Before Linda A. Carson could graduate from theatre school in Vancouver, she had to write herself a one-person show about something she knew intimately.
To her, the most dramatic thing in her life had been surviving the eating disorder bulimia that had derailed her university studies and left her very ill, but it had been a low point in her life she had kept secret.
"It seemed disgusting to me, but I wrote about it," says Carson. "I adapted my experiences in my teen years into Dying to be Thin."
It was first staged at Vancouver's Carousel Players in 1992 as the story of Amanda, a typical high school teen until her grades plummet, she begins cutting classes and avoiding her boyfriend. The hour-long drama takes a hard look at issues of body image and how it can evolve into serious eating disorders.
The Manitoba Theatre for Young People presented Dying to be Thin in 2000 and 2004 and has revived it again for a public run on its home stage this weekend before embarking on an extensive 120-show tour around rural Manitoba where it will be performed in front of an estimated 30,000 high school students.
It's been almost a generation since Carson, a now 55-year-old actress/playwright, first attempted on stage to expose the behind-closed-doors cycle of out-of-control binging and purging that affects up to three per cent of girls and women. For two years she also performed her show and saw first-hand how its message was being received during post-performance Q & A sessions with teenage students.
"I know it's had a tremendous impact. Almost every day I have young females coming up to me and disclosing for the very first time that they do this," says Carson, who also penned MTYP's other offering this season (so far), Jack and the Bean.
Amanda's battle with bulimia in Dying to be Thin has evolved into addressing many other addictions during the post-show talkback period between actor and audience.
"I remember watching one show and afterwards a Grade 11 boy student up and said, 'I don't get this show, it has nothing to do with us guys,'" Carson recalls during an interview this week. "Another girl stood up to say, 'What are you talking about, I know you are on steroids.' There was this silence and then a big outing in the school."
Amanda's story has remained essentially the same since 1992 but there have been updates to acknowledge how technology has assumed a central role in the lives of teens. Amanda and her friends now have apps for dieting and calorie-counting.
"It reflects how immediate everything is, the pressures and stresses on everyone because of how technology exacerbates things," says Krista Jackson, making her MTYP debut as a director.
The most obvious tweak to Dying to be Thin is its take on the isolation Amanda, who is being played by U of W grad Heather Russell, feels from her loved ones. Her mental state sees her in the middle of nowhere, so her bedroom looks like a military outpost with a camouflage theme. The look is more inclusive and gender-neutral for males in the audience.
"We're trying to show that it's not just an issue for women and that men are going through it, too. A lot of boys are using steroids to have a certain kind of body," Jackson says.
Both Carson and Jackson believe it is important to open up the lines of discussion with teens. One of the most frequent questions asked after shows is whether to confront friends suspected of having eating disorders or other addictions. Carson wishes she had been the subject of an intervention to admit what she had been denying to herself.
"Ninety-nine per cent of getting over a disorder is actually admitting that you have it," she says. "With addictions you tell yourself, 'I'll stop it now and don't have to tell anyone.' It's crucial to get people to talk about it."