No matter how long I’ve been out of the performing world, I’m always sure to be home for the annual Tony Awards. In my childhood home, traditional media award shows weren’t likely to make appearances. Mom often despised the extravagance and patriarchal overtones of the pre-show red carpet. But, the featured performances of Tony-nominated shows were the closest a Central Florida junior thespian was going to get to seeing the newest shows on Broadway. It was not to be missed.
It wasn’t easy to see Broadway shows as a kid; it took work. Cross-country tours weren’t as popular and a small town in Florida isn’t always a likely stop for Lin Manuel Miranda’s newest hit-musical. But, it was always worth it. As a fat girl, theater was my only solace.
Being fat in this world isn’t easy for anyone, but for a young girl in middle school, it was pretty damn miserable. I was rarely overtly bullied – I was lucky for that – but I did find it difficult to discover and shape who I was when I was trying to be who other people needed me to be. Always trying to appear healthy enough, athletic enough, funny enough. All so my weight wouldn’t be my defining factor.
One day, among junk mail my mom still rummages through daily, she saw a quarter-page ad for a local community theater. I auditioned and got a small ensemble role and became a cast member for the first time. We rehearsed twice a week in a tiny, local tutoring center for six months to perform for three nights in a high school auditorium. It was a labor of love and we were committed to it from the beginning.
Now, I must be honest with you. We weren’t very good. Like any of you who have seen a performance of Aladdin with an eleven-year-old lead would know, it was terrible. And that was the magic.
The theater space wasn’t a place for us to be perfect. Rather, it was a place to learn, socialize, and make mistakes with the support of the fellow cast and crew. Every day, each of us walked in, dropped off the pressure of the outside world (and massive amounts of teenage angst), and opened ourselves up to the stories of others, the lessons of our instructors and the opportunity to become the people we wanted to be.
I still was insecure, but my potential talent and budding personality were what shined through. Sometimes I was a lead and sometimes I wasn’t, but I was always challenged to try my best, to make meaningful connections and to respect one another as we walked outside of our comfort zone. My weight wasn’t something that defined me, but my willingness to jump into another world with a group of people and go through the process together.
And, on these same stages, I saw myself represented for the first time. Watching Hairspray for the first time, just a few short years after my first performance, taught me that you can have fun in a fat body – and kickass at it. That in such a dreary world, the capacity to be the light in people’s lives can’t be found in everybody but can be found in me. And, that no matter how much I love this musical, I still can’t rock a beehive hairdo.
It’s still not perfect – there still are very few roles for people who look like me, let alone for people of color. And even when there are, the human aspects of their story are sacrificed for tired, self-hating storylines and weight-loss tropes. We can, and should, always be pushing the industry to go farther. Especially because of the massive difference a few roles can make. And, because I love it, I won’t stop celebrating the success and inclusive strides we’ve made thus far.
On the stage, I was able to find a place where bodies like mine could be seen, respected, and celebrated in front of a willing, open and accepting audience. And this past weekend was no different.