Act II: Katie Gets Musical
As the years went by, I immersed my two young boys into musical theater. I knew firsthand the power of music to sear stories into the psyche. (I recall every song from every musical I’ve ever been in and you do, too!) Listening to my boys singing songs in the car from The Sound of Music and Schoolhouse Rock and Annie, it occurred to me that the way to have a deeper impact with the show (for both the actors and the audience) was to turn it into a musical.
Since young people are up against a 24/7 barrage of toxic messaging, perhaps the thing powerful enough to counteract that messaging on a brain-chemistry level is MUSIC.
At the same time, as my boys were entering middle and high school, a tectonic cultural shift was occurring. Cell phones were dramatically transforming teen culture…and not in a good way. Rates of anxiety and eating disorders in teens were spiking and it appeared directly linked to this massive change.
My little play now seemed quaint and outdated. It was time for a major Re-Do.
I returned to the drawing board, re-jiggering the script, turning conversations into song lyrics. I gave Katie a younger sibling so audiences could see the impact of an eating disorder on other family members. Cell phone culture was integrated into Katie’s story to show how her body image issues and food anxieties were triggered by the images, LIKES and comments on her phone.
Now it was time to find a composer. Bryan Mercer was the first name on the list. When he learned about the project, he jumped on board, promising a musical in eight weeks. Now we just needed to raise some money!
I learned of Kickstarter, a fundraising website for artistic projects and signed up for a 30-day fundraising campaign. With minutes before the deadline, one final donation pushed us over the edge! True to his word, within two months Bryan had transformed “What’s Eating Katie?” into a musical.
As fate would have it, one of Bryan’s many hats was drama instructor at The Alliance Theater’s teen Summer camps. He suggested that we use a two-week Summer session to test out the new show. The Alliance pulled out all the stops, marketing the show to local media. Camera crews and reporters from TV stations and newspapers embraced the feel-good story of teens performing a musical about eating disorders with just eight days of rehearsals. The two sold-out shows raised money for the Eating Disorders Information Network.
“What’s Eating Katie? The Musical” was a win-win-win!
A few months later I was presenting a workshop to therapists, showing clips from the musical to share how theater was a powerful way to raise awareness of these issues. Afterwards, two Emory Professors approached, an eating disorder researcher in the Psychology department and the head of the Nutrition Program. They wondered if it would be possible to create a new version of the musical addressing the pressures of college life.
As a therapist I was quite familiar with college stressors having worked with many college students struggling with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. I recalled a close college friend struggling with bulimia in the early 80s, before any of us even knew what it was.
Research suggests that the onset of eating disorders occurs in a Bi-Modal distribution. There are two crucial life transitions where rates spike: the onset of puberty and leaving home to go to college. It seemed only fitting that there should be TWO versions of the show to illustrate the unique aspects of these two key transitions.
It was time for Katie to grow up.