Last year Dallas Children's Theater did several performances of The Secret Life of Girls, a play about bullying among teenage girls. The play revealed that along with depression and cutting, eating disorders is one way victims of bullying manifest their pain. Rebecca, a character in the play, gives hints throughout the performance that she is struggling with bulimia.
After one show, a mother approached Linda Daugherty, who wrote the play, and told her she had struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager, and now as the mother of a 13-year-old girl, she appreciated that the play dealt with eating disorders. Based on that and other feedback, Daugherty wrote the play Eat (It's Not About Food), which will premiere at the Dallas Children's Theater next spring.
"It's such a big problem," Daugherty says. "There are a number of people who have eating disorders that I didn't know. It's increased so much in the last 10 years."
The play will be the latest in DCT's Young Adult Series, which began five years ago with Deadly Weapons, by Laurie Brooks. Since starting its Young Adult series, DCT has continued to take risks and tackle difficult issues such as bullying, eating disorders, sexual identity and the damage that rumors can do. DCT's Young Adult Series is part of a growing trend in the United States to provide teenagers with live theater that is both relevant and entertaining.
"It's a huge movement across the country in both theaters that are specifically for young people and also our mainstream regional theaters," Brooks says. "Many of them are now doing work for young adults because it's a huge market. I mean the most popular musical right now is Spring Awakening, which is all high school kids. It's all about young people. And it won eight Tony's this year, so that tells you something."
Teenagers have long been an ignored demographic in the theater world. In fact, it wasn't so long ago that live theater for younger children was hard to come by. "When I first started Dallas Children's Theater there was just a handful of us, and it's become one of the most important movements in theater across America in the past 25 years," says Robyn Flatt, DCT's director. Flatt says that now there are probably 150 children's theater companies across the country.
Daugherty, who is DCT's resident playwright, says that when they first started DCT's Young Adult Series, it took awhile to build up an audience among teenagers. But it appears their commitment to young adults is paying off in more ways than one.
In 2004, Time Magazine recognized DCT as one of the top five theaters in the United States for family audiences. Jeff Church, artistic director of the Coterie Theater in Kansas City, which also ranked among the top five, says that he believes the plays DCT is doing for young adults is a big reason why they rated so high in Time.
In addition to critical acclaim, DCT now has the satisfaction of seeing its theater seats filled with teenagers. The Secret Life of Girls sold out all of its performances and was extended because of overwhelming response.
All this success is pretty remarkable when you consider DCT's humble beginnings. When Flatt co-founded DCT in 1984, she had a start-up fund of only $500. That year they did just five shows at El Centro College and St. Marks School of Texas, but they were able to raise $80,000 by the end of that first season. They have continued to grow steadily ever since, although it hasn't been easy. "A lot of seasons were cliffhangers as far as could we make it but we've somehow managed to get where we needed to be," Flatt says.
"I think they have a huge commitment to children and young people of all ages. And they are very careful in their selection of material," says Brooks, a New York playwright who has seen three of her plays for teens performed there. "I think they want to present material that lives in the world of young people, that will have a deep effect and will also be entertaining. And I think it's a place where families love to bring their children and have an experience together."
Many families begin bringing their children to the DCT when they are toddlers and continue bringing them when they enter their teens. "I think our audience has grown up with us and I think they are looking for answers," Daugherty says. Through its Young Adult Series, DCT is trying to answer some of those questions that teenagers face and point them toward help.
The latest play, Eat (It's Not About Food), uses a series of interwoven vignettes to tell the stories of young people struggling with eating disorders. It delves into the causes and warning signs of bulimia and anorexia and takes a critical look at the influence of society and media on our children. "The media sets up the fact that you've gotta be perfect. You've gotta be thin. Thin is the thing we worship now," Daugherty says.
An educational post-show will follow the play in an effort to help young adults process what they've seen. During the post-show, the theater will hold a talk-back session to ask the teens questions and get their feedback. Teenagers will be told things they can do to deal with their problems and provided with literature showing them where they can get help. Following one performance of The Secret Life of Girls, one girl from the audience approached the actress who played the role of Rebecca, the girl struggling with bulimia. The girl told the young actress, "I'm bulimic. I've never told anybody. But I'm going home now and telling my mother."
The play also aims to act as a wake-up call to adults. "Look, if your 8-year-old is on a diet, you really need to take a hard look at that. See what's going on," Daugherty says. "You know 20 percent of people who suffer with anorexia will probably die from it. It's the most deadly psychiatric problem there is. It often starts in adolescence. Those little kids we saw walk in here at 5, you know, 10 years later they're 15, and it's a whole new ball game."