To tell a “theatrician” that the body is unimportant would be akin to telling artists that their medium of choice does not matter. The body itself is such a vital tool in what we do as performers, technicians, and general creators whether we are the ones actively utilizing the body or working by observing. However, most minds are instinctively biased towards the image of a clean cut and traditionally healthy body, free of markings and scars, able and lithe or lean–the most desirable and stageworthy image, right? We are instantaneously attracted to the picturesque fair-skinned and slim ingenue, free of imperfections. Through the study of “bodylore” in conjunction with theatre, I hope that a wide spectrum of people can see their worth and understand their capabilities on and off stage without the restraints of societal acceptance. Furthermore, I hope to help usher in a slowly expanding generation of creatives wishing to evolve in search of a brighter future, seeking to embrace a more diverse palette of individuals.
Dr. Amy Milligan and Dr. Katharine Young both assess “bodylore” as the analysis of all components of the body—inside and out—that comprise our identities and the effects it has on our specific socialization. As Young puts it, bodylore studies “what we invest in the body and what we get out of it” (as cited in Milligan 2). Theatre as an art places a huge emphasis on the importance of the body. However, while it might be easy to adhere to the status quo imposed by decades of performers before us, I feel that the theatre, of all arts, is most equipped to take on the weighty challenge of stretching beyond such molds and into a deeper sense of actuality that all individuals face. In director Robert Cohen and James Calleri’s Acting Professionally, they proclaim that “character actors” are most often fat, ugly, or fat and ugly. They speak of expectations like these with disdain, but also know them to be a harsh reality of the business—while Cohen and Calleri’s book is mainly about what to know and to be able to do in order to make a living with acting as a focal career, today’s students and professionals alike show a growing interest in using theatre as a means towards inclusivity—the sad truth, however, is that we must abide by these unwritten laws to some extent to remain “successful.” However, the needs society has regarding representation in media and performance transcend the bounds of “fatness” and “ugliness,” digging even deeper into what humans consider principal to their identities.
In essence, theatre has never been about one centrifugal emotion. A performance may make an audience feel joy, but can also spark rage, incite melancholy, or make outsiders uncomfortable and confused. Theatre is about a wondrously vast range of emotions; that being said, why is the intersectionality of all walks of life and the emotions they too feel not more of a focus in our teachings and work? Across race, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, bodily ability, neurodivergence, and many other factors, people rejoice when they see themselves represented, ergo they too feel seen. We don’t need a production of In the Heights to see Hispanic and Latinx faces on stage; we don’t need to wait for another Broadway revival of Miss Saigon or The King and Ifor an uptick in Asian employment on the Great White Way.
Every day, more and more artists are breaking ground on inclusive works that still retain the
compelling nature of theatre that we know and love. From the famed Deaf West—one of the first professional theatres based in Sign Language—to more grassroots production companies founded on diversity, the world of theatre as we know it is transforming for the better. We as audience, performer, and technician can still experience and dive into the idyllic worlds we create on stage without trying to also define what an idyllic identity would be. In the same sense, we can also portray victims of struggle without placing a label on who in particular is the “type” to be struggling. Each and every body and the experiences accompanying are integral to what we do in theatre as a profession; from our walk or mobility to our neurology and onto our speech patterns, all unique experiences and bodies have a different viewpoint and story to tell—whether it be on or offstage—and a new perspective to bring to any ensemble. This isn’t to say that such factors can never play a part in casting decisions, but in situations where it is inconsequential to the artistic vision or textual requirement, why not set aside preconceptions for the sake of widening reach? Playwright Marsha Norman says it best: “We want life in the art to represent life as it is
lived in the world.”
Part of my philosophy in life is that what we do in the arts is intrinsically linked to activism and inciting change. What I hope for as a young (queer, poc) creator is to be a part of the movement for a more inclusive stage. While, for many marginalized groups, their existence alone is an act of rebellion, this grand wave of change cannot continue without forward action. The ideas surrounding theatre are expanding—why shouldn’t our minds and search for knowledge expand too? This art is steeped in the desire to find understanding of a myriad of experiences. Gone are the days of pretentious imagery and gatekeeping based on factors other than talent; today’s creators and viewers want to see humanity on a pedestal. Let’s begin with our bodylore.
Further reading—what are the voices of today’s theatre saying?:
- The Lilly Awards are an initiative based towards recognizing and honoring the work of women in theatre. They head numerous initiatives, among those being The Count: a study in partnership with The Dramatists Guild aimed towards the continuous tracking of representation across the board in theatre spaces, specializing in statistics on women. The Lilly Awards and The Dramatists Guild hope to head efforts in challenging the norms of the contemporary theatre scene, working to promote representation proportional to a realistic population.
- Lyn Gardner’s blog poston issues of diversity in the UK theatre scene raises a handful of discussion points and redirects to multiple sources for further reading on differently abled individuals in the theatre; these issues are not isolated to the American theatre community!
- Arguably the most neglected community on stage, however, is the wide community of neurodivergent individuals in theatre. In spite of the myriad of such characters portrayed on stage, rarely are they portrayed by actors who have lived these experiences. Alex Ayesaddresses the issues and concerns commonly brought up by these actors, and what efforts are being made to amplify their voices and realities by EPIC Players Inclusion Company.
Cohen, Robert, and James Calleri. Acting Professionally: Raw Facts About Careers in Acting. ? ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Milligan, Amy K. “Bodylore and Dress.” The Oxford Handbook of American Folklore and Folklife Studies. : Oxford University Press, May 08, 2018. Oxford Handbooks Online. Date Accessed 30 Jan. 2019 <http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190840617.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190840617-e-20>.
Krystal (Krys) Tuzon Gonzalez (she/they) is a junior Theatre Performance major and Women’s Studies minor at Old Dominion University. Krys finds joy in makeup & fashion, video games, writing, drawing, music-ing, theatre-ing, and activities of artsy persuasion, and abides by a lifelong motto of continuously learning and striving towards self-improvement. They hope to pursue a career in theatre alongside cosmetology, and aspire to someday work as a galvanizing force within marginalized communities in the arts. “We’re not pawns of some scripted fate. I believe we’re more. Much more.”