Beardism, the Lumbersexual, and the Young PerformerOp-ed
You've seen the term a lot lately - The Lumbersexual. A "new" class of young, urban man who's upped his masculinity factor by wearing plaid and not shaving. I put new in quotation marks because I know of a good many young man here in Toronto from all areas of the sexuality spectrum rocking this look for quite some time now and I say "not shaving" instead of "sporting a beard" because the two are very, very, different. Sporting a beard requires a heckuva lot of grooming - probably more meticulous grooming than our clean-shaven counterparts. The trimming of the moustache so it stays out of your coffee cup/soup spoon/beer stein, the cleaning of neck hair so it doesn't get caught and pulled out in the weaves of your oxford shirt collar, the shampooing and conditioning (yes, one should do this to their beard - it's hair, after all) and then of course any of the other accoutrements - beard oil, sideburn matching, combing and brushing. These are all parts of responsible beard ownership.
This post isn't so much about singing or opera or theatre in the usual sense. I just wanted to talk about one of the parts of our industry that sort of gets taken for granted by the audience. I make that statement because I'm guilty of it. I also opened with that little bit of a diatribe so that I can hope make a point stronger.
In the entertainment industry (yes, opera is a part of that, if you weren't aware; surprise, people come to be entertained!) there is enormous pressure regarding looks and physical prowess/appearance. We all remember "The Dress" fiasco around Deborah Voigt and there's a serious call to rally against the "fat-shaming" of the business. My views on that are mixed and complicated like many others in the industry. It's a piece/study/thesis all on its own (I'm working on that alongside my "Why I don't Love Madama Butterfly" piece).
I just want to touch on the fact that even though sometimes people go through drastic physical changes for their art (Christan Bale, anyone? No? Okay he's mine then #dibs), oftentimes it's small changes that are done to assist the audience along with their suspension of disbelief. Wigs, makeup, costumes, and - in some extreme circumstances - prosthetics are all employed to bring the fantastical world of opera to life.
One sacrifice that is often made in the name of "Period Exactitude" is that of a man's facial hair. For some of us, it's a part of our brand. It's our face, it's what we look like. I'm widely known among my colleagues and peers for my "glorious ginger beard" (these, simultaneously, are and are not my own words), it's a good half of the real estate of my face and it's an integral part of my physical identity and self image. Recently, as is often the case, I was asked to shave for a role. #facepalm.
I wear a beard all day, every day, all-year long and this company (as well as others) know me both personally and professionally and I'm not a stranger to their ranks. Just once, I'd like to hear "We needed a guy with a beard, so naturally we thought of you" instead of hearing "You're great, but the beard doesn't work for us". So, what you're saying is, in essence, that my face doesn't work for you, which is fine; remember how we established that this is the entertainment industry? Great, we're still on the same page.
So why force me to live for a good 3 months with a strangers face on the top of my neck? "Three months!" "Egad!! "He can't be serious!!!" Guys, calm down, I can hear you from here. As I type this, my whiskers are coming back - albeit slowly at first - and I'll have a proper beard-shape in another week (I put my razor down about 1.5 weeks ago). There we go - over half a month into the regrowth and it's still just scruff on my face. By the time it reaches its proper length, and it's gone through the proper grooming (so it doesn't just turn into hair on my face), the conditioning, shaping, daily trims, all the ritual I love about having this fine, natural, beautiful accessory, it will probably be after Easter-tide before I see 'Big Red' as I'm used to having him.
But is this a worthwhile issue to have? Maybe not.
Is it my overprotective ego that's used to being told (as all opera singers are) that everything I'm doing is incorrect jumping into high gear for no reason? Most likely.
When I sit down and look at it objectively, I'm actually pretty lucky. I'm in my early thirties and can grow a full beard. Full stop. No patchiness, no weird curly flyaways, I don't have to grow out a nasty mess of neck hair to provide the illusion of beardliness. Yet, I have the remarkable luck of being able to shave it off and looking like AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT PERSON. I've had dear friends of close to a decade, pass me on the street after a fresh shave and literally not recognize me - even though I have a very distinct style of dressing and moving through a crowd and they just saw me the day before. As a performer, I DO actually take pride in this very special skill - and there's a lot of fun in the regrowing of a beard. Especially when you have the luxury of meeting a new friend with your clean cheeks, and then they get to witness your #transginger* glory develop in real time like super cool time-lapse video from National Geographic.
So long story short, I understand that someone asking me to shave is not quite the same as Renée Zellweger's weight gain for Bridget Jones's Diary, Christian Bale's weight loss for The Machinist or Chris Pratt's (correction: #dibsonthisguy) complete transformation, it's still a very personal one. Think of your bearded friends and how much they love their beards, and then imagine what they must feel like when asked to remove it. I get it, it's a small sacrifice on my part - grand scheme-wise - but it's important to me... and my face.
Also, please be careful of the way you "compliment" a newly-shorn beardy. When you say "You look so much better like this!", we hear "You look awful every other time I've seen you". And unless you're my mother, you NEVER have the right to say that to me.
*Post Scriptum: Transginger - a term coined by some gorgeous bear friends of mine on a patio during Toronto Pride 2010 (I think - they're all kind of blurry).