Artists’ Bodies: Talking About How Performers Look

A pair of interesting thought pieces from the Guardian‘s theatre blog recently on how critics should treat the looks of performers when reviewing. Andrew Haydon tackles the issue of “body politics,” while Mat Trueman discusses when and why it’s okay for a critic to just say he or she thinks such-and-such a performer is bangin’ hot.

Here’s the money quote from Haydon:

One of the oddest aspects of writing about theatre is the tricky question of how one goes about describing the actors. After all, it is their presence, the way they look and how they sound, that constitutes a large element of seeing a play. The problem for critics is balancing the need to describe the obvious and deliberate dynamics which have been – often calculatedly – set up, while at the same time trying not to offend, appear lecherous, or come across as entirely superficial.

And here’s Trueman:

[W]hen it comes to critical judgment, looks don’t matter, right? A good performance, as many an alumnus of Hollyoaks has demonstrated, takes more than a pretty face. Acting is meritocratic: quality hinges on ability rather than fanciability. What matters are the choices made by the actor and the skill of their execution – in short, what the actor does, and not the way he or she happens to look. Adonis and Quasimodo must be equally judged.

But isn’t our disquiet about critics confessing to finding certain performers attractive disingenuous? After all, as Andrew Haydon has pointed out, part of the critic’s job is to be honest – about actors’ physical attributes, as well as every other aspect of a particular play.

It’s a tricky problem I’ve faced plenty of times before, and even more so in dance than in theatre. Dance, after all, is usually limited to a particular type due mostly to its physical demands. In terms of body type, you probably couldn’t find a more homogeneous group of people than your average dance company. So when someone decisively strays from the fold, it’s a distinct choice in and of itself. I remember seeing Portland, Oregon’s experimental dance-theatre group tEEth at On the Boards in Seattle a couple years ago, and one of the core members, let’s just say, is anything but a prancing little ballerina type. The problem arises when you try to explain it. Not only does the reference alone suggest a certain sizism (it’s like when the news reports that a “black” man committed such and such a crime, assuming “white” to be default), but to describe someone’s size inherently risks being pejorative. Call her “heavy” and you’re using a cheap euphemism; say he’s “fat” and you’re insulting; say she’s “junoesque” and you’re being condescending.

And beyond the challenge of even acknowledging the issue, doing so invites the sort of interpretation of artist intent that–for me at least–takes me well outside my comfort zone. On the one hand, I see art as taking place in a larger cultural discourse, which means the choice to choreograph a non-traditional (what an ugly way of putting it) body-type takes on meaning. But what does it mean within the piece? Certainly, tEEth demonstrated that you don’t have to look one way to be an amazing movement artist. So how to take it in? To focus on it risks totally skewing the way people see the piece; but to not acknowledge it is to ignore something that many people in the audience–particularly if they’re artists themselves–will note about the piece and will talk about over drinks afterward.

Another interesting element of the politics of discussing performer appearances came up earlier this week when the NYC Culturebot contributors got together for drinks. One of the things we wound up talking about is how often discussions of the arts occur mainly in terms of marketing, and looks have a lot to do with that. Haydon’s spot-on when he writes: “The cynical deployment of beautiful men and women is just as rife in theatre as in the most mainstream Hollywood rom-coms,” and that’s true not only of Broadway but downtown performance as well. Certainly not all (or likely even most) experimental theatre companies and modern dance choreographers cast for looks exclusively, but some do. And to return to dance, given the body type of most dancers (to say nothing of the longevity of the average dancer’s career), it doesn’t even have to be a choice: the publicity photos will by default feature lots of alluring, lithe young women and cut young men.

This in turn can have an impact on the way in which the work is presented in the media. In Seattle, I know many dancers were particularly irked by the tendency of people in the hip press to talk about their looks (particularly if nudity was involved–Seattle doesn’t really have strip clubs, you gotta take it where you can find it I guess), and on more than one occasion I stood up for the practice on the grounds that, essentially, the writers were trying to find a way to attract new audiences, however misguided the tactic may have been. In other words, the media directly went out and helped market the work as cynically  as anyone actually working in marketing, in the hopes that, with butts in seats, however they got there, people would get to experience amazing work and come out thinking of it in a very different way.

Sometimes you can at least argue that the practice of casting attractive people and blatantly exploiting their looks in the marketing materials dovetails with the work’s intent. Case in point: Everywhere Theatre Group‘s The Internet, which played as part of the Incubator Arts Project’s fall season last month. The work explored the way in which sex and eroticism on the Internet can delude us and problematize our relations with people in the real world. I suppose that gives them room to use a sexy shot of one of their actresses to promote the show (much props to Tess Frazer Hofmaier for both her performance and her exploitation for art’s sake): if that got you to see the show, then you’re already in some way complicit in the very tendencies they’re exploring.

But on the whole, it’s a very, very tricky subject. Political correctness and the challenge of doing so in a meaningful fashion often prevents us from talking about the issue at all, outside the world of arts marketing.

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