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Olivia Donalson: Seeing Myself and My Power

olivia donalson
By The Ensemblist
Anna Altheide

Full disclosure. I am a busy, multifaceted, fabulous woman living and working full-time in New York City. I work, I play, I wine, I dine, and I try to polish as much positivity and veracity out of life as I possibly can. I also happen to be plus-size, and I want for two very simple things.

Firstly, I want to sit in a Broadway house and see more people – more young adult women, especially – who look like me.

Secondly, I want them to exist as fully developed individuals (like myself), autonomous of their body size.

It may not sound like much of a revelation, but plus-size representation on Broadway is still quite limited to a few old, offensive tropes, including “chubby girls who are successful, in spite of their weight (but let’s still bring up and joke about the weight)” and “nasty girls who get what’s coming to them… by ‘letting themselves go’.” Frankly, none of these stereotypes speak to me, or speak to the way in which I want to be seen in the world.

In my day-by-day hustle, I sprint up and down subway steps with complete agility. I queue for the same salad at Sweet Green. I walk twenty-five blocks before I take the subway. I am not defined by my weight, and my body size is not a plot development (let alone a revenge plot). So why should it define the fictional lives of characters on Broadway, or exclude thousands of actors equally as talented? Frankly, at what point do we accept that a plus-size Anna in Frozen or a voluptuous Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes are both viable draws – and that, perhaps most controversially, specific character dimensions aren’t written in stone?

I recently had the opportunity to have a deep dive chat with actress Olivia Donalson, currently in Aladdin on Broadway, to discuss what it means to be body positive in an exceptionally body-conscious industry.

“I am so thankful that I’ve gotten lots of messages from people of similar size saying, ‘wow, it was so awesome to see you on stage,’” Donalson shared candidly. “Right now, I feel my size is valued in a singer track or a track that fills out the ensemble. But it can be very challenging, because there are roles cast a very specific type of way. It’s hard for people who are plus-size, like me, to keep myself on stage in roles that aren’t just for the big, blonde, beautiful Motormouth Maybelle-types. I have to use my body and see my body as a power; to turn the tables and say, I have something that all of these hundreds of other people don’t, and it’s my size and my energy.”

In terms of pressure, Donalson disclosed that, though far from ideal, the Broadway community is steadily growing more open-minded than one might initially assume. “Something that’s always in the thick of everyone’s minds is making sure that if you have a costume, you fit that costume. But I think eyes are opening that we do not need to follow the same guidelines for our diets, fitness plans, and all that. Being healthy is also different than looking a certain type of way. When I got to New York and to the [Aladdin First National] tour, I wasn’t surrounded by people that made drastic, unhealthy choices as far as staying fit or being lean. So it’s been nice to not feel that pressure.”

Though optics are steadily improving, Donalson stressed there is still room for more exposure, particularly when it comes to showcasing plus-size performers on Broadway in more lead roles — especially in highly active roles (think Bob Fosse or A Chorus Line): “The next step is to have people my size in the dance tracks more in the front,” Donalson elaborated. “We’ve yet to come into seeing my type on a line of kick dancers. The next step is to be represented in those beep-beep-de-beep-beep roles.”

In keeping with the ongoing trend of inclusive casting, I couldn’t help but ask what Donalson’s dream role would be in today’s current landscape; regardless of gender, ethnicity, dimensions, and longstanding typecasts.

“I recently saw Mack and Mabel and I absolutely loved it. I thought, I could be Mabel! I know it’s a random role, but there’s something about her spirit and bright personality. I thought, oh my goodness, Mabel and I should be best friends.”

Donalson’s first choice, however, sticks a little closer to home (but is far from the safest choice). “First role that comes to mind is the Genie, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m around it every day, but it’s such a huge role. I would give my left foot to play the Genie. I would die to play the Genie!”

Frankly, it’s impossible to not imagine someone like Donalson completely embodying a character like the Genie – a spectacular, positive, and beloved personality long overdue for a gender reversal.

As we began to wrap up our chat, Donalson paused to reflect once more on the current tone and attitude on Broadway toward plus-size performers, as well as provide some optimistic wisdom and advice to current or aspiring actors and actresses.

“Seeing myself and my power and acknowledging all that I have to offer has been the most helpful navigating this industry. I’m feeling good about where we are headed. I’m so excited things are in this direction and that people are making more conscious efforts to expand and open their eyes. I would encourage anyone, going forward, to erase what other people have decided a role looks like and just go for it. We all belong, regardless of our size.”

Also by The Ensemblist:

Peter Royston, Stage Manager: “I Make Magic Happen”

Broadway Kids on Netflix: John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Brunch

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