Stay Thin & Shut Up : The Continued Brutalization of Women in Theatre

Stay Thin & Shut Up : The Continued Brutalization of Women in Theatre

Chris Peterson

Last time I checked, it was 2015, not 1960. 

For the past couple of years, incidents involving discrimination, domestic abuse and sexual harassment of women have been, thankfully, thrust into the public eye.  Whether it's the ongoing incidents involving professional athletes, sexual assaults at an epidemic rate on college campuses or the debate over equal pay, these problems are finally being addressed on a national level. 

However, while many organizations and industries are making leaps and bounds with how they treat women, the theatre industry still lacks progress in this area with some theaters taking egregious steps backward. 

Sexual Violence and Harassment

This past year, the New York Times published a fantastic article addressing sexual violence towards women in the theatre industry. Writer Patrick Healy explained the shocking truth about how sexual harassment is handled in professional theatre and its biggest union, 

"Though some theaters and the 49,000-member Actors’ Equity union have harassment policies in place, the provisions are largely toothless, many performers say. And the far-flung world of plays and musicals lacks a human resources department to complain to."

What is even more shocking, is how silent Actor's Equity has been on updating their policies to support victims. Three different proposals have been presented to them in addressing these concerns:

  • To have a statement read on the first day of rehearsals for all Broadway and professional shows that describes how to file complaints about harassment or other unprofessional behavior.
  • To designate union officials to handle these complaints.
  • To create a confidential mediation process where complainants and the accused can talk through instances of harassment, misconduct and abuse with a mediator and without fear of penalties."

So far Actor's Equity has declined to comment on these proposals and instead have relied on their current ones which are antiquated compared to what other unions are doing to protect their workers. 

What is even more shocking is how forgiving the industry is towards offenders. We reported earlier in the year how current Phantom, James Barbour, was convicted after he admitting to having sexual contact with a his dressing room. These actions, especially using a theater facility to commit the crime, you would think would prevent any theater from wanting him in their productions. Yet, James Barbour is enjoying his run as the Phantom on Broadway, seven years after he was convicted of sexually abusing a minor, in a dressing room, two blocks away. 


This past year, a theatre group in the tri-state area was set to produce Legally Blonde. After auditions concluded, they selected an actress who was the perfect to play the part of Elle. She had nailed the acting and singing portions of the audition. In the eyes of the director and theater, she embodied everything about that character, except for her body itself. She was viewed as being overweight for the role. 

The director and theater struggled to try to come up with a solution. Then they figured one out. Why not cast the woman with the contingency that she lose weight before opening night? And if she isn't progressing the way they would like her to during the rehearsal period, they'll cut her from the show and find someone else. To help her, because they obviously had her best interests at heart, they signed her up for a gym membership and fitness classes. This way we can track if she's really trying to lose weight or not. 

How overweight was this woman to begin with? She was 137 lbs and 5'5 tall, considered average and healthy for someone with her frame. 

 And do you know what? She did it. 

Why? Because this was one of the biggest theatres in the state, all the critics will come see this show and several of its past performers have gone on to successful Broadway careers. She figured it would be worth it. 

I hear situations like this every week. My inbox is flooded with stories like these. It's amazing to me that pressuring women to lose weight or change their image in order to play roles is still an ongoing problem. What is even scarier is that this occurred with a non-union theater, where actions like these can go on, unchecked for years. 

It's incredible and depressing to see that the theatre industry still hasn't been able to address having bigger women in their shows. Whatever roles there might be for bigger women, these shows make sure they address the fact that she IS  a bigger woman in the dialogue or lyrics. 

From shows like Hairspray to It Shoulda Been You, we see roles for bigger women. However the writers always make it a point that her weight has to be explained in the show at some point. 


The discovery that a woman is pregnant is usually met with joy and celebration, I know it was for me and my wife. However in the theatre industry, it can be met with fear, which is tragic. 

Recently a husband and wife found out that they were pregnant with their first child. The woman had been cast in a play and they were in the midst of the rehearsal period. Wanting to be honest, as well as share the good news, she told the director she was pregnant. While congratulatory, the director notified the actress that she had to be dropped from the role because of this news.

It wasn't a safety issue, which I could at least understand, it was that the director didn't want the audience to be distracted by the sight of a pregnant woman playing this role. 

I might understand this if the actress would be 8 months into her term by closing night, but by the time this show ended, she would be just 6 weeks, which means that with the right costuming, the audience would never know that she was pregnant. 

Did this reality matter to the director? Nope, he just dropped her from the show without even a discussion. 

As disgusting as you might think this is, it's happening more often. But the good news is, in some cases, it can lead to legal actions for actresses. In 1997, actress Hunter Tylo, successfully sued TV producers after she was fired for being pregnant.  

However, once again, this happened at a community theatre level, where actions like these can run rampant without protection for the actresses.

So what can be done to end treatment like this? The only way is by addressing it and making it public. However, many performers, both female and male, won't come out and disclose these actions out of fear it will hurt their careers, so individuals and theaters are allowed to carry on these terrible acts. 

If these problems aren't addressed, then we'll continue down the slippery slope that for every success story, there are ten more tragic ones.  As progressive as you might think the theatre industry is, you would be surprised to see how much it is not. 

I’m Thankful for Theatre, This Year and Every Year

I’m Thankful for Theatre, This Year and Every Year

The 5 Worst Tony Award Robberies of All Time

The 5 Worst Tony Award Robberies of All Time