What it's Like Being the "Big Girl" in Theatre

  • Karli Marie Gundersen

I know everyone has had their struggles in theatre. Even if you are the most talented, stunningly fit, and beautiful person on this earth, let's face it - none of us are perfect. I want to tell you my personal struggle. I’m writing this because I want to face reality and also, I know I’m not alone.

Since I was a child, I always loved watching any type of musical performance. However, I never ever thought that would become my life, my obsession. I was a Soprano 1, and thought I could sing as high as Christine Daae since I was twelve. I joined the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus and would end up being involved with them for several years. I was comfy in the chorus, never even thought of branching out. I made friends and I got to perform at the Straz Center at a very young age.

When I was about ten years old, my obsession with food began. I started gaining weight and when I hit puberty, it hit me like a bus which was very noticeable in my school pictures. In middle school, I was still involved with the chorus and loved my teacher. He was incredible, I remembered I wanted to be him "when I grew up." Even though I was kind of devil child/rebel in middle school, I still always felt at home when it came time for chorus.

In high school, I was still struggling with my weight, again. It wasn't a huge deal because, in middle school back, my size wasn't something that much attention. Little did I know, high school gave me that reality check that I was one of the “fat girls”.

I remember I got into the show choir my Freshman year. To me, that was stepping WAY out of the box. Yes, I was still in the choir, but this was singing AND dancing with a partner?! What?! I felt like I was on top of the world. However, I would still cry in my mom's arms every night after school about how fat I was and how I didn't look like the other pretty girls in show choir with their flowy dresses and how their partners didn't struggle to lift them. Besides my incredible mother who helped me through literally everything in my life that I have ever struggled with, my chorus teacher, Liz Stewart, gave me a shred of hope during this hard time. She was a plus size woman who made it VERY clear to me that I was beautiful and she understood what I was going through, but she didn't care about my weight at all. She knew I had the talent and drive, and quite honestly, that's all she cared about. She and I remember we were singing "Joyful, Joyful" from Sister Act in chorus and she asked me to sing the beginning solo part. I ran to the corner of the chorus room in tears, I was frightened. I couldn’t do it. I was still terrified of being in the spotlight like that, all eyes on me.

During my Sophomore year, our school was preparing to do Nunsense. I offered to stage manage this production. I had NO experience with stage managing, but I knew I loved theatre and singing and I knew I wouldn't have to be seen being the fat girl.

But two weeks before the show opened, the girl playing the role of "Reverend Mother" dropped out. I was approached by Mrs. Stewart who asked if I could step in since being the stage manager, I knew almost all of the lines. I remember my heart sinking to my toes. Reverend Mother is the LEAD! After tons and tons of convincing, I agreed. I remember telling my mom, and she was absolutely thrilled. This was NOT something that Karli did. EVER.

The show opened and the moment I stepped on that stage, I knew. This is it. I have never in my life had that feeling of pure joy, happiness, butterflies, combined. I was in LOVE with being on that stage. The lights beating on my face, the backstage jitters and costume changes, the smells, the people, the “oh my gosh I could go on forever!” My heart melted hearing the applause and thinking, "oh my God, is this for ME? ME?!"

From then, I was hooked and joined the theatre department. That's when I met Daron Hawkins, the most incredible theatre teacher/mentor to ever exist in this world, at least mine. I remember how intimidated I was by him, partly because he was this awesome, flamboyant theatre diva who knew all of his shit, but mainly because his passion for theatre was SO STRONG all I wanted to do was to impress him while being his BFF at the same time.

I auditioned for The Pajama Game and I was cast as Mabel and Poopsey. I cried my eyes out with joy. I was a big girl, but I felt like it didn't matter because Mr. Hawkins had noticed my talent and he had given me a chance. FINALLY! During my senior year, he cast me as Joanne in RENT. One day, he called me into his office and told me that I had an incredible talent and believe I was going to go far in the theatre industry. This was EVERYTHING I have ever wanted. Encouragement like that, coming from him felt like Sutton Foster offering me a job as her Broadway replacement.

Daron Hawkins 1975-2013

Daron Hawkins 1975-2013

After I graduated, Hawkins and I became close. I remember calling him crying after every audition, crying about my weight, how much I screwed up, or the audition panel completely ignoring me. Whatever the reason was, he was there for me and encouraged me - right up until the day he passed away.

The loss of someone who I considered my mentor devastated me and my weight skyrocketed after his passing. I eventually got up to 300 pounds, which at 5'2'' is HUGE. I auditioned for Bare; a pop opera a year later and was cast as Nadia. It’s an AMAZING role, but I still remember feeling out-of-place. I loved the cast, the theatre, everything, but still, I had such an intense internal struggle with myself.

While singing 'A Quiet Night at Home", I broke down on stage every night. I could relate so much with my character, almost too much. I thought, yes I know this is an amazing role, but why am I the fat girl? Why am I always the comedic, fat girl/character role?

Next I was cast as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, which I was THRILLED about, but again, another fat girl role. Was it really that obvious? Was I really THAT FAT? I remember trying to be in denial, telling myself, “No no, let's give it another try.”

More auditions came and went, I belted my face off, got offers to play more roles like Cactus #1 or possibly help backstage/makeup, etc. That's when I knew, Oh my gosh, this IS about my weight. This is all I have to offer.

Later, I was cast as Tracy again with another theatre company and I remember stopping for McDonald’s after rehearsals because I thought, “what’s the point?”

It dawned on me that no matter my talent, I was only going to be considered for certain roles and disqualified from others because of my size. Would a 350 pound gorgeous and talented red-head get cast as Ariel? Hell no. She would ONLY be considered for Ursula Why? Because she is FAT!

It took a while for me to realize that not every director is the same and that some have different visions of their shows.

I say this because I was over 300 pounds and I played Princess Fiona in Shrek :The Musical. I couldn't believe it. I also played the role of Lucy Harris in Jekyll and Hyde at 250+ pounds. I remember thinking how incredible it was to play a role like that. But at the same time, I felt guilty, like I was indebted to that theatre, the board, or the director, as if they were doing me a favor. I remember thanking the director nearly every other night for giving me the opportunity. But why did I feel the need to thank him so many times? Was it because this was a dream role? Or was it because I felt like he gave my fat ass a chance? Or was it both?

These are the thoughts that run through my mind as the “fat girl” in theatre and that is the problem.

Theatres wouldn't ordinarily cast a 400-pound as Maria Von Trapp or a 400-pound male as Prince Charming. But could you?

I’ve come to understand that It all depends on the theatre you are working with and the director's VISION. But it hurts most when there are bigger people out there who have the talent, who live and breathe theatre, and know that we probably would never have a shot at lead roles because of the way we look. And how we feel as if we were just "lucky" to score an amazing lead.

That is so heartbreaking and has taken a significant toll on myself and many others. We should be cast solely based on our talent that fits like a puzzle piece with the director's vision as a whole. We shouldn’t be cut right away because you think it takes us one minute more to get into a costume or you might have to slow down choreography a tad bit more because you think we’ll out of breath. Big people have some serious talent out there that unfortunately goes unnoticed because of their size.

Anyway, with all of this being said, I had weight loss surgery in 2017. I still have a food addiction and I still have a solid 100 pounds to lose this year. I may still land the "fat girl" roles, but I’m okay with that. It’s taking me a while to get to this point but I want you to know that I can walk into an audition with confidence. I like I can audition for Ariel OR Ursula in The Little Mermaid without feeling like I’m being laughed at or judged. And I hope you can feel the same. Please give talent a chance, no matter our size.

Thank you, Mr. Hawkins for doing just that.