diverse talent pool that we have.”
You can help Stephanie bring her dream to the stage by contributing here: