Theater production addresses body image

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
December 6, 2006

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- An Indiana State University theater company has received rave reviews for a production about being overweight and struggling with body image.

An experience in a theater professor's professional life served as the impetus for the production.

"It started as a joke when I was working in New York, and I wouldn't get cast in something, I would go and see the show and I would say, 'see they cast some skinny girl instead of me,'" recalled Julie Dixon, assistant professor. "One day I was talking to two female students and I told them these stories about seeing thin girls play parts that I knew that I could do. They told me to start a company and call it fat girl's theatre."

Dixon quickly found company. Katy Pieters, a graduate student from Terre Haute, and undergraduate Ashley Dillard had experienced the same pain of being passed over for roles.

Those experiences helped the play "Fat" become a reality.

"Fat" and the development of the Fat Girls Theater Company were spearheaded by Dixon with the support of a colleague.

"Peter Papadopoulus, a fellow theater professor, really encouraged me to do this because he thought this would be a good artistic outlet for me. So I thought, OK, let's try it," Dixon recalled.

When Dixon put out the word about the project to ISU theater students, senior Ashley Stoffers was eager to participate.

"I was totally excited. I've been a chubby kid all my life. I can't identify with anything but chubby. To have a place where I can express that and relate to others who have been through that is really neat," she said.

Stoffers, an English major from Ellettsville, brought another perspective.

"Last year I lost some weight and it was a life-changing experience for me. It didn't turn out to be the great experience I thought it would be. In my mind I thought "I'm going to lose weight and everything in life is going to get better." It didn't work that way," she said.

A group of seven - six students and Dixon - sat down to begin the collaborative project.

"There were some of us that were deeper into the issues than others. We had varying degrees of how fat felt to us, how you related to it and how those feelings came out," Dillard, a junior theater major from Highland, said.

Sam Mikeworth, a senior theater major from Terre Haute, added the male perspective to the mix. His experiences went beyond not wanting to date a heavy girl, a story that is included in the production.

"It does affect guys," he said. "Everywhere you look men are supposed to have six-pack abs and sculpted bodies."

Mikeworth related a story of being called a potbelly in fifth grade, a remark that drove him to do large numbers of sit-ups every night for two years.

"I realize now that wasn't very healthy," he added.

According to Dixon, even with a foundation of male and female experiences to draw from, the group struggled with the message it wanted to convey.

"Putting the play together was really difficult. We didn't want anyone to feel sorry for us, so we began approaching this with a lot of humor. Later on we decided that being fat wasn't funny so we wrote stories about how being fat was really hard," Dixon said.

"We put together a script and had Peter [Papadopoulus] read it and he didn't like it because he felt we were playing for sympathy. [ISU theater department chair] Arthur Feinsod read the script and he suggested incorporating visual metaphors and silent moments - moments when we don't speak, we just do things," she said.

The finished product, "Fat," tells its story through first-person accounts, mixed with interesting facts and silent moment for audience reflection.

ISU alumnus Jonathan Golembiecki, who directed the production, was impressed how the group balanced the storyline.

"It doesn't answer any questions or elicit sympathy. It just presents an insight into a sensitive topic," he said.

Since it is based on the participants' own personal stories, working on the unique production has had an added benefit.

"It was therapeutic for everyone. This is how you truly feel, but you don't want to say it," Dillard noted.

Pieters agreed. "The experience was a mix of emotions. We laughed and we cried. During the process I learned a frustrating lesson. Talking about it and getting up on stage and performing in the production doesn't fix things. In some ways, part of me hoped that this process would be a magic cure-all to all these issues that have been with me for years. But it doesn't just disappear - It takes hard work and giving yourself a break," she said.

For Stoffers. it was not only therapeutic, but valuable experience.

"It wasn't just experience in acting, it was experience in writing too," she said. "It was a challenge at times to come up with the right words to express exactly what was going on and how I felt."

Fat was performed at the Indianapolis Fringe Festival and in conjunction with ISU's Gender and Hate Conference. Each time it was performed it caught the attention of both men and women.

"We do this part when Julie [Dixon] recites all the names of different diets. We had a man in the front row at the Fringe Festival saying, 'Yeah, I did that one; Yeah,I failed at that one; yeah I didn't get that one.' It's nice to know not just women feel this way. Men struggle with these issues as well," Dillard said.

That was apparent in the makeup of the audiences - a mix of young and old; male and female.

"I would say 50 percent of our audience has been men who have really liked it," Dillard said.

Dixon said the production has a universal message.

"People who struggle with their body image are not alone," she said.

Jean Kristeller, an ISU psychology professor, can attest to that through her research on the effect that mindfulness meditation has on binge eating and self-acceptance.

When people fail to deal with body image they fall into the diet trap in order to fit the image they see in the media as perfect, she said.

"The issues just get worse," she added.

Kristeller, who has fought her own battle with her weight and body image, said the production is a good first step for people struggling with their relationship with food.

"I felt that had I seen a program like this back when I was in college - and struggling -- it would have been a tremendous relief to have this dialogue opened so honestly and powerfully. The relationships between eating and food were presented in a creative and brave way -- It's theater, but it's also reality," Kristeller said.

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Contact: Julie Dixon, assistant professor of theater, (812) 237-3339 or jdixon5@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or pmeyer4@isugw.indstate.edu