"Number One: There is room for everybody," Jared Loftin says to the naysayers. And, by everybody, he means big, small, tall, short, gay, straight and everyone in between.
He's sitting at a picnic table on the set of Gigantic, the Off-Broadway show in which most of its characters are headed to a weight-loss camp (the piece was previously titled Fat Camp before it officially bowed at the Vineyard Theatre earlier this month). With him are four of the show's other campers: Bonnie Milligan, who plays Daphne, a girl who thinks her size is sexy; Larry Owens, who plays Darnell, the boy who tries to win Daphne over by stealing candy; Max Wilcox, the bad-ass Robert Grisetti who is trying to get kicked out of camp; and Ryann Redmond, the girl Max falls for who is determined to shed some pounds this summer.
Loftin plays Anshel, and although his character isn't another love-struck teen, he's the guy who is friends with everyone.
They're just like any other group of young adults — no matter what the scale may say — and they bring the point home in Gigantic.
"I have had several friends — they're not consciously saying these words, but they're like, 'The whole cast is so great,'" explains Redmond. "Like they're shocked."
"In parentheses," Loftin elaborates, "for fat people."
Milligan got the same response from her friends, who say, "There are so many different kinds of characters!"
"Like, hello! We know!" Redmond replies.
"Because we're actually just a group of actors."
But, normally — as they all attest to — shows only have room for one character of their size. They've each gotten audition breakdowns in the past that describe the role they're going in for as "obese" or "fat" or "the best friend." And, when it comes to the audition sides (or scene excerpts), Milligan says, "It's opening with her crying into a tub of ice cream. You [think], 'Oh, come on!'"
For Milligan, "I [always] knew I was different, and there wasn't anybody like me," she says, "but I liked that. I was like, 'Oh, that will make me a star!'"
But, as she grew up (and put on some additional weight in college), some peers deterred her from the dream — and she was being encouraged to pursue other options instead of striving for stardom. "I moved to the city, and I wasn't gung-ho [about] auditioning at first, and it just planted this fear in me that I didn't know had been there before. So then it kind of took me years to find myself again and like myself," she explains — a newer version of the confident girl she once knew who, as an adult, simply thinks, "Oh, f*ck those people."
As she regained her confidence, roles started presenting themselves. "Belting Bonnie," as she became known around the New York City concert scene, was being billed at 54 Below. She racked up a few Off-Broadway credits and then was cast in the national tour of Kinky Boots.
"I played Pat, and there's nothing about her weight in [the script] because it's not about that at all," she says. "I got to do the tango at the top of Act II, and she dressed cute, and Lola was connected to her. There was a little friendship there. Some bigger girls would come up to me and be like, 'It was just really nice to see you up there, and you were dancing…' It was like, 'Why is that revelatory?' Because I wasn't in a role that had anything to do with being fat. It was powerful to them to [think], 'Yes! Yes! Exactly.' … It's like, 'Why can't you represent that?' … Like Larry said — I think we're getting better. We're getting closer. How much more inspiring and better can you get [when] your audience [is] seeing themselves on stage?"
In Gigantic, as the group says, each character is unique. None fit into the typical "fat person" stereotypes or molds, and they provide audiences with a more realistic view of the pressures high schoolers deal with when it comes to their size, shape or figure.
"That's why I'm obsessed with this show," Owens says emphatically, "because four of us at this table get to fall in love on stage, and really fall in love, and that's something that at my age and at my current type… I feel like we don't get to do that onstage and do it fully, and that is so special about this show."
Like any other camp, romances and relationships bloom, and Gigantic allows the big kids to explore deep relationships and emotions. They've each stepped away from being the sidekick to finally stand in the spotlight. But, shows like Gigantic are few and far between, especially in musical theatre, where actors are told from a young age to fit into a certain "type."
"It's definitely interesting because I feel like we get these emails from our agents," says Redmond. "You get the breakdown, and then, sometimes, I discount myself before I even go into the [room]. I'm like, 'They're going to want Laura Osnes for this. Why am I even being called in?' Or they're going to want somebody else. I automatically do it in my head because it's been so ingrained that there are these specific types in musical theatre, and you fit in this box… But I work with this foundation called Broadway Dreams Foundation that really tries to find directors who are part of this 'change' in musical theatre [and are] really working towards not casting inside the box. So I think it's just important that we, as performers, seek out those people because they are there. They're there, and they're willing to change people's perceptions."
Although Wilcox says he's gone in to nearly every audition for the "quirky fat best friend," Robert Grisetti is the first role he's played in his professional career that has to do with his weight.
"I think that we're slowly but surely getting to a place where you can walk into a room and someone is going to say, 'Wow, that person really connected to the material and they sounded great, and that's a person who I want to live this experience.' And, that's what's most important to me," he says. "I am the weight that I am because I feel healthy at the weight that I am. I don't get winded going up a flight of stairs — maybe three — but I am the weight that I am because that is who I am. That does not cheapen or lessen who I am as a human being, and when I go onstage every night, all I want to do is live a life."
For Loftin, a moment of acceptance came when Stafford Arima (another director who's put diversity at the forefront, particularly with this season's Allegiance) cast him as the title role in a reading for a different show.
"It was the title character of the show, which I never get to play," Loftin explains. "I don't play that. I play the weird friend who farts on the side, and there wasn't a description… There wasn't a description because it was a newer show that's still being written. I felt really cool and confident after that [casting] email because he was just like, 'I read this. I am directing this, and I think that Jared is capable of doing this,' and there wasn't anything about…
"I can't talk," he says, getting lost in his words.
"No, that's it," Milligan interjects. "That's amazing. For the first time, it was a brand-new thing — title character — and they're like, 'Let's have you.'"
When it comes to auditioning for Owens, "I feel like the minute I stopped negating who I am — who I wake up as and who I walk into the room as — is when I actually found freedom auditioning and felt people open up to me on the other side of the table because I wasn't going against that," he admits. "I had more ownership of everything that I am. Whether I'm feeling proud of it that day or it's harder that day, that is just the truth of who I am. I think that leaning into my size and really owning it has been the best thing for me rather than going against it and reading those breakdowns, just saying, 'Okay, this is what it is.' I don't judge the characters; I judge the writing. If it's written well, then I will play the bigger guy — the fat guy — but I hope that I could do it with some dignity [and] that the story is good."
As Owens said, some days are harder than others, especially when he takes off his shirt each night during the show for a swimming scene.
"I've done this show in development for six years, and I started when I was 17, so I was on this stage at the Acorn taking off my shirt at the same place in life where Darnell is, and I convinced myself through all the magic of musical theatre that I was confident, and I could do it," he explains. "But inside, I actually had crippling insecurity because I had never taken off my shirt at a pool in broad daylight. I would take it off and jump in the pool or I would just wear my shirt in the pool — classic fat guy move. So to do the show now, six years later, and have better love for myself, better understanding of who I am and how I fit into this world, it is… It feels empowering, and it is awesome, and I can truly say now that I feel confident in it. Although, once upon a time, I truly didn't. I was lying. I was projecting something rather than truly asking Bonnie['s character] every night to love me and fighting for that. So, I make it through, but some days are harder that others."
Audience members are seeing themselves on stage, and as the group chatted at the onstage picnic table, they each brought up an infamous Instagram post.
"There was someone who came to the show, and he tagged us in his Instagram post because he saw the show, and he got it," says Owens. "He laughed at the jokes and everything, but he also understood that these characters are coming here not just to change their bodies, but to change their lives and how important that is, and he just loved that we treated it with respect."
So what should the next steps be for fair representation in theatre? "To have it just look like real life," Redmond replies.
If you are in the NYC area you have to see this show. Funny, honest and emotional is truly a great experience at the theater. Specially for someone who has always been dealing with weight I could see myself in everyone of those characters portrayed by a group of really talented young actors, who show strength, vulnerability and respect for their work. At first the premise could look like it is a "musical fat joke", but what really is the story of thounsands of people who deal with this sometimes with jokes, others with tears, but at the end of day always with their hearts ready to love and to give. Congratulations to the whole cast and crew. #gigantic #giganticmusical #offbroadway
A photo posted by José Rafael Reyes (@jos2486) on
"To me, what would be really, frankly, exciting, is if you had a show that had no mention of anything," says Milligan. "It was just a story — a love story — and maybe it was [with] a big girl and has nothing to do with size. Nobody ever talks about it, [but] I think all the reviews would bring it up. They would all be like, 'Interesting casting!' They would all bring it up, and that would take a while [to change], but that would be my dream — to see a Broadway show that has nothing to do about how fat you are. It's the lead girl [who is big], and maybe her best friend is the classic ingénue-looking girl, but she's not the one the guys wants, and it has nothing to do with their size. And, let everybody freak out! And, [the story is not about] a 'chubby chaser' and not about her loving herself. None of that sh*t. Just life, and it's a little different."
Loftin puts it best. "If we all looked exactly the same, what a boring world, and what a boring show that would be."
Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.