I wonder if Mrs Potts (Beauty and the Beast) has body issues? Does she stand in front of a mirror considering her backside or get frustrated trying to fit herself, from handle to spout, into a backstage selfie. It’s ridiculous to consider. She’s a character in a costume. No one expects Mrs Potts to be a size 10. But body image is something that many of us bring with us into the theatre. This is an emotional subject and before we go any further, I want to tell you that I get it.
I get the panic attacks, the fear, all of it! I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t give you the ‘five easy steps to developing a better body image’. I don’t know what they are. For me, developing a healthier body image has meant stumbling through experiences I would rather have avoided and, as I chose to be in the theatre, that meant I would have to work out my body image issues in front of an audience both on and off the stage.
If you have a body, you have an image of it. You’ve stood in front of a mirror and listed all the things that you don’t like about what you see. But if I asked you to show me the list of things you do like, you’d scrabble around in your pockets before admitting you forgot to write one.
We all have a list. I have one. But I didn’t realise how it impacted my life until a few years ago. I’d reached an age where I cared less what others thought (emphasis on less). I still cared just not as much as I did when I was in my 20s. But life changed when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Treatment included losing a breast and eventually spending a long time without hair. Suddenly I realized how much of what I knew of myself was wrapped up in having hair to flick, how without eyebrows and lashes I looked like a bald eagle, and how my spectacular dance style (insert snigger here) was now limited to moves that did not require me to bend over for fear my prosthetic (from now on known as ‘le fillet’) would fall onto the floor. It’s a bit of a scene stealer.
I now had to deal with small children staring and pointing at me at the supermarket, asking their mother why I had left my hair at home or only shopping from the middle shelves of the produce aisles for fear of losing my false boob into the bananas. I laugh long and heartily about it now and, yes, you can all laugh, including the men who are squirming in their manly brogues.
This experience forced me to realise that the valuable part of me was not what I looked like. Of course, if you work in the theatre, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s everything about you. You’re judged on how you look from auditions to performance and, as a professional performer it’s a reality but I believe community theatre has to be different.
Community theatre exists to give people the opportunity to participate. We must try to be inclusive and embrace diversity. Yay, Hamilton! But we’re all still working through this concept and in the meantime, we have to deal with the issue of body image.
There are two sides of this subject – the actor and the costumer, but before we get serious, let me tell you the story of “Sherryl-Lee’s Big Realisation”.
It was a few years after my cancer and I decided to audition for a major concert performance. My vocal audition went well. I congratulated myself on having it all together, smiling wisely at the self-deprecating comments of the other auditionees. Self-righteous git! I was cast as a featured singer and, as rehearsals began, I felt comfortable and confident with myself. Because I wasn’t dancing, I could wear costumes that covered my floppy triceps and no one would ask to see my legs. Life was good. I graciously accepted when asked to provide vocal support to the dancers of a major dance number, after all, I was a mature, experienced performer. *cough*”idiot!”
Is it only me or has anyone else noticed that, the minute you start to think too highly of yourself, your face ends up squarely on the floor of the stage – DOWN STAGE CENTRE! Somehow, I ended up IN the dance. In spite of my vigorous protests, I found myself, a 45 year old woman with floppy triceps, dancing amongst a group of 20 somethings that, no matter how much they jumped around, nothing moved. You can imagine my first reaction – oh, crap. My second reaction – OH, CRAP – came when I got my costume. Remember – ‘le fillet’! I was expecting to hide it nicely in a demure dress AS A SINGER. Instead, they hand me a singlet top. A BLOODY SINGLET TOP! What do you expect me to do with my prosthetic? Glue it to my chest?
Editor’s note: There will be some who will now post about the wonders of the ‘mastectomy bra’. This wonderful invention has a pocket for you to insert your prosthetic into to stop it falling out when you bend over and when they develop one that doesn’t look like my grandmother’s underwear, I will wear it. I do not feel ‘beautiful’ in a bra that covers me from chin to upper thigh! Shall we continue.
I had visions of ‘le fillet’ flying out of my costume and into the orchestra pit. I voiced my concerns to the team. No one heard me. I didn’t want to be ‘that’ person but I was freaking out. It was at this point that I learned another lesson as a director:
I would always listen to my actors. I would hear them, challenging them if they were being precious and then solve the problem. But I would always hear them.
Concert night arrived and I put my 45 year old floppy body on stage with the defiance of a roaring lioness. I had tightened my bra straps so much that I could barely breath but I didn’t care. I only had to last for 3 and half minutes. I could breath when I came off stage but I wasn’t giving that prosthetic any opportunity to take out the dancer to my right during the third turn in the routine.
I danced through sheer terror that night. As I exited the stage after the routine, I realized that I had to make some changes. I wanted to continue working in the theatre but I couldn’t freak out every time I went to a costume call. This was not going to be the filter through which I made decisions, limiting my life and experiences. Cue inspirational music.
I’d like to tell you how I made these changes. If I could list the 5 Steps here I would but to be honest, I don’t remember it happening. All I know is that I made the determination to figure out where my sense of self-worth came from. Once I did that, I realized I didn’t have to try so hard. There wasn’t another human being that could tell me what I was worth. I could laugh at myself and be happy. I don’t always get it right and when I listen too much to the world around me, I notice the old fears trying to creep back in.
So where does the ‘le fillet’ incident impact my theatre life? It leads to some very important lessons.
Lesson One – It’s not all about you.
Actors – stop expecting costuming to deal with your body image issues. It’s not their job. It’s yours! You’ve chosen to be an actor and if you are more concerned with how a costume makes you personally feel or look than whether it projects your character within the show, then you have some basic stagecraft lessons to learn. You are playing a character, not yourself. Costuming has no interest in making you look ‘bad’. Their only interest is supporting the artistic vision of the whole show.
Lesson Two – ‘Shut up and wear the bloody costume’ is not your best approach.
Costumers – In community theatre, you do not usually have the luxury to cast to size. Costume teams should be following an overall artistic vision but you must never be contemptuous of people who have body issues. There is always more than one way to do things. It’s community theatre and the actors are not being paid to ‘shut up and wear the bloody costume’. You’re a creative – problem solve and respect.
I said in the beginning that I didn’t know how to fix this for you but here’s what I know for myself –
- It’s a costume for a character, not a personal reflection of me.
- Everyone deserves respect. Community theatre creatives are volunteers, doing something they love. They don’t work for you.
- That voice in your head that is telling you that you aren’t good enough is a big stinking liar.
- As long as you make the choice to listen to that voice, and you’re making a choice, you will not look for avenues of change or growth.
- Life is short. Please don’t waste time listening to the freaking lies in your head. Your life will remain small and you’ll miss out on all the wonderful, scary, exciting, exhilarating, passionate, terrifying, courageous experiences that are waiting for you.
- Grow, let go of the familiar, and listen to those around you that tell you that you are enough.
- You were never meant to be a version of someone else. You were meant to be the one single version of you. When you finally figure out that you suck at being someone else, you will begin to be a spectacular you.
Now that’s better than a ‘fillet’ in the eye.
Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the creator of An Idiot On Stage.
The Idiot exists to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Learn more about the Idiot at www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow the Idiot on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.