Two Actresses, Fat and Thin

Staging Neil LaBute's 'Fat Pig' is a heavy proposition

Zena Marie Vaughn, left; Jenny Lavery, right.
Zena Marie Vaughn, left; Jenny Lavery, right.

So, wait, the actress playing the fat-girl role isn't fat enough? Seriously?

That's what she – Zena Marie Vaughn, taking on the role of Helen in the Theatre En Bloc production of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, opening this weekend at the Off Center – tells us that people have told her. That people have complained.

The show's director, Derek Kolluri, confirms this – as does supporting actress Jenny Lavery.

Kolluri's a tall, stocky guy … but that's irrelevant, because he's behind the scenes, no one's gonna be running their glazzies over his particular meat puppet. Lavery's onstage with Vaughn (and Ryan Hamilton and Charles P. Stites), though, so our eyes have to deal with her – and she's thin as a willow wand, wouldn't look at all out of place among the Seelie Court, if you ken our fey drift. And then there's Vaughn herself, falling somewhere, sizewise, on the heavier end of the spectrum between, say, Christina Hendricks and Camryn Manheim. And so usually she can't get cast in lead roles because she's too fat? And now she's getting shit from people because she's not fat enough?

We figured this was something worth talking about, to get the two actresses' take on the situation and on the general habits of objectification and size-judgment in the performing arts. So your man Brenner sat down with the two women at Thunderbird Coffee on Manor Road. He sat there, asking questions and stuffing his maw with the cafe's (highly recommended) hummus platter, while the young thespians sipped at their chai lattes or whatever, and this is what they said:

Austin Chronicle: Supposedly there's some flack that y'all are getting because Zena "isn't heavy enough" to play the lead role? Is this true?

Zena Marie Vaughn: Oh, we're gonna jump right in there?

Jenny Lavery: Not even waste any time.

AC: Yeah, why not?

Lavery: OK – we knew, as a company, that we were taking on a topic that's very intimate to every individual – especially the female community. So we knew we were inviting some of that discussion. But Zena and I have both been surprised at the responses we have gotten, the bold steps that people are willing to take in voicing their opinions.

Vaughn: When we first started doing this show, I didn't quite realize that I was inviting discussion about my body? I mean, I should've known – it's a play about a very specific issue. But I wasn't prepared for the amount of phone calls and emails about "How big are you?" and "How much do you weigh?"

AC: This is after people have seen photos? And are they people that, ah, do any of them know you personally?

Vaughn: Oh, these are people that know me personally. And just maybe never took the time to identify me as "fat" before. Or didn't want to put me in a plus-size category, because it was more like, "Oh, that's Zena, that's just the way she looks and we're not gonna label her for that." Because my friends are supposed to be super-progressive and weird, right? So I wasn't prepared for the phone calls and emails asking about my weight and "What category do you put yourself in?" and "Are you big enough to play this role?"

Lavery: LaBute kind of slams both of our characters. The actresses playing these characters have to have pretty thick skin, because he really does make them the opposites of each other. And so my character Jeannie is supposed to be the epitome of fitness, and in shape, and whatever. And that's a lot to live up to. And what's funny is that, from some people – who I guess are not as physically driven or motivated by the diet industries and all of that stuff – they're like, "Oh yeah, I totally buy you in that part." But some of my other friends, the really really fit friends, my gay friends, they're like, "Oh, you've got a lot of work to do, you're really gonna have to work out for this part."

AC: And, Zena, people think you're not fat enough to be the "Fat Pig" of the title?

Vaughn: I've gotten both ends of the spectrums. People saying that there aren't many roles for plus-size women to play, and so it's awfully ballsy of me to assume that I represent plus-size women in taking on this role.

AC: But wouldn't it ultimately be Derek [Kolluri, the show's director] who assumed that?

Vaughn: Well, yes, the director and the producing company are ultimately deciding if they're casting an actor's role correctly.

Lavery: So it's really interesting that Zena's been fielding calls from people, and those calls have not been coming to Theatre En Bloc.

Vaughn: No, they come to me. And I always tell them, thanks for the feedback – if you ever want to identify yourself and not call me anonymously, I'd be happy to have that conversation with you.

AC: OK, and outside the context of this specific show … I mean, here's a play. And here's Jenny. And here's Zena. And they've never been in plays before and they're never gonna be in plays again? No, that's not the reality. The reality is: You guys are actors. You're doing this job, and this is what you'd want to do, if you could, for a living. And, if not, to do it while you're making a living some other way. And you'd like to keep acting, possibly for the rest of your lives. I mean, like Ruth Gordon, right? Or, ah, Betty White – for banality's sake. So what, in general, being actors – being actresses – female, specifically – when is a person too thin? When is a person too fat?

Lavery: I lived and worked in New York for about eight years as a commercial actress, among doing other things. And I'd get calls all the time from my agent, about "You have to lose weight, you have to lose weight." So in terms of the commercial industry, I'd say you can never be too thin. A lot of actresses have said this before, and I think it's really true, that, because of the demands of the entertainment industry, they're so thin that they look good in clothes, but if you see them naked, it's awful. But they've been driven to that point to have a job. And the demands of that industry are what caused me to leave New York, and to battle my own weight issues.

AC: Zena, what about for somebody who is plus-sized?

Vaughn: My perspective on this is a little unique, because this is my first time acting in seven years. I've been a theatre producer – I'm the managing director for Penfold Theatre Company – so I'm normally on the business and casting side of things. And, before that, I was in Chicago, managing a theatre company there. So for me so much of it is about the chemistry between actors. If you're casting a play and you're putting a man and a woman across from each other, there's this concept that they have to be believable as a couple. And in our industry that automatically means "similar in shape and size" and "alike in level of attractiveness." So Jenny may not get cast across from her actual boyfriend, and I may not get cast across from my partner – in this industry, based on what we look like. But, in real life, people generally have a much more diverse interest in body types. But onstage, for some reason, we have that need to match people. Now, I want to believe that the Austin theatre scene could see me and see Ryan Hamilton, who plays across from me, and believe that we can develop a chemistry and that we could fall in love. But how much a director can get from an audition, from just seeing our body types across from each other, and seeing that Zena's got a solid hundreds pounds on Ryan, and believing these people as a couple … I see that stretch made in some casting, but I think there's a lot of pressure to look like you could blend in with most of the men that could play across from you. So if you took the men in Austin theatre and said "Who could we cast across from Zena?" If you buy into the similar-body-type concept, then there's probably not a lot of guys I can play across from. So my opportunities to play the lead, to play the ingenue, the love interest – they're very narrow.

Lavery: Which is another reason, probably, why you've gotten flack from some curvy girls.

Vaughn: Yeah, because I'm seen as taking one of five roles written for fat women. And they say, "No, you should be fatter to be able to take this role on – you are not fat enough."

AC: Okay, here's a thing. Plus-size, minus-size, whatever-the-hell size: Both of you guys are gorgeous. Somebody looks at y'all, and it's gotta be like, "Wow – models." And models are beautiful objects. I mean, objectifying comes down to treating people like objects – and objects can be judged for how they look. Like these umbrellas here, Thunderbird could've gotten some cheap-shit umbrellas, some plastic shit, but instead they spent a lot of money and so these umbrellas, all wood and canvas and metal, they're gorgeous. And you guys: Gorgeous. But why is that a thing? Why do actors, actresses, whatever, why do they have to be beautiful? To be handsome? Why is that? When there's a woman or there's a man and they don't look like a model, they're most often not in the lead. It's unusual when they are in the lead. "Oh, she's a good character actor." There's an aesthetic diss inherent in that statement. "He's a character actor." "Oh, that Paul Giamatti, oh yeah, he's such a great … character actor." What the fuck is that? How do y'all deal with that?

Vaughn: Because if you're not a certain type, you're defective, right? So you shouldn't be allowed to find love or carry a lead role or have chemistry. You're defective in some way, so you can be the maid or you can be the prostitute – if you're curvy in the right kind of way – or you can be the mother – if they put some kind of gray on you. But, yeah, if you don't fit a very narrow definition of what beauty is, then welcome to the world of character acting – because nobody could possibly fall in love with you.

Lavery: Yeah, and there's a weird thing that happens: If a woman's plus-size, if she's bigger? She's automatically funny. But then the opposite of that is, like, thin women? "Ahhh, I don't believe her as funny." As often. I've heard this about Margaret Cho – and she's fucking funny – I've heard so many people say, "When she was heavier, she was so funny. And since she lost all that weight, she's not funny anymore." What is that?

Vaughn: It buys into something we're all supposed to believe about each other. So if Jenny and I walk into an audition, you're supposed to say, "Okay, Jenny is gonna be our ingenue, our lead. And Zena can be her mom."

Lavery: Or her fun sidekick.

Vaughn: Yeah, I'll be the funny next-door neighbor who comes in with a few quips or gets her heart broken in some way, gets it stomped on for some reason.

Lavery: She'll be the sassy friend who puts somebody in their place.

Vaughn: I'm used to my body type being used for comic relief.

Lavery: And this is one of the, sort of the fun things about Fat Pig, is that LaBute switches that. Because I'm always cast as the ingenue or in that love-interest part, pretty straight-and-narrow. I don't get put in the character-actress roles. So, for me, I'm finally getting to play someone who's not just the love interest, who has a divisive, manipulative mean streak in her – because she's been wronged. I get to play something different. And the same thing for Helen, Zena's love-interest role – she gets to be that thing. So, yay Neil LaBute for doing that – although it's for a certain purpose.

AC: I haven't read the script, but from what I know of LaBute's other plays, the characters are usually some combination of, ah, bitches and dicks.


AC: Is there a sympathetic, at least mostly sympathetic, character in this play?

Lavery: This is the play – LaBute was touted for this – where the characters are all redeemable. It often gets said about his plays, that, yeah, they're bitches and dicks, right? That you see the worst of humanity. And the really interesting thing about Fat Pig is that an audience member can come into this show and – if we're doing our job right – find humor and can agree with each of the characters, be able to see four different points of view. This isn't such a simplistic thing – a simple thing. Yeah, all the characters have their moments of this being the worst day for them – and acting such – but it's also littered with human, comical moments.

Vaughn: Neil LaBute's known for writing characters that are very real, and that's what makes his plays so fantastic to watch. Because you're not gonna get the happy ending that you might want, you're not going to have it play out like a romantic comedy. This is not Sleepless in Seattle, this is real life, these are real people making bad choices and good choices and struggling through choices. You're gonna see these characters making decisions that you have made. And LaBute brings those to your attention, like "Look what you did. Look what these people are doing. Think about that." And we often don't want to think about those things – which is what makes LaBute so stunning. He makes you look at the ugly underbelly of humanity – and makes you find yourself in it.

Lavery: It's where he got that title of Provocative Writer. He has a way of getting you to laugh with certain characters, and then, in the next moment, have you going "Oooh, I just laughed at that? Shit, what does that say about me?" And then you find yourself laughing again. And that's the way it really is, a lot of times: We laugh at inappropriate things.

AC: Why is it, in society, that thin is attractive and other-than-thin is not? How the hell did that happen?

Lavery: That's a good fucking question.

Vaughn: I can't speak for the world, but I can speak from my own personal experience. For me, the moment I was exposed to the world of advertising and marketing and modeling and was told that "These are the people we want wearing our clothes" and "Women your age should be this size and have these clothes and wear these shoes, and their skin should look this way, and their hair should be this color." I was sold, from a very young age, a very specific vision of what "pretty" was. And that's why I don't read fashion magazines. Or watch "Project Runway."

Lavery: But it's everywhere. It's something we've talked about throughout doing this show. I've become hyper-cognizant of just little things that are so subversive. Of how we greet each other. Like if we see each other after not seeing each other for a long time, and you look thinner, I say, "Oh my god, you look good!"

Vaughn: But if someone's gained weight, you don't say anything. You try to find a way to compliment their hair, because surely they can't be happy about the fact that they've gained weight. They can't be beautiful if they're heavier than they were before.

Lavery: I've taught for the last five years, and I've become very cognizant of how we treat little girls – from a very young age. Of what looks cute and what doesn't look cute, and the things that they should strive for. It's even marketed to little little kids. There's a shocking statistic – I can't quote it right now – but there's a statistic for eating disorders in the age group of ten-to-fourteen-year-old girls, and … it's alarming. It's insane.

AC: And what about this idea? For any number of reasons, there's a lot more focus than there used to be on men's bodies. When you see them modeling, they're more likely to have fewer clothes on – to say the least – and they're all ridiculously fit. And when you see stuff like that, besides maybe thinking Oooh, they're hot!, do you get the feeling of "Why does there have to be so much focus on sexual attraction all the time?" Or do you, maybe simultaneously, get the feeling of "It's about fucking time that men had to deal with that sort of objectification too" …? Because it used to be mostly just the heterosexual-male-gaze-on-women in advertising, and men depicted back then were usually, uh, they were whatever – fat, old, cigar-smoking things.

Vaughn: Objectifying anybody for any reason is unacceptable. So, for me, I don't think it's about time men were given their fair share and have to stand naked like we do. Regardless of gender, it's not something that I want to see. I don't think anybody "has it coming."

Lavery: Sex is so taboo in our society, which is why it's an old adage that "Sex sells" in terms of advertising: It comes of having such conservative viewpoints in society? Because sex was always made to be this thing we don't talk about and we don't do and … I don't know what point I'm trying to make.

Vaughn: If you can make an advertisement provocative in some way, our marketing culture tells us that it will sell the item that you want it to.

Lavery: And so now guys are the subject of it as well.

Vaughn: And when women increasingly become a larger part of the population that are purchasing the goods, therefore the marketing shifts to "How can we sell these men's underwear to women?" And it's "Oh, we can do it with a great looking, half-naked, masculine guy – because that will make the woman pay attention." That's the concept.

AC: And also grab the entire gay-male market.

Lavery: Right.

Vaughn: Absolutely.

AC: OK, now I know this is getting deeper and deeper into the foundations of everything … but, what about the idea that objectification might be, on some basic level, inescapable? That, unless you're blind, you want to look at things that please your eyes. And what pleases your eyes is influenced, because you're a thinking person, by all sorts of things: Societal influences, your own personal history, even whatever core-level stuff your genetics have set up. So you look at a rose. And there's roses that look good, and there's roses that look bad. And it's okay to judge those things, because it's a fucking rose – it doesn't have a mind, it doesn't have feelings, it's not a sentient creature. So it seems that the problem here is that people are individuals who have feelings, who have minds beyond their bodies. But, they're still also bodies, they're encased in these things, and these things – as objects – are subject to that sort of aesthetic judgment. Like, if someone says "Oh, you're objectifying me!" Well, stop walking around in that fucking object. You know? How do we get beyond that – and why should we?

Vaughn: You ask hard questions, sir.

Lavery: That is a hard fucking question.

Vaughn: I think … you can challenge the norm when the opportunity is available. Writing a play with a plus-sized woman as an ingenue character, and having her fall in love with a socially-acceptable-sized man, and having that be something that you encourage people to look at and think about – I think it does something to people. So when you have that opportunity, to put a thin woman in a character role or put a larger woman in an ingenue place, to cross genders, to make a character gay if they're written straight – when a writer bends something in a way that society doesn't necessarily generate itself – I think it does something to people. It makes us view things in different ways. It makes us consider those things. And that's something that LaBute does in Fat Pig. And it's one small step in the direction of that question.

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Fat Pig, Neil LaBute, Theatre En Bloc, Derek Kolluri, Zena Marie Vaughn, Jenny Lavery, Ryan Hamilton, Charles P. Stites, objectification, sizeist bullshit, body image, weight issues

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