‘Broadway Bodies’ Lays Down the Gauntlet Against Conformity in Casting

February 27, 2023

A new book by Graduate Center alum Ryan Donovan, fueled by his own experiences of auditioning, argues for making the theater industry inclusive beyond the “hyper fit” Broadway ideal.

Alumnus Ryan Donovan and his new book "Broadway Bodies"
Ryan Donovan (Ph.D. ’19, Theatre and Performance) and his new book, “Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity”

Ryan Donovan (Ph.D. ’19, Theatre and Performance) has been captivated by the casting of theatrical productions since his first-grade class in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, put on a stick-puppet version of Peter Pan. Donovan was absent the day his teacher assigned parts, and came back to find that he’d been cast not as Peter, the part he was desperate to play, but as Captain Hook. “It’s kind of a joke, but it’s also very real — that’s when this fascination with who gets to play whom began for me, and it’s become a lifelong interrogation,” he says, adding, “As an adult, I realize Captain Hook is the better part, it’s more fun.”

Donovan is now an assistant professor of Theater Studies at Duke University and the author of the new book, Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity. The book examines the socially constructed norms of casting by looking at bodies that are construed as non-normative, and is dedicated to “anyone who has ever been told they were too fat, too short, too gay, too disabled, and otherwise too much or not enough to be in a musical.” Though it is an academic work, it grew out of personal experience. During his decade of auditioning for Broadway musicals, Donovan, a 5’6” dancer, frequently found himself disqualified before he could even audition because many productions had height requirements of at least 5’11” for male dancers. 

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The book isn’t a how-to guide for making Broadway more inclusive. Rather, Donovan sees himself as laying down the gauntlet for the professional theater industry. “Casting is always going to be a subjective process, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be discriminatory,” he says. “It doesn’t have to include throwing out entire groups of people.”

Dancing and Failing

As a young boy, Donovan wanted to learn how to dance, yet he faced a strong social stigma against it. It wasn’t until he saw his first Broadway show at the age of 13 — Crazy for You — that his parents allowed him to start taking dance classes. “I made the case to them that the majority of jobs on Broadway were in the ensemble,” he says. “And if I wanted to up my chances of working, I needed to be able to dance really well, in addition to sing and act.”

He trained at a local dance school in Maryland and went on to study dance in college. Before graduating, he decided to move to New York in 1999. He managed to piece together a performing arts education — taking ballet classes five times a week, along with voice and acting classes — while pursuing his B.A. in liberal studies at the New School. He taught himself how to audition by doing it, and failing, a lot: “You don’t get good at auditioning unless you practice it regularly and you fail spectacularly.”

Donovan says he’s blocked most of these spectacular failures out of his memory. “There were auditions where I would kick my face and then just fall flat on my back,” he says. “You just get up and you keep going.” His most memorable audition was for a job he ultimately booked, a 50th anniversary summer tour of West Side Story staged by Alan Johnson. Despite his success with landing that part, Donovan decided, when he turned 30, that his years of auditioning had come to an end: As a dancer, he felt he’d aged out of being castable.

A Change in Focus

Instead of leaving theater entirely, Donovan decided to pursue his interests through an academic lens. In 2011, he entered the Graduate Center. “I showed up with this performance background, no academic background in theater,” Donovan says. “I almost had no idea what I was doing there, except that I knew I had these questions, and I needed to get the tools to answer them. And the Graduate Center provided me with that and more.”

The idea for his dissertation, which developed into Broadway Bodies, came to him when he was reading about disability studies and fat studies, which spoke to how he experienced the theater industry. “My dissertation director and committee members all supported me throughout the process, and encouraged me to take on a project that was maybe bigger than I thought I could pull off,” drawing from multiple fields, including LGBTQ studies, Donovan says. “This was a big lift for me, and they supported me throughout it.”

He was also awarded a dissertation fellowship by the Graduate Center and research grants that allowed him to visit archives and to share his work at conferences. He decided against embargoing his dissertation. “It had no impact on me getting a book contract,” he says. “Just to dispel that myth!” CUNY Academic Works shows his dissertation has been downloaded on every continent except Antarctica. “That’s so thrilling to me to be able to see that, and the Graduate Center made that possible,” he says. “It’s important to know that our work has an impact beyond 34th and Fifth. That if you do put your research out there, readers will find it.”

Looking back on the rejection he often experienced as a dancer, he says, “I was looking for a life where I didn’t face that. And then I went on the academic job market!” He jokes that he’s repeatedly sought out careers that require intense, long training periods that are followed by intense competition. But he’s drawn to the challenge. “To make a life in theater, either as an academic or a practitioner, is deeply rewarding,” he says. “I never gave up on that.”

Part of why he wrote the book was to bring an insider’s perspective of the theater industry to the world outside it. Actors and dancers might privately question casting practices, he says, but have little power to fight them. “I see my role now, as an outside observer, as laying down the gauntlet by putting this book out there to make the industry less discriminatory based on appearance,” he says.

Though the industry has come some distance in recent years, Donovan says, it is far from reaching parity on many measures of inclusion. Even the ensemble of Hamilton, which was progressive in its casting in many respects, was full of “hyper-fit Broadway bodies” in its initial production, he says. Which is not to say that he believes casting performers with traditionally “ideal” bodies is, by definition, harmful. “I would invite people to imagine if casting’s norms were the opposite of what they are,” he says. “For instance, if every nondisabled character was played by a disabled actor, or every single romantic leading couple was played by plus-size actors and not sample-size actors. By considering the opposite of what currently is the norm, we can understand just how deeply ingrained the norms are in our expectations of who should play whom.”

I would invite people to imagine if casting’s norms were the opposite of what they are. For instance, if every nondisabled character was played by a disabled actor, or every single romantic leading couple was played by plus-size actors and not sample-size actors. - Ryan Donovan

Audiences generally go along with what is presented to them, Donovan says — and in this lies opportunity for change. He recently saw a production of Beauty and the Beast at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, in which a plus-size, queer, Black woman played Belle and an actor whose leg was amputated played the Beast. “What struck me about this inclusively cast production was that of course you notice right away who you see on stage,” Donovan says. “And then you just completely go with the story.”

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