Katharine Scarborough ‘05 writes a part to fit her talent
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Tuesday, September 22, 2020
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Katharine Scarborough ’05 always knew what she wanted to do: “acting, acting, acting.” However, as a plus-size actress, she found herself relegated to “chubby girl” bit parts — when she could get auditions at all. Eventually, she decided that if no one was going to give her the part she wanted, she was going to write it herself. That’s the story behind the creation of Big Girl Show, written by and starring Scarborough, a web series that follows the daily travails of its lead character through five episodes, each of them shot as a different film genre.
“I wanted to see a plus-size protagonist who isn't sad, eating ice cream, weighing herself, or going to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. You know, she just is living her life, and the struggles of being a plus-size person are present in the series, but the struggle is external and not internal for the character,” Scarborough said. “It's stories from my life, but made more absurd, heightened.”
At the Two Roads International Film Festival, Big Girl Show won Best Web Series in the Inspiration Competition and Best Director for Alyssa Cartee, while Scarborough was nominated for Best Writing and Best Actress. Actor Josh Hurley was also nominated for Best Featured Performer. The end game is to parlay the positive reception at festivals like this one into a distribution deal with a web series platform and potentially to give it more than just the one season they’ve shot so far.
Scarborough began finding her identity as an artist at UMass.
“I feel like I am a bold artist,” she said. “I like to make big choices, and I think that started at UMass.”
She cited, in particular, her work on projects with then-graduate directing student Melissa (Miller) Sivvy, the mentorship of Professor Emerita Julie Nelson — “When you had a good moment, she did this fist bump thing for you, it’s such a moment of affirmation!” — and the late Julian Olf’s Contemporary Rep class.
“I felt encouraged to take risks as a performer and to be weird,” she said of the class. “It was very formative for me as an artist.”
After graduating, she went home to Florida to save money and figure out her next move. She completed a summer program with American Repertory Theater, and then traveled to Moscow for an ART-affiliated winter program. While there, she toured the Moscow Art Theatre, where she saw legendary actor and teacher Stanislavski’s old dressing room. The sense of theater history and the pride among students there as they worked on their craft “really lit a fire under me,” Scarborough said.
By coincidence, upon her return, fellow alum Midori (Harris) McLean contacted her to say she was moving to New York, and asked Scarborough if she wanted to rent an apartment together. Scarborough agreed, and after working as a medical secretary in New York for a few years, she was accepted to the New School for Drama to pursue an MFA in acting.
It was a wonderful program, but upon graduation, Scarborough had what she termed “a rude awakening.”
“When you graduate from a training program, you're used to doing what you love, every day all day long,” she said. “You come out of a program and you know, you feel like you're hot stuff and really it's a very brutal industry.”
Finding a writing voice
As much as she loved the New School acting program, Scarborough also spent much of her time in graduate school struggling with her self-image and hearing, repeatedly, the message that her size was an issue. “I came out of school really self-conscious,” she said, “And you know, the whole point of the process of acting is to lose your self-consciousness and to get outside of your own head.”
She credits her discovery of the body-positivity movement, which aims to empower and raise visibility for marginalized bodies.
“As a performer and as a person, it really has changed my entire view of myself and the world, how I live in it and walk through it,” Scarborough said. “I decided that I really wanted to create a show about that, or at least, a body-positive show with a body-positive lens.”
Though her MFA is in acting, Scarborough was well-equipped to start writing. The New School program was ensemble-centered, with actors, directors, and playwrights collaborating, “so working on new material was the core of my graduate training,” Scarborough said.
Shortly after she received her MFA, she had the opportunity for a residency with the prestigious experimental troupe Mabou Mines, where she wrote and performed a new work inspired by some family history and correspondence that had been recently unearthed. Even though the project itself was nothing like Big Girl Show, Scarborough said, “it was through that residency that I learned that I really did like making my own material and writing for myself.”
Scarborough wrote a comedic play with a plus-size protagonist and held a reading, which was attended by a classmate from an improv class she was taking. “At the end of it, she said, ‘You know, I think this might be a film’.”
That classmate was Elaine White, who runs Brazen NYC, a production company, with Alyssa Cartee. A few meetings later, Big Girl Show had a become a web series and had a creative team ready to go. In addition to executive-producing together with Scarborough, White served as the series' director of photography, and Cartee was the series' director. The pilot was filmed in 2018, and the remainder of the episodes were crowdfunded and shot in 2019. All the episodes are under 15 minutes, and follow the conventions of different film genres. For example, there’s a romantic comedy episode, and a black and white silent film clown piece.
As role models, Scarborough looks up to women like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel, and Sharon Horgan, who are writers, producers, and actors of their own work. “I think taking charge of your own career as a creative in any way that you can is a smart thing to do, because, yeah, this is a tough industry,” Scarborough said.
The Big Girl shoots were largely staffed by women creatives and technicians, many of them industry connections of Scarborough’s and her producing team. Aside from giving them the opportunity to submit work to women-centered festivals, said Scarborough, “We wanted it to be a safe space and a comfortable working environment.” Getting a body mic set up for filming, or being directed in the love scene in the rom com episode, felt more comfortable when it was a woman doing the work.
Now, the Big Girl Show makes the festival rounds and the team works on getting it picked up.
“Big Girl has been my main creative focus for the past few years. I feel like Big Girl is like a child who will not leave for college. I want her to go. I want her to do well. I would like her out of my house,” Scarborough laughed. “I just want everyone to see it and love it!”
For a glimpse of Big Girl, visit Katharine Scarborough's reel on her website, which includes a few snippets from the show.