Open Forum

Casting and Body Type

  • 1.  Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-05-2018 09:57
    I'm seeking advice on how to talk to students about "type" in Theatre/Musical Theatre - more specifically related to BODY type.  How much 'reality' do you give them in advance of auditions?  We are getting ready for auditions for "The Little Mermaid", and several students (mostly female) are saying things like, "they are only going to cast skinny girls as Ariel".  I am struggling, because this is such a sensitive topic, and I want everyone to feel like they can audition for Ariel if they want to, but the reality of the situation is, I would never put a girl in a position where she was uncomfortable in the role or costume.  I feel an obligation to help my students understand that body type plays a part in casting in the 'real world' but also want to be careful with teenagers and their views of themselves.  Help, please!

    Amy Rawlins
    Theatre Teacher
    Decatur GA

  • 2.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-05-2018 14:44
    Why would a student feel uncomfortable in the role if they are expressing interest in it? Can the costume be tweaked to fit an actors comfort level? Why does Ariel need to be a thin student?  Theater "types" are based on outdated sexist (and often racists) expectations. The entertainment industry is slowly changing and directors have a huge role in choosing whether to perpetuate these stereotypes or help dissolve them. Is teaching this outdated "real world" lesson more important than helping students of all shapes, sizes and races see themselves in the world of theater? They will face this type of discrimination soon enough. I would prefer that my students enter the "real world" knowing what they are capable of and having the tools to prove that to others.

    Ellie McIvor-Baker
    Portland OR

  • 3.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-05-2018 16:12

    That's a tricky one, especially for Little Mermaid since most of us and the audience know what Ariel looks likes from the movie. Not that you should let that drive your casting decision. Yes, a professional theater might not cast someone who looks too different, but I don't know if you need to go over that with the students who are auditioning - it might make some girls more self-conscious. This is something that I've brought up occasionally in my Advanced Drama cast, but not with students auditioning for a play (in part because I haven't had a situation in which appearance was that important).

    I guess the first thing to decide is if you actually would cast someone whose body type is different from the standard Ariel. If yes, make it clear you are casting on talent and who can handle the role best, not who looks like Ariel the most (that's what costume and make up are for). Also, perhaps before auditions you go over the planned costume with the girls, so they will have an idea what they will have to wear.

    Ken Buswell
    Drama Teacher
    Peachtree City, GA

    Theater kills ignorance

  • 4.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-06-2018 06:05
    I recall William Goldman's discussion in The Season about a show where the female lead was described in the script as "plain" and he explained how the audience was not bothered (or I assume, pushed out of the play by concern for the actor rather than the character) because the actor cast was attractive.

    It it makes me wonder if the role was for a "unattractive" woman, or a man, if you'd have a similar discussion or trust the actor (and costume & makeup) to sell the role?

    John (Jerf) Friedenberg
    Director Of Theatre
    Associate Teaching Professor
    Wake Forest University Dept of Theatre & Dance
    Winston-salem NC

  • 5.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-06-2018 08:07
    This is the one place we don't have to be 'real'. Who cares if Ariel is heavyset?  We can talk to our students about the real world and tell them that when Broadway cast kids in Annie it was written into their contracts that if they grew two inches or gained x number of pounds the part would be recast, but don't have to do that. One of the greatest things about educational theatre is that it is a time to teach drama, but to also create, with our students, a vision of what theatre could [should?] be.  If we do our jobs right, maybe when our students become playwrights, directors, and casting agents we won't have the issues that surround these topics like we do today.

    Suzanne Katz
    Washington DC

  • 6.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-06-2018 09:19
    Fact is, in the professional world, the actress playing Ariel will be what the general public considers 'shapely,' and natural redheads will have a leg up in casting.

    Students who intend to enter the professional world need to know this, so they can start to understand their 'type' and to set work on expanding their range if that's possible.

    For students who are not making professional-theater plans and just want to enjoy doing theater in school, being told you're wrong for a role because of your skin color or body type serves no positive purpose (unless obeying those stereotypes is important for some reason).

    It depends on the show, the audience's expectations (anyone who relies on a box office must keep this in mind), and occasionally the rights agreement. I've read stories of Mamet shutting down a show for switching the genders of the characters, and Albee closing down a show because a he wanted his characters to be played by white actors.

    Lots of fodder for a lively class discussion on casting. When the boots meet the ground and you're casting the actual show, it's really up to you. Short of violating the rights agreement, there are no 'wrong' casting choices as long as the actor is willing and able to play the role.

    Josh Kauffman
    Winfield AL

  • 7.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-06-2018 10:30
    YAS to Ellie McIvor-Baker.  Theater artists play a role in shaping the way we see and talk about all aspects of our culture, including beauty standards.  We have a choice about whether or not we feed destructive and limiting narratives, both in our wider community and in the hearts of our own students.

    Josie Tierney-Fife
    English Teacher/Theater Director
    Gorham, Maine

  • 8.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-06-2018 12:00
    I try my best to explain that casting depends on many factors - most of which you, as actors, can't control. You CAN control your preparation, so do as much as you can to earn the role. Learn the songs, memorize the sides and work with others to prepare them, read the script, ask questions, etc. This kind of effort and dedication shows me how you will work during rehearsals, which elevates the production. When it comes to looks, that's the last thing I consider. I will cast talent, effort, and initiative over looks every time. True, the real world may be different. Every director is different and you never know what they're looking for. Often they don't know what they're looking for, so go for it and see what happens. As long as students understand that the answer may be 'no' for reasons beyond their control, they can begin to understand that it's not personal.

  • 9.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-06-2018 13:01

    Don't bring it up at all.  Cast the best girl for the role and be done with it.  Let anyone audition who wants to they gain experience that way as well.  Actors can fit many parts given opportunity to rise to it.  I tell all my actors that it is a numbers game for parts just keep auditioning and working on your skills and one day it may be your number that gets the part.


    Break a leg and may all your theatre seats be filled,


    Kelly M. Thomas

    Department of Theatre

    Dr. Ralph H. Poteet High School

    3300 Poteet Drive

    Mesquite, Texas 75150




  • 10.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-07-2018 10:46
    I know middle school is not the same as high school (and high school is not the same as the adult/professional world) ...

    We cast an African-American, heavy set boy as Troy in high school musical,
    and when people heard him sing, and saw him act, nobody questioned it!  He was fantastic in the role.  Although we didn't cast him for this reason, it also sent a very positive message to the students in the cast and in the audience.

    Kristin Hall
    Drama Director
    Lincoln Public Schools
    Arlington MA

  • 11.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-11-2018 14:48
    We all have to come up with our own personal philosophies about casting.

    I've evolved over my 35 years in teaching to the point where I do color-blind and body-type-blind casting for every show.  I cast shorter students as younger children in shows, but that is about it.

    Each year I send a few students on to major in Theatre in college.  Most of the students active in our Theatre Program follow other passions after graduation.  I want their memories of the work they did here to empower them to go after what they want in the world, not to feel they are limited by skin color or body type.  If I want them to fully use their imaginations while here, I should be able to do the same in my casting.

    If you are fully committed to Ariel having a bare belly in your production, put that information out before auditions.  But I'd be willing to bet that a costumer (or parent who sews) could come up with a creative way to make a chubby mermaid look adorable--provided she sings well.  (The chubby mermaid, not the costumer!)

    C. J. Breland
    Asheville High School
    Asheville NC

  • 12.  RE: Casting and Body Type

    Posted 12-11-2018 17:05
    Lots of good points here!

    I'm another who doesn't cast for type. When I talk to my kids about it, I'm honest about my concerns that the people who do professional casting are often working off a pretty narrow set of ideas about what characters "should" look like, and I tell them why I don't do it that way. I use my own experience and explain what my "type" was and how my looks limited the roles I was considered for when I was acting. (Since my "type" does not match my real-life personality, the kids always are surprised.) I point out that since they are already out of the age range for most of the characters in the story and that's not a problem, we're not going to weirdly make different rules for race, beauty or bodies. I them that claims of "That's how it is in the professional world" can sometimes be used to avoid questioning the assumptions of the professional world (many of which place a lot of emphasis on physical beauty, whiteness, and able bodies whether or not it affects the story.)  If it's worth anything, I've cast in this "un-standard" way while still having theatre programs that were successful in terms of audience reaction, state and national awards, kids getting into college programs, etc.

    I do tell the kids that if they go on to college, conservatory, or professional acting (and a bunch of them have), not to be too surprised when they find the scope of their roles narrowing sharply. All of them so far have been able to handle the change in casting rules, and they tell me they were glad they got to play so many different types when they were just starting their journey in theatre.

    Finally, as a costume designer who has built a lot of custom pieces for the shows I direct, I've found after talking to kids that I can't assume who will or won't be comfortable in a costume. There are thin kids who want to cover from neck to ankle and thick kids who are happy to bare a midriff--you have to ask, and then really listen to their answers to make everyone feel good and have a costume that helps to tell the story.

    Best of luck to all!

    Meg O'Connor