Earlier today, someone on the professional voice teachers group I’m a part of asked a question that we all face at some point or another, the gist of which was how to handle a conversation with a student regarding physical traits (in this case it was weight) that may keep them from being cast in particular types of roles in musical theater. The question was maybe not phrased as carefully as it could have been, but it is a real issue we can’t expect to never have to talk about, and worthy of discussion. Unfortunately, somewhere between the time that I saw the question and finished typing up my response, the teacher was pretty much run out of town for asking it, and the topic was deleted.
Honestly, though, this really *is* a thing that we face as teachers. The conflict between the so-called “reality” of the business and the narrowness and undesirability of that reality is not going to just disappear because we think it should (it should). So it needs to be something that we can talk about if a student asks us. Here was *my* response that I wish I could have posted to the teacher who asked it (I don’t remember the teacher’s name, or I’d send a private message), because I think it actually could help!
“This is a really tricky subject, and one that I wrestle with often, along with the subject of the very narrow expectations regarding gender norms in the business (which the body type issue is part of, too, if we’re being honest). I work with high school students mainly, but a lot of them are very serious about pursuing performance careers and frankly there is nothing I find more difficult and upsetting than the question of if/how/when to have this kind of conversation with a student. Most of them are immersed enough in musical theater culture to have already been told by *someone* that they are “too heavy,” “too effeminate,” or “too masculine,” and so on (oh how I wish those words and the narrow ideas behind them would just disappear from our culture), so by the time they get to me, they’ve already been crushed in one way or another and I’m left to pick up the pieces. (I’d add “too ethnic” to the topic here, but nobody addresses that cavern of suck better than the badass Erin Quill.)
It’s not a subject I’ve ever brought up with any of them on my own, and frankly I’m hoping their generation will be the one to finally smash these notions to bits in what is a bizarrely old-fashioned business (you’d think the artistic community would be ahead of the rest, wouldn’t you?). But if I’m asked, I’m prepared to talk about a few things… yes, the very narrow, conservative standards of the current business is a real thing to reckon with, but I also can talk about my own experiences as a (formerly) successful performer who was decidedly heavier than the industry standard for ingenues, but with a ingenue-like soprano voice and a sweet, midwestern face that didn’t match my body type. Yes, I was passed over for jobs I wanted because of this incongruity, but I also *got* jobs that were originally intended to be cast more conventionally, just because the artistic staff liked me enough to take a chance. It’s a tougher road in many ways, but the jobs you *do* get tend to be more interesting and artistically rewarding, and filled with more awesome people than their cookie-cutter counterparts. There is room in the business for anyone with the talent and will to go into it, and there are theaters and directors willing to defy current norms and cast you as something other than the “funny best friend.” Hopefully some of my students will be in a position to help crush those norms someday. I’m counting on them to be better than those of us who came before.
Do you have any stories like mine that you can share with a student who asks? Do you have colleagues with personal stories of unconventional success to share? That could really help give a wider perspective to the conversation, and if not exactly *soften* it, make it feel less personally hopeless for the student.”
Because it really *shouldn’t* feel hopeless, and honestly, WE, the current adult establishment, need to take responsibility for our part in failing to sufficiently challenge (and perhaps even ACTIVELY MAINTAINING) the status quo. Step one: admit that there IS a status quo and be willing to freaking talk about it seriously with a student who asks.