Act I: Katie is Born
Twenty-one years ago, I was having trouble sleeping. Not only was I very pregnant with my first baby, but something else was growing inside of me. Ideas and images for a play were churning around in that creative space between waking and dreaming.
At that time, I was in the process of founding a non-profit to raise awareness of eating disorders (yes, while I was pregnant…don’t ask!). I was itching to find ways to burst the bubble that existed between the eating disorder world and the general public. I had also seen a number of one-woman shows on eating disorders and witnessed the power of theater in addressing this topic. Another catalyst was a recent Narrative Therapy conference I’d attended where the core concept of “separating The Person from The Problem” felt highly salient to me.
Other than some corny birthday poems, I had never done any real creative writing in my life. And yet over the course of three sleepless nights, in a creative burst, I banged out “What’s Eating Katie?” on my old Apple Mac.
The play, designed to be performed by high schoolers, was about a 13-year-old girl and her descent into an eating disorder. A separate character named ED (short for Eating Disorder) voiced the thoughts in Katie’s head so the audience would be able to understand the powerful forces that were shaping her beliefs and actions. Since eating disorders are a “perfect storm” of internal factors and environmental inputs, I wanted to be clear in spreading the blame. Audiences would see Katie’s perfectionism, but they could also register the influence of her parents, her friends, her coach and the media. Between-scene ads spoofing the fast food, diet and fitness industry added some levity (and media literacy) to an otherwise poignant story. The final scene would be Katie’s first therapy session so the show ended on a hopeful note. During the post-play audience talk-back session, an essential element of the show, an eating disorder professional and the cast would answer questions about the recovery process, how to approach a loved one and any other topics sparked by the show.
At that time, the “What’s Eating Katie?” experience felt complete.
Over the years, a number of Atlanta schools took on the show; first St. Pius, then Paideia. At Westminster, the high school girls performed it for the 8th grade girls eight years in a row, sisters passing their roles down to sisters. I even heard from folks as far away as Scotland and Australia who took the script and adapted it to their own cultures. The show had developed a life of its own.