Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I Went to See a Play on Saturday Night

I went to see a play on Saturday night. This is nothing new, of course, because I am YOUNG and FRESH and FREE and CREATIVE. I like to spend my time in the capital city sitting in cafes drinking soy milk and going to artistic events and immersing myself in CULTURE. The play was called No Taste Forever. It was written by Paul Rothwell and it was performed at BATS Theatre and I had major problems with it. I am now going to write about it.

After seeing the play I was unsure about whether I was even going to do this ‘writing about it’ thing. I've got problems with the script but I definitely do not want to minimise the hard work that those on stage have done and are doing. My whole heart, every fucking-last-ventricle, goes out to every single person involved in organising the full throttle, on-stage food fight that ends the play. I wasn't going to write about it but then after the show my beautiful, warm-as-the-very-best-oil-heater friend Jean and her boyfriend Jackson came over for a drink. Jean and Jackson were in No Taste Forever, and we drank cider and we talked about the show in the delightful company of Stevie and our wonderful friend Hannah. We had a really great discussion, with Jean and Jackson making some great counter arguments in defence of the production. When Jean was leaving she encouraged me to write about the play, and put into words some of the things we had been saying. So a thank you must go to Jean because as well as being as warm as a heater, she’s as supportive as a very expensive bra. I think I have to write about No Taste Forever because it was the depictions of fatness in the show that I mostly had a problem with. And like, that’s my thing. It feels cowardly to shy away from writing about. It would feel even more cowardly not to write about it because dear friends of mine were involved in the project and because the Wellington theatre community is small. So, I’m writing. Here goes nothing.

Imagine, for a second, the very worst possible depiction of fatness that you can.

I’m serious, I want you to imagine it.


I’m not kidding.

Make like John Lennon and imagine.

Are you imagining a fat man sitting at a table, eating KFC and crying? Because, in No Taste Forever, it happened!

Are you imagining the same fat man, whimpering in the foetal position, lying on the floor in a nest of junk food wrappers? Because it happened!

Are you imagining the fat man to have so little self control that he carries with him a bag of sweets, a bag that eventually explodes because it is so jam packed with candy? Because, you know what, that happened too!

Are you imagining the fat man being so socially inept that all he does at a birthday party AND at a food festival is eat, continuously and voraciously? Because it happened!

Are you imagining the fat man dribbling a huge gob of spit, just at the sight of a table laden with party food? Because, you can bet on your nanny, that it happened as well.

It happened, not even in some kind of fantastic and deliberate parody of how fat bodies are usually portrayed, but as a major part of the story line. I want to stress, at this point, that my problem wasn't at all with my friend Jonny Potts’ portrayal of the ‘morbidly obese’ Galen Widders. Jonny is a beautiful actor, and his liquid-gold voice was wasted in this role. He did a good job with an absolute shocker of a script. At first I thought that I wasn’t even particularly offended by Galen. Galen was merely just one little part of a show where the most obvious and the most stereotypical of food clich├ęs were left unpacked and unexplored. In No Taste Forever vegans are so militant they wear camo pants; male bulimia is a joke and a food replacement pill is seen as a pragmatic problem solver, a cure not just for world hunger but for obesity as well. My girlfriend also pointed out how tired the female roles were in the show – a nagging mother, a dead child, a power hungry anorexic, a sexed up temptress, and two lesbians; one socially inept and the other a breaking-and-entering psychopath? Yawn.

It was a play that demonised food and that vituperated the audience about their eating habits. Surprisingly, mental health wasn’t touched on in this play about food issues. No real effort was made to explore how mental illnesses can manifest in over eating and under eating and comfort eating and obsessive eating. And like, eating issues are serious. I am a great believer in the importance of comedy as a tool for social change, but I really don’t think that the use of a fart soundtrack for an anorexic character quite cuts the mustard. My problem is not, necessarily, that No Taste Forever featured a fat man, crying over his bucket of fried chicken. This has probably happens, all the time, in many KFCs all over the world. Plenty of fat people hate their bodies and then don’t eat nutritiously and they have an unhealthy relationship with food, just like many thin people hate their bodies and don’t eat nutritiously and have an unhealthy relationship with food. As I’ve said before, many times, on this blog: weight can be no real indicator of health and the concept of ‘eating rubbish and not exercising’ needs to be separated from the concept of ‘being fat’. Lately I’ve also come to realise that health shouldn’t be a prerequisite for respect.

Mostly, my problem is that in a play about food and food issues, the crying and the KFC were the only depiction of fatness, thus rendering fat as a problem that needs to be solved. My other problem was that No Taste Forever was performed by a thin to average sized cast, and the ‘morbidly obese’ character was played by a thin to average sized man in a fat suit. I wish Director David Lawrence had made more interesting choices when casting his show, to deliberately contrast the fat hatred inherently present Rothwell’s script. I wish he had cast more fat people. I wish he had cast a fat person. I wish he had cast a fat person in another role to contrast with Galen. I wish Ms. Chocolate had been played by a beautiful fat woman, as some kind of fabulous food goddess. When I was talking to Jonny about this he confirmed that there was even a line in the script about the ‘voluptous-ness’ of Ms. Chocolate. My hankering for Ms. Chocolate to be played by a rad fatty has nothing to do with Jessica Aaltonen’s lovely performance in the BATS production. It’s more that I think a fat Ms. Chocolate would have shown that fat isn’t the enemy, and that Galen’s problem was not his fatness, but instead his troubled relationship with food. And BEE TEE DUB, Galen's character was wearing a t-shirt which read 'More of Me to Love'. Pretty sure that Galen was crippling-ly lonely and self hating, so I can't really imagine him wearing that kind of t-shirt. Way to make light of his mental health issues and insult the fat acceptance movement all in one foul swoop! (I'll have it after the play is over though, if you like.)

Wait, did I just say fat suit up there?

Ah, fat suits. Is there a word combination that raises my hackles more than the word ‘fat’ when teamed with the companion of ‘suit’? I mean, as soon as I see ‘Extra Sauce’ + ‘$1.00’ or ‘Product’ +‘Discontinued’ or ‘National’ + ‘Party’ I start to get hot and bothered. But fat suits, man. They really rile me up.

I can’t think of fat suits without thinking about these ladies:

Or about this:

Or about this:

And now, I have this fat suit to add to my collection.

A collection that I’ve built up over the years of watching things and realising that dressing thin actors up so their bodies look more like mine is supposed to be a joke. I can see that sometimes fat suits might be useful, perhaps when a thin performer is so brilliant and well suited for the part that nobody else on the face of planet could ever play that particular role. Or when the director wants to create some kind of distance between the action and the audience, like casting a white person as Othello or using an all female cast. Mostly though, when I see a fat suit I just want to scream one and/or the other of these two things:



I think that what bothers me most about No Taste Forever is that possibly up until I walked into the theatre and saw Jonny crouching there in his fat suit, up until that very moment, I had thought of BATS as being my space. I realise that this is a little self indulgent and that squillions of theatre makers and theatre lovers and theatre haters have thought the same thing about the very same theatre, and hopefully squillions more will continue to do the same. I don’t even really consider myself to be a ‘proper’ theatre maker, especially because I’m terrible at devising. I’m more of a ‘one show a year actor’. But BATS just feels like mine. I’ve laughed in the audience and I’ve cried in the audience and I’ve also had to stuff my whole fist in my mouth in the audience, in case I sobbed so loudly it disturbed the performers. It’s the place that I’ve witnessed some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, with Sophie Hambleton’s Katy and Erin Bank’s Helen and Jonny Pott’s Friar all immediately coming to mind. It’s the theatre that I made a New Year’s resolution to act on the stage of, and then did that, the very same year. I’ve eaten countless Phoenician kebabs and Deluxe sushi rolls in the dressing rooms. I’ve touched up my lipstick a thousand times in that bathroom mirror. I’ve been useless at many a pack in and many a pack out, and so have ended up cleaning that dressing room toilet, every single time. The best-slash-definitely-worst of these cleaning experiences was when I cleaned menstrual blood off the toilet seat during MINGE, and I thought to myself LONG LIVE FEMINIST THEATRE. I’ve drunk the bar dry of cider. I’ve attempted to drink the bar dry of house sav, and probably made a fair dent in the stocks of Emersons Pilsner. I’ve been fingered in the toilets there and I’ve been to a Saatchi and Saatchi planning meeting and if I’m feeling sad or lonely I know I can just go to an opening night at BATS because it will remind me of how many wonderful friends that I really have.

So there I was, sitting in the back row, amongst an audience tittering at a plethora of fat jokes. Jokes mainly centered on how lazy and ugly and unmotivated and weak and socially inept and uncoordinated fat people are. Not on Channel Two or in the YouTube comments section, but performed on the stage at BATS. A place where I thought that I was safe; where I thoought my body was safe. It sucked. I was bitterly disappointed, especially at how this play was affirming to the audience that it was acceptable to laugh like this at fat people. Before I went into the show I counted the number of fat people lining up for tickets, just in case I was terribly offended by the show or so bothered by the fat suit that I wanted to write about it and I needed some kind of point-making statistic. Always Be Prepared and so on. There were at least eight other fat people in the audience with me. During those fat jokes in No Taste Forever I wasn’t just thinking about my body, I was thinking about their bodies as well. I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to feel positive about my body and in the last eight months or so I have been actively concentrating on trying to nourish my sense of self worth. I consider myself part of the fat acceptance movement, for fucks sake, and during that show I felt uncomfortable in my skin. I don’t know whether those audience members have read about reclaiming the word fat or heard about Health At Every Size. I hope they have. I hope they know, that as my friend Jessica said, every body is a good body, no matter what it looks like.

I was offended, during No Taste Forever, yes, but I think it’s about something bigger than that. It’s about how the constant slew of media representations make people feel about their bodies, and the cycle of self loathing that eventuates. I will never understand, as long as I live, why some people think that shaming fat people helps anybody. Fat people end up hating their own bodies, and why would anybody want to love and nurture and strengthen something they hate? It’s not just about me being offended, it’s about how, en masse, these kinds of representations are actually just fucking damaging.

Because it’s never about just that play or that one movie or that one advertisement. It’s systemic. It’s about how every villain in every book ever is described as having a ‘puffy face’ and it’s about how tired the weight-as-a-metaphor-for-greed thing really is. It’s about being ten years old and Camryn Manheim clutching her Emmy and proclaiming “This is for all the fat girls” and feeling like she was talking directly to me. It’s about how Tiggie Tompson loses the weight at the end of The Tiggie Tompson Show. It’s about trying to think of positive representations of fat bodies on screen and asking whether Sooki off Gilmore Girls can really count, because she’s a chef, and you know, can we really keep counting Roseanne Barr, because it’s 2011 now and if the millennium isn’t even considered new anymore then how can TV shows from the 90’s still be relevant? It’s about the headless fatties in infomercials. It’s about how there will never be a fat Juliet.

I wasn’t able to pick up a programme when I was at BATS, as they were fresh out, but in John Smythe’s review of the show, he writes that in the programme Rothwell has claimed that “the play is really about hunger – hunger for control, hunger for company.” Interesting. I’ll tell you what, Paul. Fat people are hungry. We’re hungry for representation. Fat actors are hungry for parts to play. We’re hungry to be depicted in any way that doesn’t depict us as slovenly or unattractive or as the butt of the joke. We’re hungry to turn on the television or go to theatre or pop down to the movies and not be told that we ought to hate our bodies. And we’re not just peckish, Paul. We’re fucking starving.

(Edited to add - Jonny Potts, who played the 'morbidly obese' Galen in the show will be writing a guest post in response to this piece. I am really excited about this, so make sure you check back in a couple of days.)

[Image credit - No Taste Forever photo taken by Vanessa Fowler Kendall and found on the The Bachanals Facebook page. Images of Monica/Gwyneth and Mike Meyers found here at The Daily Beast. Image of Eddie Murphy found via Google Images.]


  1. Brilliant post. As soon as I saw Fat Suit I was like "NO FUCKING WAY". How depressing. Your final par is brilliant. I want to wear it on a tee-shirt as a mantra. It's not OK.

  2. I'm in Auckland, and so haven't seen the show, but wanted to stop by and say I love that last par too!

  3. So this post made me cry. And so much of it resonated (I was a little older, but I remember that Emmy speech so vividly). But this was the bit that hit my hardest:

    "I think that what bothers me most about No Taste Forever is that possibly up until I walked into the theatre and saw Jonny crouching there in his fat suit, up until that very moment, I had thought of BATS as being my space."

    This is where I live - no matter how much I call a space home it may turn on me in any minute - and be full of people who are expressing their disgust for my body. If I forget even for a second that this is where I live then it just hurts that much more if it happens again.

    And now I'm going to go rewatch select bits of Huge to make myself feel better (and if you haven't watched it e-mail me - should be on my profile - and I will express deliver it to wherever you are today or tomorrow, because I pretty much believe it's a human right. Or there's always Youtube.)

  4. This post is good and you should feel good!

    I totally think Sooki from Gilmore Girls could count, because despite being a chef and clearly loving food she's in a show where the two main, thin, conventionally-attractive women are *constantly* pictured eating, or talking about food, whose lives almost centre on food (and beyond Lorelai and Rory, burned forever into my brain is Paris calling her housekeeper to proclaim that she's sleeping over at Rory's and they will be eating MAC AND CHEESE!!! like it's the best thing ever).

    I think the Norbit poster irks me the most. Because if Eddie-Murphy-in-a-fat-suit had just pulled a saucy, cheeky expression instead of that meant-to-be-horrific "scary fat predatory woman" sneer, he/she would look fucking hot.

  5. Holla Ally.
    Haven't seen the play but love what you are articulating here.

  6. I love reading your posts, Ally! Obviously, I've not seen the show, either, but I found it interesting that John Smythe suggested that it would be good for high schools. Sounds dangerous.

  7. I have to admit I find it hard when people who describe themselves as believing in fat acceptance are upset when fat characters eat/appreciate food. Why wouldn't a chef count?

    After the first episode of Huge there was a little bit of criticisms because two of the fat characters were shown enjoying "junk food" (a concept I don't even believe in but candy/lollies/sweets depending on your language).

    The effect of chracters like Monica from friends is that of course people are nervous. That when a fat person eats on TV or looks like they enjoy eating that this is going to be a recurrent joke for many seasons.

    But to me it feels very much like policing and pathologising eating to shout out every time a fat person on television does it. As if the only fatties portrayed on TV should be the mythical 'good' fatties.

  8. Thank you everyone for your kind words!

    Maia, yes I have seen Huge! And I liked it a lot. It really sucks that it got cancelled, boo for ABC Family.

    Re Sooki - I think definitely think she counts too, especially with the point made up thread about how in general, food is celebrated in the world of Gilmore Girls. I think it is definitely part of the 'good fatty' complex to get nervous whenever a fat character has food at their crux of their storyline. I think Sooki and her husband are great, but I guess their is an element of 'stereotyping' in that the fat characters both work in food based professions. But then again in GG there is also Luke and his diner, and are the fat characters just supposed to be shown NOT eating and NOT cooking? The line about Sooki was taken firmly from the conversation on Saturday night with Jean and Jackson, about fat representation, and I think I used it more to demonstrate the clutching-at-straws scarce mentality of talking about positive portrayals of fatness, and not to criticize Sooki for eating/cooking/enjoying food, but I can see how it came across that way. Thank you for calling me out on it.

    Maia - Have you read the critique of the new Glee fatty and her candy consumption over at Lesley Kinzel's blog?

  9. Just wanted to send you a high-five for this post, and a hope that you're going to the upcoming wellington lady bloggers drinks so that I can high-five you in person/ discuss.

  10. Hello Ally,
    I am totally not a blog reader but look so forward to reading your posts.
    I wanted to know how you feel about the sony show Drop Dead Diva?