One day, British playwright and actor Caroline Horton was asked to speak at her old high school.
The topic was her career as a theatre artist, among other things, but Horton also took some time out that night to mention her struggles with an eating disorder that had landed her in hospital for six months as a university student.
That wasn’t the uplifting part of her speech, and Horton hadn’t ever thought of her struggles with eating disorders as a terribly comfortable topic to introduce in public, but the audience’s reaction stayed with her.
“After the event, I was there for about four hours chatting,” Horton says, “to staff and parents and students and friends who were worried about students in their classes (who had eating disorders).”
It turned out that in the 15 years since Horton, who is 35, had left high school, eating disorders remained a taboo topic.
“I was really kind of angry and really sad,” Horton says, “that it was still so difficult to talk about.”
That’s when she began to wonder if she might be able to find a way into the conversation about eating disorders through theatre.
“That was the moment,” she says, “where I wondered if I could make a thing that, in its spirit, could (possibly) open up those conversations, and make it easier for people who maybe don’t know about this stuff to ask questions.”
The result of that moment was Mess, a drama with music about a young woman’s struggle with anorexia, created by Horton in conjunction with China Plate Theatre, which is being presented by Y Stage at Vertigo Studio Theatre through Feb. 11.
The drama is being co-produced in Calgary by the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta (EDSNA), as part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Horton worked extensively with a variety of eating disorder support networks in Britain in an effort to present a show that was true to the experience of anorexia.
“There’s been a very close collaboration,” she says, “with that world of eating disorder support and research networks and experts.
“We invited that world in, and were keen to have it and it was wonderful, because (as it turns out), we kind of accessed new audiences as well.”
It turned out that researchers and support networks realized straight away that there’s something about theatricalizing a psychological issue that makes people feel safer — and with Mess, which Horton also performs, they had an ideal story in which to keep the conversation going.
The show originally wasn’t intended for young audiences when it premiered at Edinburgh, but provoked so much response among educators that it became a staple of school tours in Britain, leading to it being programmed at a number of international children’s festivals (the suggested age range is 13 and up, although Horton says some 10 and 11 year olds have seen it).
“I didn’t see that as something that would happen,” she says. “It was just something we recognized as we went through (the experience of presenting the show). It meant there were lovely (unanticipated) things, like (having) amazing (trained, qualified) people (who) came and sat (in) with us in things like post-show Q and A’s.
“We’re not experts,” she says, “so it was wonderful having that kind of voice there, if anyone in the audience was curious or had a question or was interested to ask.”
These days, Horton is quite a few years removed from her own experiences with anorexia, but recovery remains a fragile experience. What’s changed in 2016 is that social media and digital culture have imposed themselves on the world of eating disorders — for better and for worse, she says.
“I’m really grateful,” she says, “that when I was 22 and kind of in the real pits with it, the Internet was pretty much still in its infancy. I mean we used it, but you wouldn’t have these crazy kind of chat rooms and forums where there’s a lot of sharing and tips and talking about anorexia as a kind of lifestyle choice — it can be really dangerous.”
On the flip side of that equation, the Internet also provides an abundance of valuable resources and support, she says, such as those provided by Beat, a British support network dedicated to beating eating disorders.
“It’s like anything, a real double-edged sword.
“It can exacerbate problems,” she adds, “but can also be a fantastic resource, like Beat, the organization we partnered with in the UK have a fantastic website. They have help lines, they have these young people in recovery called young ambassadors you can arrange (to speak to) if you’re having problems, or have someone close to you talk to them — so there are incredible resources on the Internet. But there is (also) this … stuff that is really toxic.”
Vertigo Theatre’s Y Stage Series presents Mess at Vertigo Studio Theatre through Feb. 11.
Stephen Hunt wrote about theatre for the Calgary Herald for 10 years, teaches playwriting at UBC and was the writer in residence for the 2017 High Performance Rodeo. He is also the author of The White Guy: A Field Guide. You can reach him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter here.