Act III: Katie Goes to College
That Summer I joined the local pool and swam laps every afternoon. This was my quiet time to create the new version. The steady underwater beat of those laps was where 13-year old Katie grew into 18-year old Katie. Lap after lap I would picture how the scenes would play out.
I wanted the basic structure and the music to be the same, but my new Katie would worry about gaining the “Freshman 15.” She’d connect with the sorority girls who’d invite her to join their “Coffee Club,” bonding around shared weight loss goals. I’d show how someone with an eating disorder might handle drinking in college, primarily by refusing to participate because of her fear of the calories (along with some anxieties about “growing up”?) keeping her socially isolated.
I presented the new version to the Emory professors that Fall. We found a director, raised money from a local treatment center and by that February’s “Eating Disorders Awareness Week,” a group of Emory actors debuted the new college version of WEK. The campus’s Mental Health awareness group Active Minds helped promote the musical. Coaches of various high risk sports teams encouraged their players to attend. Psychology, Nutrition and Marketing classes offered extra credit for attending the show. Sorority sisters went en masse.
The two evening performances were packed and the feedback was positive. Audience questions were addressed and those seeking help were steered in the direction of on-campus and off-campus resources. I could see that the musical was an effective way to reach and engage many constituents on a college campus ~not just the theater kids.
In the Fall of 2016, I got a call from Kate Leddy, a student at the University of Massachusetts. She was getting her degree in Public Health and needed a Senior Thesis project. She wanted to produce and direct the show and collect some data, surveying the cast and the audience members about their experiences and what they learned.
At that time, the issue of sexual assault on campus was starting to get more media attention. I knew there was a strong correlation between sexual assault and eating disorders, and I wondered if Kate would be willing to subtly integrate this issue into her version of the show. She agreed to step into the fray, so I tweaked the party scene. (This was around the time of the Access Hollywood tape where Donald Trump bragged about kissing and groping women.) Instead of avoiding the party, Katie goes to the party where she gets groped and kissed on the dance floor. She’s led off-stage by the guy, hinting at a regrettable sexual situation. When she returns to her dorm room, ED blames her for both leading the guy on and for being rude about how she left him. Her self-reproach leads to her first binge, followed by her running off-stage to purge.
While the show was taking a darker turn, it seemed important to have the courage to wade into these waters.
In the introduction to her show, Kate was upfront with a trigger warning. She had stationed mental health volunteers in the lobby to support anyone who felt uncomfortable with the material. She had also done extensive research on all of the mental health resources that were available to UMass students and spent time after the show letting everyone know where they could go for help.
Her two shows were well-attended and a big hit. Her diverse cast included people of all races, sizes and gender expressions and orientations. Kate's show made clear that eating disorders did not discriminate! She collected over 130 surveys from her audience members and much of the feedback was positive. She left blank spaces for folks to write in their impressions and suggestions; one theme kept recurring.
Something was missing. How does Katie get better? How the heck do people recover from eating disorders?