Fat and lit

Gili Bar-Hillel abhillel at hotmail.com
Wed Feb 5 04:15:56 EST 2003

When I was directing student theatre and trying to cast plays, I realised 
how impossible it was to divorce oneself entirely from physical stereotypes. 
Even when I did cast people with "non traditional" body types for particular 
roles - or for that matter, non traditional skin color, age (no getting 
around this one in student theatre) or gender behaviour (effeminate men, 
butch women) - I was not being blind to the actors' features, but looking 
for ways to turn them to the benefit of my interpretation of the play, 
whether by going with stereotypes or against them. Authors and directors are 
probably alike in this respect, of having no choice but to wield 
stereotypes; as contemptible as we find them, they are truly unavoidable. 
Except that authors have the freedom to make up whatever characters they 
wish, whereas directors often have to make do with the pool of auditionees. 
Which I rather think makes life easier for directors.

One of my leading ladies was noticeably plump. She was possibly my fifth or 
sixth choice for role, chosen more for her singing voice than anything else 
- she had not impressed me much in auditions, and to be quite frank, I 
couldn't see a dumpy actress in the role - I suppose I am also prejudiced, 
even though I'm far from thin myself. But a succesion of higher choices had 
refused the role or quit, and I had to choose another actress or cancel the 
project. In the end, she was phenomenally good. She lacked the attitude 
problems that lots of actresses have, and rehearsals were a pleasure, 
because she was SO pleased to get the role, and SO eager to prove herself. 
And maybe she had to work harder as an actress in order to make the audience 
perceive her character as beautiful. Whatever it was, she shone, and she 
received nothing but compliments and rave reviews, none of which made any 
mention of her physical appearance. The next time I was casting a play, I 
had no hesitation in casting her - I knew what a pleasure she was to work 
with. This time it was a comedy, and I went all out, casting her in the role 
of a famous beauty about whom everyone is talking for the entire first act, 
but only comes out in the second act, and we had her all decked out in a 
huge poofy white dress like a gigantic creampuff. Not a traditional beauty 
by any means, but everyone was treating her as "the beauty" and falling in 
love with her right and left. So of course her size was an issue that popped 
up frequently when people were discussing the play. Which was "better"? 
Turning her size into a non-issue, or making into an asset? Which was the 
cop out, if at all?

I don't think there is a right answer. I don't think size stereotypes can 
ever be simply not used. Nan's fat is no less a stereotypical tool in her 
characterization than Dudley Dursley's in his - her fat characterizes her as 
a loner type, and brings the focus onto how she develops her inner world.

Gili Bar-Hillel
Tel-Aviv, tel.(03)5250014


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