A play written for a younger audience, but with content everyone can relate to, So, How Should I Be? explores the impact that mass and social media, friends, family and our communities have on mental health, with a specific focus on eating disorders.
Set to perform at Presentation House Theatre October 18–28, So, How Should I Be? aims to open up dialogue around eating disorders, anxiety and mental health amongst kids and teens, with the goal of helping them avoid traps they might otherwise fall into.
“We all know that we live in a world that’s inundated with mass media and social media,” says Linda A. Carson, playwright. “It puts a big emphasis on how we look, and it’s easy to think that if we look a certain way, all our problems will go away. Negative thoughts can get stuck in your head and take over, and that can lead to an eating disorder.”
Opening up conversation
The origins of the show trace back 25 years, when Carson was studying theatre at Studio 58 and had to write a one-person show for herself as part of her graduation requirement. She’d had an eating disorder right after high school, so it was something she knew a lot about.
“When I shared the first 15 minutes I’d written,” says Carson, “it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever felt in theatre. I knew that I had captured the audience with a really interesting exploration.”
She finished the play – called Dying to be Thin – and it toured for over two decades with
multiple productions, aimed at young adults in the upper-high school, early-university age range. Then, three years ago, the most recent production was inundated with calls from elementary schools and teachers, asking if a show could be written for a younger audience.
“At first I was like, “do I
really want to go back there?” says Carson, “but [So, How Should I Be?] ended up becoming more universal than my last play. Thoughts getting stuck in your head, and those thoughts becoming monsters in your head, I think that is something everyone deals with.”
Carson wants to help de-stigmatize mental illness, and help kids become both more resilient and less afraid to ask for help when dealing with these sorts of issues. Increased dialogue and openness will not immediately solve the issues entirely, but it can have positive, far-reaching effects.
“One of the things that’s really resonated with me,” says Manami Hara, one of the performers, “is that though it may not land with [the audience] immediately, later on in their life they can look back on it and know that there is help and ways to cope with this. It’s like planting seeds: being
able to name it, say what it is, have some sort of concrete place they can go back to, that’s what I think Linda is trying to write.”
More than one factor
The show features stories from three people who dealt with eating disorders, one from 30 years ago, one from 15, and one from today. They’re based on real interviews and testimonials, and what Carson learned was that this issue has far from just one cause.
“I came into this thinking that this was all mass media and social media’s fault,” she says, “but as I researched specific stories, I began to see that for each individual, the reasons why they got an eating disorder were very different. What was universal was that they’d arrived at a place where they were very unhappy or anxious, and instead of finding help they divert to what I call the tip of the iceberg: the disorder itself.”
While Carson believes media plays a big part in putting pressure on us to look a certain way, the people you live around can also have an effect, even if it’s unintentional.
“A friend or parent might say something that they think is a joke, but it really sticks. Or you might live in a family that’s very weight-conscious. We want family and friends to know what they’re saying, and know that it has an impact.”
All of that is part of the reflection and discussion Carson hopes will be sparked by the show, which will be encouraged by a talkback after each performance. For Hara, she hopes that So, How Should I Be? will help foster a desire to learn and share amongst those who attend.
“Curiosity is such a beautiful thing,” says Hara, “no matter what age you are. We need it, as well as the courage to talk about things that are difficult. Keeping it secret will not be healthy, so let’s open this up. As a community, as individuals,
we need to celebrate individuality and diversity.”
For more information, visit www.phtheatre.org.