That Tall Blonde at the Callback — Please Cast People of Size

This is a topic I’ve written about before, but it bears repeating. Unfortunately, people of size are discriminated against and disrespected REGULARLY in local theatre and beyond. It still somehow still seems acceptable to comment on and make judgments on body size in the casting room, the costume fitting, and elsewhere. And it should stop.

My friend DC Scarpelli recently posted a survey to collect experiences around this issue. I heartily encourage you to respond to it today. Click here to access the survey about issues surrounding people of size in local theatre. You can stay anonymous, or share your email address so that he can keep you informed about actions and discussions regarding this issue.

Me on the higher end of my weight range (on the far right). And yes, our Shellie-winning costume coordinator was lovely found me a corset and dress that fit to a T, but the director/choreographer did not include me in numbers where only thin women were featured and put me in back ALL THE TIME.

I first brought this topic up in only the second blog post I wrote about a year ago — titled “What Type Are You?” In it, I write “Frankly, no one gets ruled out for a part faster than a fat actress.” Since I wrote that a year ago, I have lost a significant amount of weight. I’m now solidly in the “normal weight” BMI range, and guess what? I am getting called back and cast more often. I have lived and heard of all sorts of horror stories — friends who had his/her part changed because it was determined they wouldn’t fit the rented costume, reviewers commenting on actor’s bodies (and implying larger-bodied individuals are not worthy of love or are realistic romantic leads — yes this happened to ME), and costumers commenting on actor’s bodies. I plead with everyone involved to question these biases. I generally assume good intent. I don’t think these people who have said hurtful things do this on purpose. I think some in the costumer’s role AND the casting role consider themselves allies — and may joke or speak too frankly because they feel “I’m helping” or “unlike others, I understand what you face as a fat person so let me tell you that”. BUT it’s those comments that take that person right back to the label and dehumanize them. PLEASE be more sensitive and think before you speak. Just don’t comment on bodies of any of your actors (large or small). This last point was also discussed previously in “Costume Dos and Don’ts”. Lastly, if you are on the receiving end of this — please discuss this directly with the person who made the comment (if you are comfortable doing so) AND with your director or producer. The person may not be aware that your comment was hurtful and if you don’t tell THEM, they are doomed to repeat it with others.

I think we all get that this is a problem, and I want to spend the rest of this entry to expand on one particularly important aspect. There are not enough opportunities for actors of size. There are hardly ANY roles written specifically for larger people — even though they are a significant percentage of our population. For women (where I’ve done the most character research) there are only a handful of roles where a larger body size is part of the character description for a romantic lead — Tracy in “Hairspray”, Jenny in “It Shoulda Been You”, and Effie in “Dreamgirls” were some of the only examples I could think of. We find it much more acceptable to consider larger women for villain roles, spunky sidekicks, and supporting characters — think Ursula in “The Little Mermaid”, Bloody Mary in “South Pacific”, Mrs. Potts in “Beauty & the Beast”, Madame Thenardier in “Les Miserables”, Georgie in “The Full Monty”, Evilene in “The Wiz”, or the Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella”. But here’s the kicker — if there is a thin woman available even these “acceptable” roles will MORE often go to the thin woman. It’s an uphill battle with every audition.

Larger women are sexy as heck, y’all. After feeling the dress my costumer pulled for this number (All That Jazz) was way too demure, I found this myself on the back of the rack. I got an eyebrow raise but she said “okay”! Other sexy-as-heck folks pictured are Mark J. Enea and Christina Boothman.

I’ve auditioned personally for Ursula twice in recent years, and was approximately a size 14 for both auditions (a year or two apart). I didn’t quite realize, until I went to these auditions, how I put so much effort and thought into dressing to minimize my body EVERY TIME I’m seen by a casting panel. “For once” I thought, “It will be an ADVANTAGE that I’m bigger! I can wear whatever the heck I want!” But here’s the reality. Both times, the woman cast as Ursula was not just “thinner” than me, but a bona-fide thin person. Both women were fabulous performers (and are both Equity/former Equity actors with huge talent and huge resumes who brought prestige to the theatre), but it still does not sit right with me. I guess you can blame the casting of Sheri Rene Scott, as her Broadway portrayal of this role made it okay to cast a younger, beautiful and thin person in this role — rather than the older, larger, more commanding presence that is the animated Ursula from the Disney movie. But here is my strong opinion: it should be just as unacceptable to cast a thin Ursula as it is to cast a white Motormouth Mabel. At my newer size, I now believe I’m inappropriate for roles like Ursula or Jenny. I’m taking them out of my target lists and hope other “normal weight” people do the same. Just as we’ve now advised white women to avoid auditioning for roles meant for POC like the urchins in “Little Shop of Horrors” or Maria & Anita in “West Side Story”, we should reserve at least some of these roles SPECIFICALLY for people of size. Refuse to cast smaller actors in these roles. If you are a smaller actor, refuse to audition for them.

And I don’t mean to leave out the men. A similar lack of roles for larger men exists — what have they got to pick from? Dave in “The Fully Monty” or Max Bialystock in “The Producers”? Men and women alike need more opportunities. And art should reflect life. I don’t want to see a model (male or female) in every role; I WANT some variety.

Of course, it’s not always black and white. I’ve gotten some great parts throughout my career despite my size. Friends of size have also landed some amazing lead parts. I’ve lost Ursula twice to smaller-than-me women, but have also lost Lady of the Lake twice to larger-than-me women! But we need change in a BIG way, not just incremental change. Please continue to keep those minds open. Consider some “unusual” pairings (larger women also get ruled out because the male role that is opposite is harder to cast and thus they will pick the woman in the top group that “looks best” with — aka is more petite than — the man they have chosen). Take more casting “risks” (these are actually crazily talented individuals — it shouldn’t be a risk at all). Consider requiring a range of body sizes in EVERY show you cast, just like many shows now require that SOMEBODY is thinking about the racial diversity in your shows. CHANGE.

Sort of related to this topic…

P.S. — I’m not a big TV watcher, but I’m excited for Aidy Bryant’s “Shrill”. I’m hearing it’s a breakthrough in representation for larger women, and she’s a lead with a realistic romantic life. Hallelujah!



Musical Theatre actress. Jazz singer. Product Marketing/Analyst Relations professional. Mom.

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Susan Tonkin

Musical Theatre actress. Jazz singer. Product Marketing/Analyst Relations professional. Mom.