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Being a Body

During my last year of grad school, during maybe our tenth all-school meeting on diversity, inclusiveness, and cultural competency, the question of casting rose (again) to the forefront of the conversation. We were all in agreement that we need to be producing plays and telling stories by and about diverse people, particularly people (and in my opinion, mostly women) of color. And we were all in agreement that theaters needed to offer more casting opportunities for actors of color, both in plays about people of color and plays not explicitly about people of color. But the question that we struggled with the question of how to proceed with telling these stories within our confined educational space: that is, how to tell these stories in our scene study classes, our directors labs, and our devising classes, before an audience made up only of each other, with limited actors to choose from.

That was when one of the MFA playwrights spoke up and said, "I think it would be worth discussing how we can cast our plays from the community instead of just from the MFA actors. Because we are trying to tell specific stories, and for those stories, we need specific bodies. And if we don't have the right bodies, we won't be able to tell the stories in the way they need to be told."

We had been having an important and productive conversation about how to collectively take responsibility for the art we wanted to make as a community- but in two sentences, a member of that community (albeit, a very far-removed, stay-in-her-room-writing, doesn't-understand-actors member of the community), reduced a group of human beings to "bodies."

The head of our acting program once said, "I don't understand the playwrights. They care more about actors looking right than about actors who are well-trained to speak the language they have written skillfully." And that was true- one of the playwrights in particular, an older, white male playwright, would repeatedly get frustrated that we wouldn't just do exactly what he told us to do, that we wouldn't just repeat verbatim the line readings he spouted at us. To the playwrights in our program, we were just puppets, just objects to be moved around at will. We were just "bodies."

Recently I have been told more and more by various casting directors that I am "too short" or "look too young" to play certain parts- characters who are between the ages of 18 and 28. "You're super great," they say, "but you just don't look right." The argument that I am, in fact, a real-life 26-year-old woman, thus making it impossible for me to not look like a 26-year-old woman, means nothing. It means nothing because reality means nothing- what matters is that I don't fit their individual, arbitrary idea of what a 26-year-old women is supposed to look like. I am learning that my talent is largely irrelevant- what is relevant is my body. Specifically, all the things that are wrong with my body.

You all know by now that I struggle with my body image. Being an actor has only exacerbated (if not caused) these issues. I am lucky enough that no one in the industry has told me I am fat yet, or that I need to lost weight to play a certain part. But I live in constant fear of the day that happens. In fact, that's part of why I don't want to pursue film- because I know in that world, thinness and beauty matter even more that they do in the theatre. At least for now, until the slow-burning revolution that is the body-positivity and body-diversity movement conquer the industry once and for all.

The time in my life when my eating disorder was at its worst, during my sophomore year of college, happened to perfectly align with the "movement quarter" of my acting class. As part of this "movement quarter," I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in such movement practices as contact improv (during which every boy in the class scooped me up into the air without my consent, because I was "small" only to grunt and tell me that I was "sturdier than I looked"), juggling (I'm really not coordinated, ok), and straight-up exercise classes (keep working those abs, guys! You're gonna be the sexiest kids on campus!). Aside from spending hours upon hours a week focusing only on my body through mandated physical activity, I was also reading "Building A Character" by Stanislavski as my required reading for this course. I didn't retain anything from this book, except for one particular passage, found in the chapter called "Making the Body Expressive." The passage goes like this:

"People generally do not know how to make use of the physical apparatus with which nature has endowed us...they neither know how to develop this apparatus or keep it in order. Flabby insufficient training and an inept use of this physical instrument. Maybe a body with bulges in the wrong places...does not matter in ordinary life...But when we step on the stage many lesser physical shortcomings attract immediate attention. There the actor is scrutinized by thousands of onlookers through a magnifying lens....he must have a healthy body in good working order, capable of extraordinary control...We need strong, powerful bodies, developed in good proportions, well set up, but without any unnatural excess. The purpose of our gymnastics is to correct...the body....There is no such thing as ideal human structure. It has to be made...When the defects have been found they must be corrected" (38).

There is a myth that has pervaded the entertainment industry since Stanislavski or earlier, a myth that says that an actor must represent the physically ideal human, rather than the physically realistic human. Stanislavski himself is so obsessed with actors finding real truth onstage, in actors producing realistic human experiences and responses, yet when it comes to an actor's physical appearance, the desire to reproduce life is it really is disappears. Everyone wants actors to be real, except when it comes to their bodies- on that front, everyone wants actors to be perfect.

Take Chris Pratt and the diet/work-out regiments he has endured for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and the Jurassic World movies. He is exercising multiple hours every day, eating a very regimented diet full of things like chia-seed protein smoothies, in order to obtain some sort of muscular, masculine physical ideal. But I don't think either of his characters in these film franchises are spending most of their time exercising, and they definitely aren't drinking protein shakes for dinner. Pratt's character in Jurassic World lives in a trailer in the middle of a dinosaur theme-park, for Christ's sake. He's just a normal guy, who has a passion for raptors. With all that time he spends training the dinosaurs, how could he possibly have enough time left to exercise as much as Chris Pratt the actor exercises in order to maintain is ideal physique?

Why are we so committed to perpetuating the harmful narrative that characters in movies, who live and eat like the rest of us, don't actually look like the rest of us. This narrative then contributes to normal people feeling worthless and guilty when they eat like the Gilmore Girls but don't look like the Gilmore Girls. Like this picture, of a super-thin girl sitting next to a can of Pringles:

We are taught that we are supposed to look like the girl, and be able to eat the Pringles. And we feel like losers when we cannot achieve this impossible ideal.

We are taught that we are less-then if we choose the Pringles over our "bodies"- that is, if we choose to have an existence beyond that of our "bodies."

One thing that came out of the many diversity meetings- specifically, the "women's meetings"- that we held during my third year of grad school was that we finally convinced the administration to stop giving "fat talks" to students, both men and women. To their argument that they were simply "discussing a reality of the industry" and "helping us get cast as much as possible," we responded that this "reality" of the industry would only be a reality as long we allowed it to be a reality. The status quo would maintain as long as no one challenged the status quo. After all, wasn't that what Stanislavski was doing? Revolutionizing the industry? Trying to strip away the artifice and create theatre that was more true to life? As we discussed in the meetings, it wasn't that we wanted our teachers to pretend this ideal-body standard didn't exist in the industry- we just wanted to be given a choice as to how we would face it, rather than being told our only option was to mold ourselves to fit the standard.

But in order to change the industry, we have to be as united as possible. Which means playwrights and directors who claim to be interested in changing the industry, in making it more inclusive, have to stop viewing their actors as merely "bodies," but rather as skilled human beings.

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