This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
Sitting in his first set of auditions as artistic director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse, Brett Christopher felt like a witness to a cattle call. Scores of actors – predominantly young women – shuffled in and out of the room, their resumés listing physical measurements to be perused.
Their heights and weights were blazoned above experience, education and special skills. It felt irrelevant, antiquated, sexist, Christopher said. His mind went reeling back through his 15 years as an actor, where he says he altered his true height on multiple resumés to feel somehow more manly.
“It always hurt just a little bit to write 5 foot 10, which is ludicrous,” he said. “I can only imagine what it would feel like – especially as a woman – to write your weight if you’re not feeling comfortable with what that is, if you’re feeling that’s going to be judged.” And when resumés can determine who enters the audition room, sifted through before invitations are extended, the addition felt especially like a barrier.
Outside a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in Toronto that night, Christopher gulped back a drink and penned a missive on Facebook, directed to anyone auditioning for his Eastern Ontario company in the future. "Please feel free to remove your ‘measurements’ and ‘physical features’ from your resumé,” Christopher wrote. "We cast for heart, brains, chutzpah and poetry. Not waistline.”
By intermission, the post was swarmed with comments. The Professional Association of Canadian Theatres gave the idea a nod, and Christopher said several companies reached out to him to pledge their support – though he declined to specify which ones. Kelly Thornton, artistic director of Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre, agrees with Christopher that the Canadian theatre industry is generally trying to reflect more diversity on stage. That includes an exploration of barriers that may stand in the way of performers with diverse gender or racial identities, and performers with non-traditional body types.
However, both expressed the belief that the gears may turn more slowly when it comes to change in older institutions. “The assumption might be that their audience won’t travel down that road with them, and they’ll cause some kind of financial challenge to themselves,” Christopher said.
Neither the Stratford Festival nor the Shaw Festival – two prominent institutions in Canadian theatre, existing for more than a century combined – currently request measurements from actors (the exception, Stratford says, is children, who may be required to be under a certain height). “There is no institutional memory of us ever requesting the information,” said Stratford publicity director Ann Swerdfager. Still, actors often choose to provide their measurements in CVs, said Tim Carroll, Shaw’s artistic director.
Talent agencies may ultimately be the organizations to convince about making significant change, said Nightwood’s Thornton. It’s the agencies, not the theatre companies, who are building actors’ resumés, and determining which performers would fit a role or should audition for a certain company. “I hope in the future that things will evolve, but it has to start with the agents,” Thornton said.
The Playhouse recently entered its first casting cycle since Christopher’s declaration. Discussing this cycle in comparison to the last, he expressed optimism that the agencies may in fact be on board. “Some of the biggest talent agencies in the country are sending their clients’ resumés to me,” he said.
“And they don’t have, specifically, weight on them.”
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