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Big break for performing artist fighting anti-fat bias in musical theatre

Actor, producer, and Gleaner journalist Callan Forrester has long been working to break barriers and affect positive change within Canadian musical theatre. As one of ten emerging artists from across the country selected to participate in the Leading Player Project, an intensive two-week incubator for plus-size musical theatre artists taking place this month in Toronto, Forrester is once again at the forefront of important changes.

The project will culminate in a showcase performance during the inaugural World Theatre Day Summit on March 27. Presented by EveryBODY on Stage, a world leader in advocacy for representation of all body types in the arts, the summit will provide a platform for the selected performers to address anti-fat bias and traditional casting practices with industry professionals.

The showcase “is such a niche thing that does not exist anywhere else right now,” says Forrester, of the significance of being selected for the project. An alum of Chateauguay Valley Regional High School’s performing arts department and the now-defunct Rural Arts Project in Huntingdon, they first learned about EveryBODY on Stage a few years ago as the company was building their now impressive following on Tiktok. When Forrester learned about the Leading Player Project and the summit a few months ago, they submitted a recorded audition and were thrilled to receive a callback.

 

 

Callan Forrester is one of ten musical theatre artists set to perform as part of the inaugural World Theatre Day Summit on March 27 in Toronto They previously starred as Jo March in The Playhouse Collectives interpretation of Little Women last year in Toronto PHOTO Becca Ashcroft

 

Since mid-March, they have been working with professionals from Mirvish productions as well as the Stratford and Shaw festivals while training in theatre jazz, contemporary, jazz, and tap dance, as well as vocal technique, stage combat, improvisation, and giving a good audition. Forrester says they have also benefited from individualised acting coaching, along with workshops on theatre business, social media branding, and making theatre spaces more accessible in general. In one workshop, they were able to work with a Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning writer to craft powerful monologues that could be published together as a source of audition material for plus-size artists to use in the future.

Although Forrester has been working in musical theatre for seven years, from their debut in Alice in Wonderland at CVR to being an actor, producer, and production manager at The Playhouse Collective (a theatre company they co-founded in Toronto with Annie Wang, Deanna Mann, and Sydney Page), the Leading Player Project is their first professional billing. “I never thought I would be cast because of the way I look, so the fact my first professional gig is dismantling fat phobia or bias is surreal,” they admit.

“I set a goal at the end of 2022 to book an Equity contract,” Forrester says, referring to the Canadian Actors Equity Association which negotiates and administers scale agreements and hiring policies for fair working conditions and remuneration for professional artists across Canada. Their contract with EveryBODY on Stage was finalised in January. “This is going to open doors for all of us and even more,” they exclaim.

Beyond the invaluable training and experience, Forrester says the “whole process has been extremely emotional.” A lot of horrible and traumatic experiences within the field were shared between participants. One revelation that especially resonated with the performer was the fact that regardless of talent, they have all been trained to content themselves playing secondary characters instead of lead roles because of their body type.

“I have spent my life trying to make myself smaller both physically and metaphorically,” Forrester says, suggesting it can be especially devastating to work in an industry that does not allow you to embrace your own body. Those working in the worlds of musical theatre and dance have some of the highest rates of eating disorders, and these affect people across the body-type spectrum. “Our bodies are overlooked,” says Forrester, who adds that there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to fighting the taboos that fuel size discrimination and limit diversity and inclusion in theatre spaces.

Despite this, the industry is starting to show signs of change, and events such as the World Theatre Day Summit will initiate difficult but important conversations. “There has been a huge shift in how we are talking about the rooms we are creating, and I think it is time that fat people are part of this,” Forrester says, noting much of the past two weeks has confirmed the need to push back hard against the taboo.

Forrester will participate in the summit as a panelist and will perform in the showcase capping the event. The summit will be live streamed starting at 3 p.m. Tickets and access to the live stream can be purchased on the EveryBODY on Stage website at everybodyonstage.com.

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