I was reading my weekly Flavorpill and I read a listing for a new show by Melanie Hoopes called Weight. Melanie conducted over fifty interviews to create a one-woman show that focuses on the lives of women suffering from eating disorders. Intrigued, I gave Melanie a call to talk about the show, her process and the material.

So, tell us what the show’s about.

It’s a three character solo performance piece that is based on over fifty interviews with women weighing between seventy and a thousand pounds.

Can you give a synopsis of what these interviews covered thematically ?

Well, they look at eating disorders, eating pathology, anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating and binge eating disorder, any combination of those things. They show the faces of the humanity behind the diagnostic criteria for these illnesses. For instance the first one is the mother of an anorexic, her daughter is seventy pounds and she finds herself in her daughter’s psychiatrist’s office. Her daughter is an inpatient at an eating disorder treatment center and the mother comes in very nervous and very defensive and is convinced that the whole town and the doctors want to pin her daughter’s illness on her. You see, the theories behind eating disorders are numerous and some of them do weigh heavily on relationships with parents, it’s seen as one of the causes in addition to media influences, newspapers, magazines, pictures of women and all of those things that make you feel bad about your body. So the Mother’s really testing that and basically has a break down in the office and realizes that she’s ready to deal with this on a deeper level.

What gave you the inspiration for the show?

I was doing this as part of my Masters thesis; I went to the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU and got my Masters in Education, performance and food studies/nutrition. Then I wrote a thesis called To Eat or Not to Eat: The Application of Theater in the Prevention of Anorexia, Bulimia, and Obesity. I looked at whether it was possible to create a prevention program using theater.

So, to go back to your original question, I was a camp counselor for four years and I taught theater and I used to have lots and lots of girls in my class, high school girls, and it was just amazing to me how disordered their eating was. I would come in the bathrooms and there would still be puke in the toilets and there would be all these people coming to me saying somebody is throwing up every morning. I was constantly on the watch for this kind of stuff and really realized how prevalent it was in that particularly community. Then I started doing more research and realized it was more wide spread in other racial groups and socio-economic classes.

My life is taking chunks of things and studying them, making shows with them and then moving on. That’s where I am with this one right now. The show before this one I did on evangelism and I created this evangelist that did revivals in these towns and it was about looking at religion and faith and the extremes people go to serve their beliefs.

What did you find to be the most difficult part of the process in creating this particular show?

Transforming an interview into something theatrical that was interesting to watch. The interviews are very dry. What was your behavior? What did you do? How did you eat? Who was seminal in your recovery process? It’s all very interesting to read but it’s not theatrical. I tried to figure out how, if I was going to be one person on stage, I was going to make it interesting, still cover the issue, and not make it didactic. I really did want to educate through this but I didn’t want to do any preaching or say things like “you guys have to care about these people, don’t make fun of them.”

Why do you feel that this is vital theater?

Obesity is growing to be such an incredible problem that it is going to surpass tobacco use next year as the first leading cause of preventable death. These prevention programs have to be out there, things have to be done. There are a lot of complications in creating prevention programs and so I really wanted to see if art could do it. I’m not quite sure if I succeeded. I don’t know if you can bring this program into a school, but I do think it will start a dialogue and start people thinking about it and talking about certain issues. I set out to change the world originally. I was thinking that I was going to create these programs and bring them to schools and get people talking about anorexia and bulimia. It’s one of those things where its also very hard because, it’s like sex ed where you don’t want to start talking about it because people will start doing it. There are a lot of schools of thought that say it’s contagious and I was aware of that in going in to talk to administrations and having them be nervous.

Somehow it transformed into a black box theater piece, I’m not quite sure what happened. I think it’s still going to have uses in more educational areas but right now it’s more of an art house run.

What is it about the female gender and weight obsession?

Well, it’s the male gaze. You can say that we are constantly being watched. Our bodies are made to sell things. I think in some ways we implode when we are young. We are taught that anger is not an appropriate response and therefore we turn it inside and we can get very self destructive. But, a lot of it also comes from identity and not really being shown what a strong woman is and how to get in touch with your authentic self. We stumble and fall and there is a “disconnect.” We don’t listen to our selves very well. We get caught up in our mother’s identity and don’t want to grow up. There’s a theory that a lot of people with eating disorders want to stall adolescence that they want to remain small and prepubescent. Instead of playing GI Joe we’re more receptive, we suck it all in and are imploding instead of exploding things on the outside.

Why do you think it is that we fear not being “beautiful”?

It’s so much easier to be beautiful in our society. You get things handed to you, people talk to you, people are interested in what you are talking about. You are accepted readily if you are attractive, people want to know what you have to say and you don’t have to work so hard. But I always think on the other side of that, people that have had things handed to them have a deficit in their personality because they haven’t had to work so hard or had to figure out what makes them worthwhile.

So, how do we reconcile being a culture where we are anorexic and “Supersize” our food at the same time?

I think it’s what you are drawn to. It’s your own personal way of destructing. Are you going to withhold or are you going to over dose? I think we are all built differently and some of us will choose to waste away and others will burn up. If you are out of balance you go to the side that you are more akin to going, it all depends on your vice. It’s something that is God given, how you are going to destroy yourself when you are out of balance.

What are you hoping the audience is taking away as they are walking out the door?

The first part is just greater sensitivity. There is this anger that pours out as soon as anyone is identified as anorexic. They use that word like it’s a curse, people throw it around. It is such a psychological disease that you would not wish on your worst enemy, it just rips apart people. It is the most fatal physiological disease there is. That is recorded and statistically correct, but it’s constantly made fun of. On the other side is obesity. Those two extremes are ridiculed and made fun of and I just want to provide a little relief for not only the suffers but also for the audience to give them a break because I think so many of us have disordered eating patterns or are hung up in so many ways. We are running ourselves ragged to either go to the gym before we go to work, or not enjoying ourselves or enjoying to much or just getting out of balance about food and what life is really about. I just want to show these three people, put them under the microscope, and hopefully have people question themselves in their behavior around food and other people and the conclusions they jump to when they see someone who is either very thin or very fat.

Weight Will be playing at 9:30 this Friday April 30th at the PIT, 154 W 29th St, NYC.

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