For the last six years I have been writing, thinking, working on what it is that makes bodies such an area of tension for many actors, and how shame and negative body image operate in the performance industry.
It is an issue of complexity, tightly knit up with how bodies are seen and treated more broadly in society, with health and wellness cultures, with economics of the beauty industry, with morals about what constitutes good bodies and good artists, with the personal histories and genetic predispositions of individuals.
Because of this complexity it is a slippery issue, easy to pass responsibility on. It is hard to find solutions for something without being able to pin down its cause.
But there are some things that are non-negotiable, that are clearly damaging.
The actor who is told she has to lose weight. The actor who is told he has to gain weight. The actor who is told they will never work if they don’t get a nose job. The actor about whom the teaching staff say they are ‘too much of a vicar’s daughter’, meaning they need to have sex to gain the necessary maturity to cut it in the industry.
These demands play out power in ways that are nothing to do with the actor’s craft,
but everything to do with the desire and greed of the powerful being played out through the bodies of those they silence. And they silence them through the seemingly non-debatable economic argument: do this, and you will see success. Fail to do this, and you will have failed at the game that we all have to play to pay the bills. Survival of the most-willing-to-sacrifice-themselves. The fetishization of availability, which provides a mask to disguise profound inequality and to shore up the power of those who already have too much of it.
Many of us have seen these demands on actors for the damage they do, and we have raised our concerns — and then all too often been brushed off, dismissed as unrealistic, as having no sense of the reality of the business, as being unnecessarily maternal. As a result even we have, up until this point, generally accepted that this is the way the world is. And our strategies became about how to deal with that world, how to deal with the inevitable.
The past weeks have changed that.
Suddenly it has become acceptable to say that it isn’t ok for us to call this state of affairs inevitable. Acceptable to question the crap that we ask actors to put up with, to question the demands on their bodies which apparently need to be said yes to — even when we know that they are little to do with ability, skill, talent or dedication.
It is a huge piece of work to dismantle what was thought inevitable: it means a profound re-thinking of everything. Even those of us who very consciously experience the oppressions that come with the markets of physical capital struggle to imagine what a different version of the world might look like. But maybe by airing all the things that have outraged us for years we can finally, gradually, find a different way of doing things.
So here is one thing I want to put on the list for us to think about
in this effort towards a better future. It comes from years of research and activism, and from years working closely with actors’ bodies as a teacher, movement director, director:
There is never a necessary or appropriate time to comment on the actor’s body for its own sake.
No comments about weight
No comments about shape
No comments about bone structure
No comments about sexual characteristics (sex organs)
or secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, body hair)
No comments about skin (colour, smoothness, wrinkles)
This is radical, but not as radical as it seems. I see no context in which this rule would diminish the art we make, or hamper communication about what is essential in our work. It is a rule that should be thought of not as a limitation that silences, but a limitation that productively opens up other ways of working.
I have long argued that to recognize the real craft of the actor we should all be much better versed in seeing and being able to articulate the qualities that an actor is good at doing, rather than unimaginatively sticking to the appearance with which they walk down the street. To be able to see when an actor can do an exquisite quality of lightness regardless of their size, to appreciate when they can find steel, or gentleness, or naivety or weight regardless of their body’s shape, age or gender. This is true even in the design of a costume, which of course does involve considerations of all of the above (and with my colleagues in the Wardrobe department at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama we have compiled information for how this can be approached, to be made publicly available shortly).
We have the opportunity here to insist on a shift of focus that can change both the nature of the work we do and the quality of our interactions in the rehearsal studio, wardrobe, audition room, for the better.
As I sit in a café writing this, I am interrupted by a stranger who asks me if I have a partner, and tells me I need to change my mind about not having kids. What I am writing about here applies not only to actors, and not only to the theatre. But we furnish our audiences’ imagination, and so what better place to start.