“Would you like to write a blog?” asked my General Manager, Peter. “Sure, why not” I replied not realising the questions that would bound around my crammed brain. I have just finished a six month, four-man National Tour of Barmy Britain and then proceeded to jump head first into a two-man version of Barmy Britain - Part Two! whilst trying to remember Barmy Britain - Part One! for a one off performance at Canary Wharf. Yes, it was a challenge and yes, it fried my brain! I wondered what would people want to read about? Why would anyone be interested in what I have to say? It was then I thought of something that affects us all, something that has affected me since I was little and will probably be a huge issue for me until I go to that theatre in the sky... Body Image.
I am a size 24/26 and 5 foot 3 inches tall (nicknamed Gimley from Lord of the Rings - and no, I haven’t got a beard) and I quite like my hair and eyes. When I walk into an audition room it hits me; ten or so actresses all looking like they could be my twin sister, a glance up from a disgruntled director quickly realising I’m 'not what they are looking for', a hopeful smile from a casting director pleased that in fact I do look like my 10x8 photo. All instant judgments about how we look.
There are few professions where how you look is why you get or do not get a job. In fact acting is one of the few careers where job advertisements are exempt from the legal equality law. Specifics are a must. It’s all part of the casting process. One which comes to mind was my audition for Little Britain. The breakdown of the role stated, 'Spanish girlfriend of Daffydd: the only gay in the Village. Think the ugliest girl in the world'. It was bitter sweet when I was told I hadn't been successful!
I hear stories all the time about how size matters. When recasting for roles, parts are often given to the person of similar size to the previous actor to save money on remaking costumes. A famous producer held my friend’s photo up to him. “You see this”, he said “this is a fat face”. My friend replied “too fat to play the role?”. “Yes”, was the producer’s reply... audition over. However, the silver lining to that story was that my friend focused on losing weight, re-auditioned and then toured for a year in his dream musical.
Please don’t think I am being negative about the way in which actors gain jobs, quite the contrary. I believe it’s the nature of the beast, a double edged sword. I believe it’s all of our specific unique qualities which are exactly the reason why we DO get employed. Theatre imitates life and life is full of a variety of people of all different shapes and sizes.
One thing I always get asked: are there jobs for larger actresses? Well in truth, there are not as many. However, there are more average sized actors in the profession so its swings and roundabouts. More jobs but more competition or fewer jobs for the right sized actress. I'm very lucky to say my ratio of employment to 'resting' swings in my favour and my size has often been an asset in securing the role.
Nine years ago I walked into an audition room and met Neal Foster, Actor/Manager of the Birmingham Stage Company. Once again my 10x8 was mentioned: “You should change this” he said “you're a lot more smiley in life and this picture doesn’t do you justice”. Great start I thought. “Where were you when we were casting for James and The Giant Peach? - you'd make an excellent Aunt Sponge”. For those of you who don't know Aunt Sponge I will relay how Roald Dahl describes her:
"Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had piggy eyes, a sunken mouth and one of those flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled."
Ha, ha - say no more! However, the part I was being seen for was Dross, a member of a trio in the first staging of Horrible Histories. I was thrilled to receive the news that I had got the part and since then I am honoured and proud to have been involved in nine of the 'Horrible' shows. It’s a real pleasure seeing how the franchise has grown and developed over the years and it’s been a huge and cherished part of my life.
I sometimes don't realise the impact my size has on audience members. It’s very moving and inspiring for me when parents approach me with a larger child by the side of them and I receive comments such as “thank you for giving a larger role model to look up to”’; “thank you for showing it doesn’t matter what size you are, you can be whatever you want”; “thank you for representing a different body shape”. I remember being that child, looking up to Dawn French, Miriam Margoyles and particularly Cathy Burke. By seeing someone on stage of a similar shape to yourself it obviously makes people feel good about themselves. Let’s share the love!
Of course, I’m not daft, I realise being big is not good for my health. Being fit and healthy is very important to me, but this is about judgment and acceptance rather than health.
I didn’t feel quite so inspired a few years ago when a review came out about me in Georges Marvellous Medicine. I was playing the Farmer’s Wife, the mum. The review read:
"Whilst being a fine comedian, Alison Fitzjohn is physically disastrous as the Farmer’s Wife. Large? Yes. Rotund? Yes. But the woman could hardly fit behind the wheel of a tractor."
In truth, I was devastated. As an actor you expect your talent and ability to be criticised, but to focus on my size to personally attack me hurt me very much.
Luckily I had great support. My family wrote complaints, Equity advised me of libel and defamation of character laws and told me where I stood regarding the Press Complaints Commission but it was my boss, Neal Foster’s communication with the paper’s editor that really saw action. He wrote a fantastic email to the editor wondering whether the reviewer was suggesting that larger actresses should not be seen on stage in that particular area? He also made a brave statement saying that if his actors were to be personally attacked in this way he would have to consider not inviting the paper to review. Within an hour the editor had responded saying whereas he believed a journalist has the right to say what they want, he understood the complaint, had deleted that section of the review and reprimanded the journalist in question.
I'm very grateful for all the support I received at that time. Sometimes we have to stand up for ourselves, even if it makes you cringe and even if it is dealing with one of your huge insecurities. I often wonder why can’t people see us beyond our shell?
Anyway, onto my current role in Barmy Britain - Part Two! It’s a two-hander, great fun and a real fab challenge. Neal and I look great together. He's tall and slim and I'm obviously short and fat. It seems to add to the overall look of the show. I play about twenty different characters in total, one being Queen Victoria. Photographs of her have made me realise just how similar we look. There's something comically surprising about someone of my size rapping and breakdancing on the floor dressed in all of Queen Vic's finery. It adds to the moment and is often mentioned as a favourite section in reviews and by audience members. We're on until the end of August so come along and see this fat queen get down and boogie!
At the end of the day are any of us happy with how we look? Is there anyone out there who has never experienced a comment or a judgment about their appearance? We are all aware of our bodies. We are all aware of our differences but the older I get I guess it's just about being happy. There will always be people that judge, there will always be people that want to put you down for whatever reason but it’s all of these experiences I have mentioned in this blog and more that have contributed to my career and, in truth, I wouldn't trade - even for a large bag of doughnuts.
Horrible Histories - Barmy Britain - Part Two! runs at the Garrick Theatre until Sunday 31st August 2014.
Please visit www.barmybritain.com for further information and tickets.