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Last week, Philly performer and teaching artist Lexi Schreiber debuted Fitting In: Tales of the Fat Ingénue, her solo show on life in the musical theater business while being fat, which is “the first thing people will see about me, and the least interesting thing about me.” Local audiences are in luck: she’s already planning another run at next month’s Free Fringe.
Schreiber, a Villanova and UArts alum who has gained almost 40,000 followers since she launched @thefatingenue on Instagram and TikTok in 2020, uses her platform to irresistibly belt out the tunes of “musical theater roles I can’t play because I’m fat.” She’s frustrated by the enduring size discrimination in the theater industry, and brought a fresh, palpable fire to this hour-long mix of monologues and musical numbers.
A new ingénue
Who is the ingénue? She’s Laurey, Cosette, or Anastasia: waifish beauties, the girls you’re supposed to want to be, the girls who get the love story. But the fat ingénue? She’s “frumpy and spunky,” never sexy or romantic, and her big body is a character trait. “Every part of me is too much for someone,” Schreiber says. “But will it ever be enough for me?”
Resplendent in a magenta midi tulle dress and leopard-print ankle boots, Schreiber took to the Adrienne stage alongside collaborator Allison Rossi on piano. With refreshingly brash pride, she recounted her childhood star-power and ambitions, but also the chronic, crushing rejection that had nothing to do with her talent. Director and co-creator Katherine Perry helped give practical and emotional shape to Schreiber’s narrative on a shoe-string set, from a slinky, exuberant rendition of Chicago’s “All That Jazz” to lounging in a single chair center stage to declare that for the first time, she’s putting her own comfort first.
What the audience knows
Schreiber called on the audience to brainstorm stage roles that cannot be played by fat actors according to the dramaturgical text. How about the starving orphans in Oliver? Surely those roles require thin actors, audience members suggested. But “you can’t make an assumption about someone’s food security based on their body,” Schreiber fired back.
Schreiber insists that the problem isn’t performers’ bodies; it’s producers and directors who ignore the fact that the bodies they almost invariably cast do not represent the majority of us. Schreiber points out that the average US woman wears a size 16-18. Tens of thousands of her own social-media followers, as well as an enthusiastic full house for Fitting In, demonstrate that fat performers have avid fans. If audiences can see that, why can’t casting directors?
Fitting in at the theater
The Fitting In premiere had its rough spots, and as Schreiber and Perry shared in a post-show discussion, they began developing the piece only in June of this year. Future performances could better integrate and expand mentions of anti-fat medical bias, how and why “changing my social-media feed changed my life,” and Schreiber’s own experiences of being a fat teenager in the early 2000s (a dire time for anyone over a size 4).
The venue itself also demonstrated how the very infrastructure of the theater is often inaccessible to fat bodies: the rows of folding seats at the Adrienne aren’t as bad as the ones at the Academy of Music or FringeArts (as a woman of average American size, I can barely fit in those seats myself), but they’re pretty narrow, with jutting armrests that are the bane of many fat theater-goers. As we talk about better representation onstage, it’s worth asking whether fat folks are comfortable in the audience.
The future is fat
Schreiber is voluble about her own privilege as a cisgender, nondisabled white woman, and the role this plays in her visibility, while many other big-bodied people face a nexus of anti-fatness and racism (biases which are inextricably linked). In the talk-back, she skewered the notion that it’s somehow easier or better for marginalized artists to create and star in their own shows, rather than simply being included onstage in roles of the existing canon. She said she doesn’t have much respect for the leaders of Philly’s major theater companies, who continue “to cast the same five people in the same five roles.”
Theater is the furthest behind all media genres when it comes to representation, she said. Whether inclusion in the theater really does lag behind dance and music, movies, TV, news outlets, or social media is an open question to me, but it’s certainly a point of pain that theater companies, which often pride themselves on progressive values, maintain some of the most discriminatory strictures.
Several opening-night flubs didn’t detract from Fitting In; rather, they underscored this charismatic performance’s necessary mix of vulnerability and confidence. “This is my stage. I can do whatever I want,” Schreiber ad-libbed after forgetting a line.
I hope she’ll get more chances to own the stage in the future.
Fitting In: Tales of the Fat Ingénue is slated to run September 23, 24, and 25 at the Painted Mug in the 2022 Free Fringe Philly.
The Adrienne is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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