If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve been following the evolution of the play The F Word by Melissa Blackall. It’s gone on quite a journey, and here we are... near the point in the road where we let this play walk on its own two feet. The point at which we give it over to actors and the director to make it into a production. Before we cross the last mile with the play, here’s what Melissa has to share with us.
It’s a huge (we’ve all realized puns are literally unavoidable with this play) subject to tackle... FAT. I wanted to explore how American’s obsession and fear of fat, effects individuals. Specifically examining the questions: where does the obsession come from? Can it be stopped? Is it the individual's place to stop it or ignore it? How do individuals develop a positive body image in this culture? Is fat really that bad? Etc....
Here’s where I started. I had just finished two years with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and was touring the country with a play that I wrote promoting National Service. As my time in AmeriCorps was waning, I looked in my writing journal and saw the list of plays I hope to someday write and one stood out to me… “A play about fat.” I thought to my myself. “Hmmm. I might be ready for that one….” That was five years ago.
I started with research – lots and lots of research. One book in particular was instrumental in the creation of this play – The Obesity Myth: Why America's obsession with weight is hazardous to your health by Paul Campos. The book is very thought provoking and one quote was so striking, I’ve included it in the written script:
“And nothing less than a revolution is needed to overthrow America’s eating-disordered culture, with it’s loathing of the most minimal body diversity, its neurotic oscillation between guilt-ridden bingeing and anorexic self-starvation and its pathologic fear of food, pleasure, and life itself.
I read lots of other books, interviewed lots of people and paid attention to how the media, medical field, my peers, family, and I responded or interacted with the subject. I instantly realized that while we’re bombarded by images and judgments around fat, nobody really wants to talk about. I also realized asking someone’s weight is worse than asking their age! I read horrifying statistics, including that a majority of American woman would rather get cancer than be considered fat. And that’s how I got the title. Fat has become the new F word!
After the first reading of The F Word at The Kennedy Center's Page to Stage Festival in 2007, I realized I had a great set of blueprints, but I didn’t have a play quite yet. The draft lacked an emotional anchor – it was full of concepts. Audiences don’t relate to concepts, they relate to characters. Major rewrites followed and have continued over the past two years.
Working with Director Patrick Torres during Inkwell’s Inaugural Festival in 2008 proved to be invaluable. We tackled a section of the script we have called the Symptoms Scenes. In these scenes, the seven bodies experience a metaphorically infection that is caused by the cultural obsession with Fat. Patrick and the actors helped me understand why some of the Symptoms Scenes worked and some didn’t. The scenes that took place in a concrete place (The Grand Canyon, a New Jersey bus terminal) worked much better than those that were in a void space. That staged reading gave life to the next chapter of the play and the symptom scenes and the characters were far more developed.
The Symptoms Scenes continue to be a main focus of rewrites. Jessi Burgess (an incredible dramaturge) felt it was necessary that all the characters have a symptom scene (we started this process with only five) and that they could serve as the emotional anchor that the script has been missing. She was right! So now, ALL seven characters experience a symptom in a concrete location in the United States and infect another body (like a cultural virus). The domino infection helps navigate us through this vignette play. The Symptoms Scenes have become my favorite probably because they have evolved the most over the Inkubator process, and I love that they take us all over the United States and examine universal feelings in a totally different way.
The play still needs some tweaking, but I’m much closer to the play I want to write. I’m most interested in finding threads to connect the vignette style of the piece. While some of these threads will emerge from rewriting and structure most of them will be created with the help of our wonderful and insightful Director Jessica Lefkow and the extremely talented cast. This cast has been so helpful in sharing their thoughts and bringing their craft to this process. With additional ideas from the sound designer Matt Nielson, set designer Matt Soule, lighting designer Adam Magazine, costume designer Maggie Clifton, and prop designer Suzen Mason. I have no doubt that by the end of this process all of these amazing artists will help this vignette play find a smooth rhythm and a clear dramatic arch.
The Inkwell’s Lee Liebeskind, Lindsay Haynes, Anne McCaw, Amy Kellett, and of course the fabulous Ms. Jessi Burgess have been incredibly supportive throughout my exploration and writing of this play. Without the Inkwell, I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my head or arms around this FAT play!
Above, The Inkwell team of actors, dramaturges, and producers participate in an open rehearsal of The F Word at The Inkwell's inaugural Inkubator Festival. The photo is by the playwright, Melissa Blackall.