Why I want to make theatre about my journey with Disordered Eating
Part 1: The Development
By Jasmin McWatters
A little over a year ago, I sat on the edge of my therapist’s beige couch as she gently informed me, I have Disordered Eating. I am 28 years old. At that moment everything seems to fall apart and into place simultaneously. I ride a strange rollercoaster of relief and grief because I have thought and behaved this way since I can remember, and this is the first time that anyone has tried to find out why.
With a foggy head and puffy eyes, I feel a little lost. I don’t know what to do with the knowledge of it all. Where do I go? Who do I turn to? I make a coffee, grab my computer and write it out on my lounge room floor. I read over what I have written, and then I keep writing. The more I write the lighter I feel, a cathartic casting off. I dive down deep, I want to go right to the marrow of my bones to find the truth of it all. When I am finally finished, I end up with a fragmented piece that I know I want to develop into my very first play. A play called WEIGHT.
But why theatre?
I love it. I love being up on stage under the lights. It is where I feel most like myself. Where I feel the most creative, where I feel like I can achieve anything. Theatre is also about truth and what better place to tell my truth than up on stage?
As an actor, my body is the instrument of my craft. My body carried me through three years of acting training to learn how to tell different kinds of stories.
During that time I learned that my body and the way it looks are going to have a direct impact on how successful I am going to be. I am also told in front of a panel of my teachers that my weight holds me back. I wish I had stood up for myself at that moment, but I was devastated and would carry those words around with me for a long time.
Once I knew about my disordered eating, I decided that it was time to let the past go. I promised myself that I wouldn’t allow external commentary of that nature to hurt me ever again. I would call it out, challenge and question it. I am still on my journey of unlearning. Since entering the arts industry, I have learned through experience that what was said to me is untrue. My body has carried me through many theatrical productions as a professional actor and will carry me through my own play.
It feels right to tell my story theatrically because theatre invites the gaze of an audience. In the liminal space, I will talk about my body, with my body to an audience who also have bodies. All in real-time. For forty-five minutes I will invite them to look at me. It can be daunting for sure, to be looked at in this manner, but for me, there is something freeing about it. Nowhere to hide up there, it is just me and the audience.
However, WEIGHT is not art therapy for me. Art therapy is very important, especially in the treatment of eating disorders, but that is not what I am trying to do with this work. I want to make theatre from my lived experience and choose experienced mentors who know how to do so. My therapist is also aware I am making this work and we plan our therapy sessions out during the process to look after myself and my mental health.
Having lived with Disordered Eating for so long, I now know that I would have benefited from seeing something like this when I was younger. Now, there is so much discourse on body positivity/neutrality, body dysmorphia and eating disorders in our online communities and spaces (which I am thankful for), but my platform is the stage.
I hope to connect on a personal level through a fourth wall. I hope to start conversations within my community with my art so that it may help others, in a safe and accessible theatre space.
Developing a play from page to stage is an interesting process. Not all theatre is the same, so the development process for each play is different. I take my writing to my local playwriting workshop and hear my work read out loud. I then enter WEIGHT into The Itch, a local scratch night in Adelaide. A scratch night is an open platform for artists to share their work in front of a live audience. WEIGHT was very well received.
I took this feedback and then emailed my writing to directors, playwrights and theatre venues in the community asking them if they would like to help me develop my writing into a play. I was lucky enough to work with Adelaide based playwright and dramaturg Emily Steel and Director Shannon Rush at local theatre companies Rumpus and Act Now.
Once I have my creative team assembled, I apply for grant funding from Arts South Australia for a two-month development period split into two stages: a script development and a stage development, culminating in two showings presented to an invited audience. I wait impatiently for two months and then I receive a phone call and email to say I am successful.
Before diving into the work, my creative team and I have strict protocols in place to look after our mental health and well-being during this process. These are as follows:
- Rehearsal check-ins.
- Continuing monthly therapy sessions.
- Use of a safe word.
- Clear distinctions between character Jazz and actor Jasmin.
- Flexibility of the script, so that sections can be removed and returned if needed.
The subject matter of WEIGHT can be triggering for an audience as well.
Over a million Australians are living with an eating disorder and some are likely in the audience, so we provide a theatre that is flexible, safe, and accessible with an open door to give every person agency to move around the space or even leave the theatre if they want to. For our premiere season in 2023, we will provide materials from Butterfly Foundation in the foyer with helplines to call if needed so that audience members are not left without support after the show has finished.
For most of the development, I write. I take about two-and-a-half hours worth of material to my mentors and we start what I would call a script distillation process. We discuss and question and consider. We create timelines and potential orders. We pull the script apart and put it back together over and over and over again. Stories end up on the cutting room floor. Emily and Shannon give me notes about what works and what doesn’t and I write, rewrite and slowly my play starts to take shape, which is exciting.
Another interesting aspect about theatre is that it has this way of magically coming together. Six drafts later, with just two weeks until we show what we have made so far, I have a 21-page script. For those last two sessions, Shannon and I put the show on its feet and see if it stands up. It does. I am struck by how flexible the play is and therefore the blocking is flexible to match. It feels like moving through the water, through time and memory.
And then there I am, standing downstage centre with the lights bright in my eyes. The house is full, and I can see the audience’s masked faces in the dim. I am nervous and excited. I am about to share my story in front of my family, my friends, and people from the Adelaide arts community. I listen to the silence, it’s like the whole space is breathing as one. I take a deep breath of my own and I speak my first line:
“Diets I have been on, in no particular order:”
And we begin.
Jasmin McWatters (she/her) is a theatre maker, writer, and teaching artist in Adelaide. She currently works as a drama tutor for Little Big Parrots. To find out more about her upcoming play WEIGHT, follow WEIGHT’S Facebook and Instagram pages.
- What is disordered eating?
- Disordered eating and dieting fact sheet
- Podcast: The tough truth about diets
- Mindframe media guidelines for the safe reporting & portrayal of eating disorders
- Communicating about eating disorders
Butterfly’s National Helpline 1800 ED HOPE is open 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEST). Call 1800 33 4673, chat online or email email@example.com for support with eating disorders or body image concerns.