On Being Seen

Pastures of Heaven
2010 Octoavio Solis' Pastures of Heaven opens the 2010 season

On Being Seen

This is the second in our series called New Directions in Dramaturgy. The first, Circle of Trust by Shakespeare Behind Bars Founder Curt L. Tofteland, is here.

We’re looking for submissions that draw on dramaturgy to explore relationships, histories and expectations in new and revelatory ways. Find out more about the project here. 

On Being Seen
by Amy Kossow

I live in a small suburb adjacent to a big city. I always say that my family is the diversity quotient in my town: my husband is from Africa, my son is autistic, and I am neither thin nor blonde. I also don’t dress my dog to match my purse du jour. I often feel extremely visible here in my town. Funny that the opposite is true in the wider world. Ask a fat person. We are really quite invisible somehow, once we leave home.

Here’s a funny story: at age 50, looking much as I do now, I played the role of the psychotic nine-year-old in John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. Large ensemble cast, we all played many roles, but in that part of the story, the little girl goes crazy, attacks her mother and gets shot. Quite dramatic. So, I’m at the pharmacy and run into an acquaintance who saw the show and somehow didn’t recall that I was in it. Says she: Oh, I saw that! Who were you? Says I: I was one of the skinny ingenues up front. She didn’t get it. I thought it was funny. I am really hard to miss, you know?

Actually, the casting for that role was a surprise to me. We were workshopping the stories as an ensemble, and a lovely young woman, a very talented and beautiful actress, was reading the role of the psychotic child. I was off in a corner, gabbling away at my role of the mean teacher, when I hear the director call my name. He asks me to give the scene of the child a bash. I squeak “Me?” at him. I come to center stage and pick up the script, and out of me roars this frightening child. As I remember it, all the activity in the room seemed to slow down, and I had the attention and eyes of all my peers.   I’ll never know what inspired the director to ask me. I sometimes wonder if he wanted the monstrous child to look unmanageable next to her smaller mother. I do know that the role lead to many more roles, that somehow it made me visible.

I have played the marginalized woman many times. Almost always, the role specifically calls for a fat actress. I often get cast without auditioning. If they want me, they want only me. And I have played wonderful roles as a result. Roles with a lot to chew on, so to speak. I have been very lucky.

I do wonder sometimes what it would be like to play the average every-day woman I actually see myself as. My Frankie and Johnny moment has not come along yet. I think writers often add weight in the mix as a shorthand for any number of sidelining factors in interesting characters: the depressed daughter, the mentally ill homeless lady, the wry best friend who presents no sexual threat to the Lead (ha! If only they knew!), etc.

But, seriously, as I have built my career, I have learned a sort of secret. The magic lies in bringing all my joy, all the light I possess, to the fore. I can enter my character without judgement, and in exploring her heart, can show that she is lovable, even if she is one of my grotesques. I can free the audience from the way it judges fat people. To allow the audience to see something lovely inside the unlovely first glance, to allow them to bond with me and therefore feel the plot twists, the slings and arrows, as they come, with a pang of loss. If there is no love, there is no tragedy in loss.

This often makes for a very personal relationship between an audience and me. I get a lot of hugs from strangers after a show, even when my character is the antagonist. After a matinee performance of Abby, the gluttonous murdered stepmother, in Angela Carter’s The Fall River Axe Murders, a woman in the audience waited for me to come out and gave me her Farmer’s Market produce, saying she “just had to give that Abby something.” (Who brings tomatoes – unrotten ones – to a theater?!)

It is not always so, however. I can remember one critic writing that she could not see the character I was playing under all the fat. I am still working on the rage about that particular comment. I also note that almost every review, no matter how kind, mentions my size. Usually a pun or joke: “huge body of talent,” something like that. But I put myself out there to be seen, so what comes back at me is the exchange I chose to be part of.

Look, theater is about truth. Think of a statue on a plinth. A Giacometti, a Kapoor, a Koons. Perhaps not beautiful in a classic sense. But there to be seen. You are meant to observe it, to experience it, to note all of it in its physical form, to allow it to blossom into an experience of emotion. I am also the clay, the marble, the stone, the plastic, and the stage is my plinth. Your eyes and heart, your observation, is invited; your judgement and emotion and experience make the moment complete, as complex as we are, together. It is the exchange of truth (which may, indeed must, be different for you than for me) that matters. We have this one moment to share. I must fling myself headlong onto the plinth. There is joy in this.

I did have to pause, however, when offered the role of Sadie in Linda McLean’s wonderful play, Any Given Day: the American premiere of that extraordinary piece. I’d have been an absolute fool to say no, right? And the issue wasn’t size: the role is written for a fat actress. That’s mine to make use of if I like. I can Stanislavski that shit just by standing up in front an audience. Audience plus stage plus me equals an event already.

No, the hesitation I felt was that Sadie is developmentally disabled. I really had to ask myself, can I make art out of my personal knowledge of autism? Am I in some way stealing something from my son, using him to fuel my art? He can’t give me permission; neither can he become an actor and play it himself. In the end, saying those words, I fell so in love with Sadie, she was mine and no one else’s. It felt like a love letter to my son, like a small step left, to enter his world, to think and feel what he feels, through the medium of Linda’s piercing, poetic language. I have spent the years of my son’s life translating our world for him. This role was my chance for once to enter his world and encounter the terrifying reality, the joy, the normalcy, of what he may be feeling in there.

And there it is. The chance to enter into another’s mind and heart. To know the other. To widen our empathy and deepen our knowledge of one another. To use every ounce of skill we possess to make visible the person who is not seen. To be seen, and to see. That is the purpose of theater to me.

Amy Kossow was a founding member of San Francisco’s Z Space Studio, and is a Charter Member of Word for Word. With Word for Word, Amy has directed award-winning productions of stories by Alan Bennett, Sam Shepard, Siobhan Fallon, Mem Fox, Lesley Ely, and Mavis Gallant. Favorite WFW acting roles include Ottaline, in The Bunchgrass Edge of the World, Rose, in Three Blooms, Abby Borden, in The Fall River Axe Murders, and Miss Van Vluyck, in Xingu. Amy appeared as Sadie in the American premiere of Any Given Day and as Mary Prime Deity in the rolling world premiere of The Lily’s Revenge, both at Magic Theatre. She also originated the roles of Hilda, Ma Humbert, and Miss Martin in Octavio Solis’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven at CalShakes. She holds an MFA in Theater from the Catholic University of America.


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3 thoughts on “On Being Seen”

  1. Amy, thank you for sharing your experiences with such tenderness and honesty! Especially interesting to hear about the process of playing an autistic character while having an autistic son, and how you came into your own as Sadie. I will also be looking forward to other essays from this series!

  2. Really interesting post. New York Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park featured a plus sized Beatrice in their recent Much Ado About Nothing recently televised on KQED. She was feisty, outspoken, colorful and even sexy. It worked.

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