I wonder if Mrs Potts (Beauty & the Beast) had body issues? Did 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 our personal challenges around how we look are something that most of us bring with us into a theatre project.
Of course, it doesn’t help that we have the subject constantly smashed into our faces. I stopped scrolling through my Instagram feed recently to ‘marvel’ at half a dozen faces, carved out of cream cheese, gracing a cast announcement for a new ‘magical’ concert, touring Australia in 2023. Size 10s, six packs - is that the only look we have in musical theatre?! And don’t get me started on the ‘barbie nose’. You’d swear that anyone who doesn’t fit this physical norm just doesn’t have any talent! God, I want to scream sometimes.
Sorry…my soapbox fell out of my rehearsal bag.
If you’ve ever been embarrassed at costume fittings, felt like sticking dressmakers pins in an insensitive costumer who tells you they’ll “have to let your costume out so much they may as well start from scratch”, or screamed at that cast announcement full of cream cheese faces, I see you. I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t give you ‘five easy steps to becoming comfortable with yourself’. I’m still looking for ways to explode the ‘cream cheese’ myth.
Years ago, I came face to face with my own thoughts around this subject when breast cancer took a breast and my hair. I had to come to terms with how, without eyebrows and lashes, I looked like a walking mushroom (pretty much me in hats, actually), 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 to the stage. I hope you’re laughing. Really! You have to laugh at this stuff.
That experience forced me to realise that the valuable part of me was not what I looked like. Of course, if you perform 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.
A few years after my cancer, I auditioned for a show; a concert celebrating a milestone for my theatre company. Cast as a singer, I was ecstatic that I could wear costumes that covered my floppy triceps and no one would ask to see my legs. Life was good.
Somehow, I ended up in a dance number. I don’t know how it happened and, 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. Then came my costume.
Remember ‘le fillet’? I was expecting to perhaps hide it in a voluminous dress. Instead, costuming hands me a singlet top. A bloody singlet top! What the hell was I expected to do with my prosthetic? Superglue it to my chest? 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 my anxiety levels shot through the roof.
Concert night arrived and, when that dance number came up, 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 breathe but I didn’t care. I only had to last for three and half minutes. I could breathe when I came off stage, but I was NOT 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 realised that I had to make some changes in myself. I wanted to keep performing 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 choices, limiting my life and experiences. Cue inspirational music.
The ‘le fillet’ incident clarified some things for me:
Lesson One – It’s not all about me.
Actors – stop expecting costuming to be emotionally responsible for you. They’re already dealing with their own issues. You are the one responsible for recognising your emotional hang ups and things you need to change. You’re also responsible for gently calling people out when they are insensitive. You’re allowed to, you know.
You’re an actor. 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. Try collaborating with them. They’re not your enemy.
Lesson Two – ‘Shut up and wear the bloody costume’ is not the best approach when costuming a cast. Costumers, in community theatre we do not ‘cast to size’. We have the wonderful opportunity to include people without being restricted by whether they fit into a costume created for a show that has been touring for 3 years. Check your unconscious insensitivity. Community theatre actors are not being paid to ‘shut up and wear the bloody costume’.
Look, this is my own mental checklist. If it helps, use it. But better still, take the time and do the work and build your own list. A list that moves toward a stronger, more resilient, gracious you.
It’s a costume for a character, not a personal reflection of me.
Everyone deserves respect. Community theatre costumers are volunteers, doing something they love. They're not out to get 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. 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.
Offstage, you suck at being someone - anyone - other than yourself. Stop pretending to have it all together. No one does. NO ONE! You're okay.
The best you can do is all you need to do!
Sherryl-Lee Secomb writes her blog, An Idiot On Stage, specifically to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Sher has been building brands for performing creatives in Australia since 2011 and now advises theatre organisations and performing artists in marketing their work and building awareness of their brand.
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