Are Actors’ Bodies Part of the Show, Or Off Limits?

Yet again, a drama critic has been attacked for making comments about actors’ bodies.

The new headlines were generated by a 1991 review of “Will Rogers Follies” on Broadway. Why was this old review suddenly turned into a current issue? The reviewer was Beto O’Rourke, now a candidate to represent Texas in the United States Senate, then a 19-year-old undergraduate writing for the campus newspaper at Columbia, the Spectator.

O’Rourke didn’t like the show about the life of Will Rogers, a figure he clearly admired, calling him “the ‘lassoing fool’ who rose from being an insignificant side show attraction to one of the more prominent political pundits and cultural statesmen in our history.” The problem with the show, O’Rourke writes, is how “glitzy” and “tacky” it is – and then comes the sentence that delighted the opposition research 27 years later:

“Keith Carradine in the lead role is surrounded by perma-smile actresses whose only qualifications seem to be their phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks.”

O’Rourke didn’t try to defend that sentence: “I am ashamed of what I wrote and I apologize,” he said in a statement to Politico , which first reported the review. “There is no excuse for making disrespectful and demeaning comments about women.” I  can’t defend it either. What I suspect he was trying to say, however (albeit poorly worded), was much the same as Frank Rich said in his review of the show in the New York Times that same year. Rich deemed it  “the most disjointed musical of this or any other season,” as it oddly juxtaposed “the humble cowboy philosopher” with the “Ziegfeld overkill” of “the girls, the boys, the dog tricks and a Technicolor parade of Willa Kim costumes…”

Rich talked about the costumes rather than the performers in them, and nobody can accuse him of having disrespect for the actresses’ bodies.

Once again, the issue is raised: Is it always wrong to consider the actors’ bodies – and if so, why do so many people do it? How guilty should theater critics – and casting agents and directors and theatergoers — feel for seeing a performer’s appearance as an integral part of the show?
Several recent and current plays and musicals in New York have addressed this issue head on, often unintentionally.

Is it always wrong to consider the actors’ bodies – and if so, why do so many people do it?

The anger towards the status quo seems largely directed towards critics, judging from the reaction to another sentence in another review a few months ago. In Laura Collins-Hughes’ review in the Times of Smokey Joe’s Café, she wrote: “Ms. Umphress, by the way, is bigger than the other women onstage, and the costume designer, Alejo Vietti, doesn’t seem to have known how to work with that, dressing her in an unnecessarily unflattering way.”

Alysha Umphress responded with hurt and outrage

 

This was the first of many Tweets from the theater community critical of the critic.

Laura Collins-Hughes responded:

“It is in no way shameful to be big, let alone bigger than the other women onstage. My remark about the costuming reflects on the designer. This is not the first time I’ve noticed a designer seemingly at a loss about how to dress a larger woman well.”

That didn’t stop the anger. The reactions I found most intriguing went beyond critiques of the critic. In a long Facebook post formatted as a letter to the editor, Tony-winning costume designer Clint Ramos blasted the comment, but also put his objection into a larger context that struck me as spot-on:

“Ms. Collins-Hughes’ words really deeply affect us who design costumes for the theater. On almost every production, we are wrongly given the burden to solve imagined problems with performers’ physical characteristics— characteristics that are inherent to their human identity. As costume designers, our job includes formulating a design that is based on who the character is and the context wherein that character exists, contributing to the dramaturgical and aesthetic considerations of the piece and having constant dialogues with actors to make them comfortable in the design choices, so they too can effectively do their job. I can assure you that as seasoned professionals, Ms. Umphress and Mr. Vietti had these dialogues. By writing the problematic paragraph in the review, Ms. Collins-Hughes has reduced our job to merely solving these imagined problems that society (and some producers and directors) places on actors’ bodies and appearance constantly.” (emphasis added)

This imposition was driven home by one Tweeter’s touching comment:

“A theatre director once discouraged me from auditioning for the female lead in a play because he said my portly body type was better suited for playing older women. I was 16 so I went home and cried for hours.”

And:

I had a far less public confrontation of my own, after I Tweeted a photograph I took during this year’s Theatre World Awards of Hailey Kilgore, the 19-year-old star of “Once on This Island.”

Laura Kressly, a London-based theatre critic and dramaturg, immediately objected to my comments on the actress’s appearance.

I defended myself rather lamely, explaining that this was the first shot in a new camera, and I was impressed by the quality of the photograph.

“To conflate the quality of your photograph with her talent is misogynistic and reductive,” she responded. “You’re better than that. It’s totally inappropriate for a male critic to comment on female performers’ bodies.”

“Are you denying that she looks luminous in that photograph?”

“I’m not saying anything about the quality of her appearance because it’s totally inappropriate to do so.”

“Saying that somebody has a luminous face is hardly ‘commenting on a body’”

“Her face is part of her body.”

“What if I commented on a man’s luminosity? Would you also find it inappropriate?”

“Yes, although there’s less of a power imbalance.”

Laura passionately believes that critics have no right to comment publicly on any aspect of a performer’s appearance at any time, on stage or off. That strikes me as extreme. I think we have to acknowledge that, rightly or wrongly, performers’ bodies are treated as part of the equation in a show – by directors, producers, casting agents,  the performers themselves…and by most theatergoers. The theater is less insistent than the movies on casting good-looking leads, but does anybody think it’s just a coincidence that many of the most successful theater actors are among the most physically attractive? Publications routinely run features on Broadway Hunks, or Sexiest Man on Broadway, presumably because there’s an audience for this authorized ogling. What are The Skivvies or the annual Broadway Bares but performers’ celebration of their physiques?

More perniciously, talented actresses who aren’t a size two are often cast for their size, in shows that cannot seem to resist fat jokes. These include Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, Tammy in Escape to Margaritaville, Jenny Steinberg in It Shoulda Been You — the last two both portrayed by Lisa Howard, a six-time Broadway veteran.

The collective defense of Alysha Umphress is just one of the hopeful signs that times are changing. “Head Over Heels” goes one step further. Bonnie Milligan, making an impressive Broadway debut, is the vain, beautiful daughter, Pamela. Much is made of the character’s beauty. Nothing is made of the actress’s weight. “It’s been really lovely meeting so many women who are moved and say, ‘Thank you! You don’t know what it means to have a big girl up there being joyful and pretty and dancing,'” Milligan told TDF Stages. “I understand how important and beautiful it is because I never saw that, so I’m happy to oblige. I don’t think we talk enough about size diversity in casting. I very much want to be a template.”

Milligan’s is not the only casting choice in “Head Over Heels” that seems to be making a deliberate statement. Portraying the role of the non-binary oracle Pythio, Peppermint, the one-named veteran of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is billed as the first trans woman to create a role on Broadway.

But even “Head Over Heels,” I can’t resist pointing out, features a quartet of sexy, buff and shirtless chorus boys during the song “Beautiful.”

An even more enlightened approach occurred this summer in “Fruit Trilogy,” three plays by Eve Ensler that raged against the use and abuse of women’s bodies. Liz Mikel delivered a final, breathtaking monologue that suggested to me something close to Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses, a passionate outburst about the pleasure a woman’s body can give her – but in Ensler’s play laced with a decidedly feminist message.Mikel completely disrobes, but immediately admonishes the audience not to give her labels like exhibitionist. “What if you were there not to be titillated but instead to watch, learn, appreciate, to perceive and understand my pleasure but not in a lascivious way.”

The woman on stage is asking us to look at her and her body in a different way. Can this happen in the theater?

 

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

1 thought on “Are Actors’ Bodies Part of the Show, Or Off Limits?

  1. Your latest post made me think of the cabaret style fundraising event I attended a couple weeks ago put on by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. At one point during intermission all the OSF performers walked around as part of some kind of underwear contest. The audience was repeatedly told “no touching of the bodies” as the actors held containers for you to put money in.
    And then I thought of this past weekend’s Global Citizen Festival’s Janet Jackson performance held in Central Park. One of her amazing dancers was a beautiful full figured gal. And boy could she move! It was a lovely sight to behold and speaks to the need to stop casting only lithe dancers in back-up dancing roles.

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