This guest blog was written by Caitlin Magnall-Kearns, theatre writer and director. It is part of our Dreams Guest Blog series. This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the opinions of the writer. Thrive is providing a platform for people who work in arts and culture to express their dreams for the sector post Covid and to create constructive debate and discussion. Publication does not mean that thrive endorses the views expressed.
Image: Fat Blokes by Rosie Powell.
The first time I met Scottee, a fantastic fat, queer, working-class artist and performer from London, I told them they made me feel it was ok to be fat. As a teenager I would spend hours on their YouTube channel, watching clips of “Hamburger Queen”, the cult talent show for fat people, which Scottee created back in 2013. Cut to 2018 and I was a contestant, at the time I was a size 20, and I stood proudly adorned in Tayto Packets on the stage of Shoreditch Townhall in the heart of London in front of a crowd of hundreds cheering me on.
When it comes to diversity in a wider sense in theatre and the arts, we are making progress. Slowly but surely we are starting to see more diverse voices on our stages, giving a platform to those who haven’t had their voices heard before. Seeing yourself represented on stage can be incredibly powerful and for young people in particular, it can be a formative experience. Not only this but for people who exist in non-marginalised bodies, it gives them an insight into other people’s lives and can help people empathise with people whose experiences exist outside their own. One section we seem to overlook when it comes to diversity is body size, and in particular, fat bodies, which are still publicly ridiculed and maligned by many on a regular basis.
I met Ross Anderson when I was 14 years old, and have been obsessed ever since. As a teenager seeing a fat, queer performer like Ross was fundamental to me owning my size as an artist. From acting onstage with Bruiser Theatre Company, to touring their show Cake Daddy round Australia, they’ve had a varied and wonderful career and are currently the Creative Director of Cabaret Supper Club.
“We can’t go on the way we’re going. We need more people of different sizes, races, gender identities, sexuality and abilities on our stages, it is absolutely key and it needs to be the mainstream theatre companies leading that change.”
I agree with Ross that often it feels like work from or about marginalised bodies, be they from queer, D/Deaf and disabled or plus size people, tend to be seen as “Fringe Theatre.” These stories are just as valid, and in many cases, more vital than a lot of the narratives we get presented within a lot of mainstream theatre.
I also chatted to Rob Crawford, a self-identified fat theatre maker from Newry who is now based in Belfast.
“I’ve heard theatre professionals say actors aren’t fat, well I’m sorry, but go out on the street and people are! And it’s our job to tell their stories.”
I personally have a few ideas to help proactively change things on our stages in the pipeline. I’m looking at setting a group for plus size creatives in Northern Ireland, a place where we can talk freely and openly, and perhaps even look at making work with one another. I’m also writing new work specifically designed to be performed by fat actors and creatives.
It shouldn’t be our job to carve out space for ourselves but it seems like this will be the only way we can effectively start to see change, at least in the short term.
Lucy McIlwaine is another Northern Irish actress who recently finished an MA in Musical Theatre at the Royal Welsh Conservatoire. Although Lucy is the size of the average woman in the UK, she is considered a plus-size performer by many in the industry.
“One of the signposts for me will be when I see plus size bodies falling in love onstage. It sounds so simple but that feels like the marker. If I saw that happening regularly, without it being a talking point, it would be a key signpost of me and people like me in being included, especially in musical theatre.”
Typically fat people onstage are presented as oafish, lazy or undesirable, with most of the leading roles going to thin, able-bodied, “conventionally attractive” actors. Plus size actors rarely get a look in for anything other than a comedic side character and rarely, if ever, get considered for a leading role, something which Rob Crawford was very familiar with.
“I don’t have a point of reference for someone who is my shape, or whose body moves in the way mine moves who have ever been a love interest or a leading man, that I can see. They have been comedy characters or comic relief or side characters or best friends or villains or the fat person, who is fat, and that is their job.”
Ross too echoes this sentiment,
“I’ve kind of taken a step back from theatre, I was sick of being put up for the fat gay best friend, or security guard 2 who looks burly.”
From a personal perspective, a big reason I stepped away from performing was that I was unsure of my prospects as an actor. Luckily I have found my real passion lies in writing and direction but I would love there to be a point in the future where no one feels like something as irrelevant as their size, weight or shape would be a barrier to having a successful career in the arts. Fat actors need to be getting in the room and seen for a variety of different roles, instead of being maligned to side characters or comedy parts. Just because it doesn’t specify that the character is fat, doesn’t mean the actor can’t or shouldn’t be. The problem goes far deeper than just creative industries. We all need to shift our mindsets when we think about fat bodies and how we view them. Fat people are not inherently lazy, incompetent or unhealthy. Our stages need to reflect this.
I can’t wait until the day where I sit down in the mainstage of a theatre and see a stage that is truly reflective to what’s going on and who inhabits Belfast in 2020, where fat people are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, partners and friends to us all.