jakub | March 28, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Making Space Onstage

Betse Lyons, Vicky Graham, and Maghan Taylor in “I Will Eat You Alive.” (Photo by Kiirstn Pagan)

Nineteen-year-old Eileen Tull sat in a theatre class, head filled with lifelong dreams of acting. The professor focused that day’s session on preparing students for auditions, instructing students to wear what they might wear to one.

“The most beautiful girl in the class was standing up there,” Tull said, “absolutely gorgeous and very straight-sized, very thin.” The professor told Tull’s classmate, “This is a great look for you to wear, and if you lost 15 pounds, you could really succeed here.”

Eileen Tull. (Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux)

Tull, now 36, clarified about this recollection, “I don’t even know that I would have been able to label myself fat, but it still felt like I was too big.” Tull, who does currently self-identify as fat, said she remembers thinking, “‘If she has to lose 15 pounds, God, how much weight do I have to lose to make it work?’”

Tull admitted that her first inclination is to put the professor’s comment in the context of other horror stories she’s heard. “I feel like, even now, I want to say our program was fine compared to other ones,” Tull continued. “Like, we didn’t even have it that bad. But to put that in the head of a 19-year-old or a 20-year-old is so harmful.”

For about a decade now, Tull has created performance art and stand-up comedy, and recently founded Fat Theatre Project (FTP) in Chicago. The group aims to tell stories “by/about/for/with fat people.” It’s one of a recent crop of theatre companies and projects about fatness that have sprung up throughout the country. Though discussions of theatre’s predominant fatphobia are nothing new, some theatremakers who describe themselves as fat are rethinking the kinds of stories and characters fat artists can be part of, at a time when commercial theatre continues to mainly cast performers who straight-sized—a term not without its own baggage that originated in the fashion industry, usually referring to people who fall between sizes 00 and 12.

As a straight-sized person myself, I make attempts to be an accomplice to fat folks. When I read what Roxane Gay wrote about her fatness in Hunger, it resonated with my disability experience even before she also mentioned disability. “My body has forced me to be more mindful of how other bodies, with differing abilities, move through the world,” Gay writes.

I am also someone who deeply values joy, especially disabled joy, which is perhaps why a February performance of director and playwright Katie Hileman’s I Will Eat You Alive brought me to tears. Though her company, Baltimore’s Interrobang Productions, doesn’t solely focus on fat theatre, I walked out of the show energized by the stage time it gave specifically to fat joy and celebration. The show, streaming now through the end of March, follows three characters named only Fat Women 1, 2, and 3 at a dinner party. Hileman, who is Interrobang’s founding artistic director, drew inspiration for the play from her experience as “the fat girl in eating disorder treatment,” and especially wanted to tell her story after reading Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig in graduate school, one of the only plays she read or saw with a role written for a fat woman.

“Who is this man, and why is he choosing to write about this experience in particular?” Hileman wondered. “It’s the same tired narrative that we always see of fat women, which is that the fat girl doesn’t get what she wants and it is because of her fatness. I want to see the fat girl win for a change!”

Katie Hileman in the 2015 Interrobang Productions staging of “Kermoor” by Susan McCully. (Photo by Kiirstn Pagan)

In LaBute’s play, a young professional Tom starts dating Helen, a fat woman, and Tom’s coworkers proceed to hurl insults about Helen’s weight and make fun of Tom for dating her. Hileman said she felt that Helen’s sole purpose in the story is to support the stories of the play’s male characters.

“If a piece stars a fat woman,” Hileman concluded, “I’d much prefer to see a story written by a fat woman with lived experience. To me that authenticity makes a difference.” So Hileman created the piece she wanted to see, one where a fat person could “talk about this in a way that feels real and impactful and good.”

With a similar goal of seeing fat people in more substantial roles, Grace Rosehill founded Broadway Bods in New York City. The company, where Rosehill serves as executive director, mainly produces well-known musicals in an effort to keep, as the company’s motto has it, “Putting Larger Bodies In Leading Roles.” Broadway Bods is currently in rehearsals for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (“We’re healing our inner child,” in Rosehill’s words), set to run April 26-28 at the 14th Street Y. Rosehill’s impetus for starting Broadway Bods in 2021 came when she started abstaining from auditions.

“I was still very early in recovery of eating disorder things, so I didn’t want to tempt fate, basically,” Rosehill said. She had started a fashion Instagram and saw a variety of events for fat folks, ranging from fitness to teas, but noticed a gap in the theatre space. “I feel like there isn’t space for me or anyone,” she thought. “What if I made one?”

Last year, the company produced its first mainstage production, mounting the Andrew Lippa version of The Wild Party. Rosehill noted that the character of Kate seeks the attention that the character Queenie is given by other characters, and stressed the importance of not casting Queenie as thin and Kate with a fat actor, which would perpetuate the idea that a fat woman is undesirable.

“We wanted to do that show very deliberately to show that fat people are hot and desirable and sexy,” said Rosehill. This includes Queenie, “the epitome of desirability—like, everyone wants to get with Queenie.”

Jenna Redmond as Queenie in Broadway Bods’ production of “The Wild Party.” (Photo by Matt Cubillos)

FTP’s Tull also believes that casting fat actors can recontextualize a play. For the company’s first program, Fat Tuesdays, Tull facilitated a series of play readings with fat casts and directors. Directors chose scripts with themes of fatness, or simply ones they loved. For one of the Fat Tuesday readings, she produced Zach Parr’s New Oleanna, a take on Mamet’s play.

“There’s nothing in the script that is necessarily about bodies, about fatness, about size,” Tull said. “Part of the play is about his anger and his modulation of anger and how much he can show his anger. The actor is a big, tall, large-bodied person. If you are a big man who takes up a lot of space, you have to modulate your anger, and I think there are other kinds of bodies that respond to that as well, depending on race and size and things like that. For someone who is 6’2’, takes up a lot of space, their anger will be reacted to differently than if they were a smaller, less ‘threatening’ kind of person.”

Grace Rosehill. (Photo by Daphne Rosehill)

Tull and Rosehill both mentioned that they’ve seen some signs of progress in the industry. Rosehill said that on paper it seems like there is more fat representation on Broadway stages, pointing to folks like Bonnie Milligan, Julia Lester, and Alex Newell. But the roles these actors have most recently played don’t center their weight, and Newell and Milligan’s standbys (in Shucked and Kimberly Akimbo, respectivley) have been straight-sized. So despite some encouraging signs, Tull and Rosehill note that the progress we’ve seen still pales in comparison to the progress the industry needs. As Rosehill put it, “It’s still very much tokenizing. It’s still very much like there is one fat person in the cast.”

Tull pointed to a show she recently saw at a LORT theatre, which she didn’t want to name. She noticed that while none of the actors cast in it are fat, one actor puts on a fake belly to play a character Tull described as “monstrous and crass and terrible.”

“It’s frustrating and it’s also so boring,” Tull said. “Hire a fat actor.” On other hand, she was quick to add: “Not that I want actors to have to play those parts. That’s the conundrum there: I don’t want fat actors to have to go through playing a cheap version of a fat character. I want fat actors to be able to play all kinds of characters. So it’s a problem with casting, a problem with fat suits—and a script problem, if you think the only way a fat character can exist is in this sort of cheap way.”

Brittany Ellis and Will Colley in a Fat Tuesday reading of “New Oleanna” by Zach Barr. (Photo by Eileen Tull)

Rosehill also only works with costume designers who “know how to dress a fat body,” and Tull sees a clear need for more fat people behind the scenes in addition to acting and casting. When pursuing her undergraduate degree, a costumer told Hileman what a “problem it is to dress a body like mine.” In terms of making the production process comfortable for fat performers, Rosehill gave the example of making sure Snoopy’s doghouse for Charlie Brown can support a fat actor dancing on top of it. Rosehill and Hileman both feel the limitations put on fat actors.

“If you don’t look a certain way, you’re not allowed to play, or you’re only allowed to play by their rules,” Hileman said. Rule No. 1, of course: “You have to be the one that we laugh at—you have to be the butt of the joke.”

Rosehill said that the roles fat actors generally get cast in are supporting roles or antagonists “you want to see beaten down, because you’re not supposed to be rooting for them. I very much think that is a reflection of our society.” Tull also feels the lack of interesting, layered characters for fat actors, especially compared to what’s available via her Fat Tuesday readings, like a double bill of Zack Peercy’s duology, Greetings From Sadsville and Greetings From the Moon. “Fat people grow up and fat people fall in love and fat people struggle with death and grief and all things of the play,” Tull said. Neither of the two plays mentions weight.

“I’ve seen fat Black women play very specific roles,” said Vicky Graham, a performer in I Will Eat You Alive. “They tend to be on the ‘mammy’ side of stereotypes and are either cooking for somebody or traumatized by motherhood or something. I Will Eat You Alive gave me an opportunity to just not be any of those things, just be a person who is telling a story with a bunch of other people who are just people telling a story.”

Dina Perez, 24, an actor in Tull’s Fat Tuesdays series, was one of the only non-white and fat kids at her high school in the suburban Midwest. “I had curves and a lot of the white people around me didn’t,” said Perez. “I stopped eating.”

Dina Perez, an actor in the Fat Tuesdays series. (Photo by Eileen Tull)

“I am open to talking about it because I do want this change in the theatre and I want people—thinner people—to recognize what harm casting or picking these kinds of shows does to us,” said Perez, who went on to attend an arts high school in Chicago and eventually played the lead role in her senior college musical, It Shoulda Been You, a musical farce focusing on the mishaps around a chaotic wedding day. In Perez’s opinion, the show’s script and lyrics (by Brian Hargrove) handle weight poorly, which meant she was compelled to sing negatively about fatness and to hear dialogue about it from her peers. While she dreaded being cast in the role, she said couldn’t quit because she needed it to graduate.

Perez contrasted this and other run-ins with fatphobia to the comfort and safety of her work with Fat Theatre Project.

“It’s really nice just to be in a room full of people where I’m not constantly thinking about that,” Perez said. “I feel more safe and less judged, and we all come from similar backgrounds with our feelings towards food and body image. It’s very moving and powerful to have more fat stories happening. It reminds people we aren’t alone. Others have gone through this. There’s something really healing and special about that.”

That feeling of comfort is echoed in the words a performer wrote on an audition form for Broadway Bods: “This is my first real New York City audition, because I feel like there hasn’t been space for me in other places. And this feels like a space that I can join.”  

Comments like these have energized Rosehill to continue the company, which she runs, like Tull and Hileman, in addition to a full-time job.

“It’s making people who have not felt desired in any aspect of their life feel chosen,” Rosehill said. “That’s what Broadway Bods is. If you have felt all of this rejection in society, in the arts, even just in your personal life, know that you are loved and celebrated here.”

Sarah Weissman (she/her) is a writer in Baltimore City, as well as the communications specialist at Maryland Humanities, which creates and supports bold experiences that explore and elevate our shared stories to connect people, enhance lives, and enrich communities.

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