No Small Parts Series Part 3

By Janet Conroy-Quirk, MSW

My favorite musical is Evita. I’ve seen it onstage multiple times and I adore the Madonna movie interpretation.  I caught a performance of it a few months ago here in NYC. It was a fairly well-done production which featured the iconic white dress as somewhat a character of its own. It is set onstage as a focal point for the audience before the show, and later destroyed in the second act by a frustrated mob struggling with the inconsistencies of deifying a complex, flawed, loved and very human woman.

Sound of Music Makeup,  “When The Dog Bites/Bee Stings/Snowflake Lashes” costume Sound of Music singalong 2018 

I’m a pretty intense The Sound of Music fan, too. Ok, really intense. I’ve thrown themed parties, complete with pungent Limburger cheese (that’ll teach you who your friends are!).  I attend singalongs -with costumes. My costumes have included an interpretation of “When the dog bites /When the bee stings” and “Travel Clothes”, but most of the time, I’m the Baroness. The gold dress. The red and black “Auf Weidersehen, darling” outfit. I’ve done ‘em all.

In short, I love costumes. That’s a good quality in an actor, I think. But obviously there’s very little say in what we wear onstage, and that can be a struggle for anyone.  When you add in a large body, things get…complicated.

Playing Auntie Mame, Age 16, 1996

I was about a size 12/14 in my senior of  high school when I played the titular role in Auntie Mame. I was 16 years old, 5’8”, with a very mature body. The role required, to my recollection, about ten costume changes (one onstage). I loved that show, but I recall a lot of body insecurity. Sizes meant everything to me at that age. I had a particular feeling of embarrassment when one of the dresses I was supposed to wear was too small. Wearing it was essential to the scene, as it matched the dress of another character, played by my best friend. The solution was reasonable, and panels were sewn  into the sides of the dress to allow more room.. The only downside was that the panels were black. The dress was purple. To me, the panels felt like a beacon directing attention to my weight, the only thing the audience would see-and judge. I remember expressing to my friend how I felt. She gave some beautiful perspective, that the scene is one of the funniest in the show, with a lot of physical comedy that we worked hard to perfect. In the end, she was right. I don’t think anyone focused on the dress panel. The scene remains one of my favorite memories of performance and friendship.

Another friend preferred to be out of the spotlight, and  took on the job of helping me change out of every costume-and keeping track of them all. I don’t remember if I ever expressed to her how comfortable and calm she made me feel. I’m not sure I had the words back then. If she’s reading today, thank you. 

Our directors were two men with an understanding of the fact that even though we, as students, took theater seriously, we were still young and insecure teenagers. They politely checked in with me about the costumes  and even let me veto one that I hated because it felt like a punchline. I replaced it with a dress of my own. We might’ve missed out on a “bigger girl in a big puffy dress” laugh or two, but I think they felt that those kinda laughs, directed at a 16 year-old, aren’t good, and I’m grateful for that. In my opinion, those kinda laughs are NEVER good, which is why you won’t catch me watching cruel, lowbrow movies that feature fat suits. But that’s a rant for another time. 

In writing this series, I’ve interviewed people from all aspects of the performance world. I was excited to get the insight of Rachel-Amelia Rienecker, a New York- based theatre artist who has worked as an actor, costume designer, and wardrobe supervisor. She is pursuing her MFA at LIU Post. She reflected on her work by stating, “Unfortunately, I have seen more done wrong than right. I’ve worked on a lot of period pieces, especially within the early 20th century, when the fashions were unforgiving to anyone with curves, let alone plus size women. I have witnessed designers get visibly and vocally frustrated in fittings because the actor does not have the “right” body for the period. Most of these designers learned their craft during a time when the concepts of body positivity and inclusivity were not widespread. I believe there needs  to be education for this older generation of designers. They are now the ones working with and mentoring young designers. They need to learn the proper language to use in situations where the actor cast may be at odds with the vision they had.”

Ms. Rienecker’s points about language and the evolution of body inclusivity are incredibly accurate. A few years ago, I was in a play set in the late 1950’s. It was a small production, and there were limited costume options.  I understood that. As a size 26/28, narrow fashion options are never a surprise to me. I tried not to complain when I was given my costume. Rather than focus on the aesthetics, I tried to advocate from a standpoint of functionality. The last button on the shirt was above my belly button, leaving an open “shirttail” (is that the word? I removed button-downs from my personal life four years ago and haven’t regretted it once) that wouldn’t stay tucked into the skirt.

“It just needs another button, “ I said. Repeatedly. “I can even just do it. I know how.”

Well, I never got that button. The solution was to safety pin the shirttail to my panty hose. Uhhh. We’ve all encountered safety pins, right? They don’t do much, since  they’re an emergency measure, not a long-term solution. But this was what I was offered, and I went with it. Nobody likes a Diva. Or so I’m told. So, for every night of the performance, the pin would unsnap and stab me in the stomach, and the shirt would come untucked. Always right before I had to stand up and deliver a powerful, climactic monologue. My character was unlikeable- racist, angry, uneducated. I guess it was somewhat satisfying  to present her as unkempt/ sloppy/ a slob? But I have to wonder if maybe there was some prejudice about the body of the woman playing the character, too, and what she “deserved.” Because it ain’t that hard to sew on a button. 

Sometimes,  the costume struggle isn’t about a lack of input or control, or even about others at all.  It’s internal. A little over a year ago, I was working with a brilliant director in the Columbia MFA program. He had written a Hamlet-based piece featuring a group of Ophelias who confront Hamlet in the afterlife. We all wore black dresses from our own wardrobes. I debated between a long and a short one. The director left it up to me to decide which to wear. I was far larger than the other Ophelias. I still feel a special connection to each of them, as the piece was one of the most raw and emotional that I’ve ever done, but I felt a bit different. I chose the long dress for our first performance, because I was worried about revealing my underwear or thighs during some of the more physical parts of the piece. I tripped on it getting up off the floor. I also realized that I was doing the thing that I tell other people of size not to do- hide their body. I couldn’t accept that. I chose to wear the short dress for the next performance. Every Ophelia liked it better and I felt more comfortable in my movement and my body.

Ms. Rienecker offers a beautiful piece of advice regarding costuming: “Never talk about the actor’s body being “wrong,” talk about the garment.” I agree strongly, and I’ve learned that talking about costumes and bodies is essential. It requires vulnerability and can be embarrassing. That’s when we need to assess whether or not we can rely on the people in our production. 

Two years ago I played a corrections officer in a play that went on to win several awards in an NYC festival. The costume was tough. It was hard to find pants that fit my shape, and we were using a men’s uniform. Plus, my mortal wardrobe enemy (The Button-Down Shirt) returned, with its evil partner, The Very Heavy Windbreaker With An Elastic Band Bottom. I also wore a pair of authentic-looking men’s boots, with high laces that I struggled to lace properly over my pant legs, particularly as the pants had been altered to fit snugly around my waist, while the shirt strained over my stomach and breasts. After struggling with the boots for far longer than was comfortable, I resorted to doing the laces up only about halfway, and pretending I didn’t notice the difference. After a few dress rehearsals, my director, an expressive, supportive writer/actor and former circus performer who can contort his body  in ways that are mesmerizing, realized the problem. I wasn’t being lazy or careless. I just couldn’t do it. So each night, he’d tie the boots for me. It took a lot of pride-swallowing and there were complex gender and racial aspects that I had to confront. The rest of the cast- three kind, exceptionally talented men, observed all of this and quietly acknowledged my needs. I didn’t feel embarrassed.. Because I knew they accepted me and my body and its limitations without question or judgment. It was a perfect lesson in the ability to say, “Yes, I love my body. BUT, I also need help with this task that my body is struggling to do. My body’s not wrong. The garment is a challenge.”

Perhaps your patience is running thin and you’re ready to  rattle off far more distressing stories about uncomfortable costumes, either from your own experience or famous accounts. Hey, I get it! I own a behind-the-scenes “The Wizard Of Oz” book, too. Crazy stuff! Maybe this all sounds petty. You might want to tell me to toughen up or get outta the business. You can say that, if it’s important to you to  discredit me. But I’m still going to maintain that one’s body is a story itself. I’m just here to tell mine. I wanted to focus on “the good stuff” in this piece- people in the arts who are doing it right. But that’s not how advocacy works. The not-good stuff matters, too. 

So. Two quick anecdotes about shirts to wind up. First, there’s  the 2017 show where we didn’t have costumes due to a delivery problem, and started coming up with last minute solutions in the dressing room. I offered an extra t-shirt of mine  to another castmate, suggesting that she could knot it, clip it or cut it (as the more creative cast members had done with other shirts). She put on the shirt and made quite a performance of letting it hang from her small frame. She laughed, arms outstretched, posing and gathering the extra material to emphasize how “big” it was.  A few others started to giggle as she handed it back to me with two fingers, saying, “Um, yah, no? Um, thanks, though!” I remember thinking so many things: Why? Who does she think she is? Why is she humiliating me? Is this bullying? Wait. I’m 37. I’m getting bullied?” It made sense, though. A production develops a culture of respect or disrespect based on the behavior and tone the  director models. Our director had ignored me so much that she kept “forgetting” to block my onstage death and subsequent dragging offstage by another castmate. She didn’t want to do the work or have the conversation of how anyone could carry me. So my castmate and I handled it ourselves, and it worked out just fine. 

Conversely, I worked one day on a web series set  in prison. I knew we’d be wearing scrubs and I worried about the fit. I was still a bit on edge from the t-shirt experience. I emailed the director to tell her that a typical 2x top might not work for me and that a 3x would be better. She replied, simply, “I got you.” And she did. She already had my size, and she had my back. When I was sweating in a  scene- something that happens to me for many reasons (many having NOTHING to do with my weight), she expressed that she loved the look and it worked well for the intensity of the scene. It was a lovely experience. 

It’s an astoundingly simple lesson- accepting and integrating the way an actor looks or exists allows for freedom to be in the moment, doing the work. Sure, costumes are more than necessary-they are art. But so are the bodies that wear them. 

I’ll be working on the conclusion of this series in the next few months, along with several other pieces that I hope you’ll enjoy. My hopes for Fat Positivity in arts communities and Size Diversity in casting in 2020 are high- maybe too high. As I write this, I’m sifting through social media posts about resolutions, weight loss, attacks on plus performers, and the resurgence of “The Biggest Loser.” None of those things  are encouraging. But sometimes, you have to put on your metaphorical gold Baroness dress and keep going. It sure beats wearing a button-down and keeping quiet.