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June 20, 2011 at 12:39pm

CARV’S WEEKLY BLOG: On casting for physical fitness

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We theater folk are, for the most part, a tribe of earnest liberals. I'm sure there are a few Glenn Beck junkies running around on the boards, but they stay mostly in our GOP closet. We're all wonderful, kind, inclusive people who embraced color- and gender-blind thinking long before the nation at large caught up with it. I've seen black Galileos and male Juliets, female Prosperos and short Macbeths, gay apostles and deaf sopranos. And that's good. It really, truly is. It makes audience members, including critics, confront their own biases; so until such choices hobble the text, I'm all for it. But there's one aspect of wide-open casting that I'm still, I must confess, trying to wrap my head around. I'll admit my leanings here, then put it to you to decide how backward or unreasonable those opinions might be.

Be honest, though: Don't be hypocritical in your feedback, no matter how much you want to impress your fellow liberals. Tell the truth.

Is it possible for an actor to be too fat or unattractive for a role?

Now, just so you don't think I'm being willfully obtuse, I will tell you up front that I myself am a person of size, well past the 200-pound mark. I wear black for a reason. The last time I was cast as a romantic lead, it was years ago and purely by necessity, and I can't remember the time before that. I will warn you that anyone who casts me in a dancing role deserves what he or she gets. I'm not without sympathy for actors who are outside the culturally (and, let's face it, genetically) determined standard of physical perfection. I'm also well aware that overweight people can be attractive, which is why I put the word "or" between "fat" and "unattractive" above. But there's a reason why chorus girls tend to be thin, and it's not just the dreaded "male gaze."

"Oh, he's talking about me," someone out there is thinking, already feeling that visceral pain. But I'm not asking this admittedly unsavory question in response to the work of a single actor. Far from it; in fact, it's more than a few. In all candor, I'm asking partly because I've been thinking about my own fitness for various roles. Rumor has it certain companies prefer actors who fall within preferred physical standards. Is that OK? Do we hate that? Do we secretly get why they do it? Should we fight it? Are they right? The fact is, a director must cast the person who seems most effective in a role, and sometimes, plausibility is a definite factor.

I've seen way too many productions of musicals, for example, with dancers who would never be hired in the jobs they're portraying. I've seen fortysomething seniors at Rydell High, an entire baseball team of prancing flamers in Damn Yankees, and a Ziegfeld Follies kickline that resembled a Richard Simmons video. I know it's rude to make fat jokes, and I'm in no position to judge...except we do. We do see physical shapes and sizes, out here in the wilds of Audience Land. It interrupts the flow of the story by taking us out of that delicate web of ersatz reality.

Even opera companies no longer cast zaftig actors in the roles of Carmen or Mimi. Why? Because whether fat people can die of consumption or not, it looks and feels false to the average patron. Yes, I know there are mismatched couples in the real world, but despite that, a hot Juliet making out with a corpulent Romeo is a speed bump for most people's brains. We can't help it. It's how we evolved. And directors can try all they want to make audiences more liberal by being extra super liberal in front of them, but it's almost impossible to dazzle an audience member out of his or her biological biases. A sweaty, heaving ingenue is always a tough pill to swallow.

My wife introduced me to, and quite possibly invented, the phrase "body-blind casting." It's an appealing idea philosophically, but I wonder if it just might not work. I support color-blind casting whenever feasible, but what about a black Patsy Cline? I'm for gender-blind casting, but would Oleanna work with a female professor? How about a male student? I submit to you that these would be horrible ideas, no matter how well-intentioned. And by similar logic, is it possible that body-blind casting isn't always the optimal solution?

You tell me.

P.S.: I'm told by one reader that "fat" is now a politically incorrect term. That may be true...but if we say "fat" is a bad word, aren't we also saying "fat" is a bad condition? Are we willing to imply that? I don't know.

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Heather said on Jun. 20, 2011 at 1:39pm

As with any physical feature that is outside of the "norm" of what you expect in a character, if the person is a good actor, facially, vocally, and physically, I personally don't think it matters. I think most of the time when a overweight person isn't convincing in a role that doesn't have dialogue pertaining to size that gets downright contradicted, it's because they are self-conscious and it shows. The only successful actor I know of that graduated from my college's theatre program is overweight, and while she does do mainly character parts, she's been cast in romantic leads with smaller partners quite a few times. And it's because she has a sexy voice and is confident as hell.

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