"The character I play has such similar lived experience to me"
Rethink Mental Illness ambassador, Juliette Burton, is currently on stage in Measured, a new play examining the hidden consequences of living with an eating disorder. Exposing the emotional turmoil of the illness without glamorising its dangers, Measured questions how effective recovery can be in a society that still wants women to be as ‘little’ as possible. Both Juliette and the writer of the play, Emma, bring their lived experience to the production and we caught up with them to find out more.
Tell us a bit about what inspired the play and encouraged you to tell the story on stage?
Emma: Originally the scenes that became Measured were written as coursework for my Masters in Creative Writing in 2016. I didn’t really think at the time it would ever be on stage but I was encouraged to develop it further and I became really aware that most media about eating disorders tends to focus on the worst physical aspects of the illness - I hadn’t seen anything that really avoided that and instead captured the really difficult stage of recovery from the emotional and mental perspective. It can be much harder when you’re no longer in hospital or obviously very ill to keep doing what you need to do to get well, and I felt this was an interesting angle to explore.
Juliette: As soon as I read the script, I knew it had something special about it. I play a character named Sophie who is in recovery from an eating disorder. When we meet her in the play, she’s at this crossroads in her life where she’s just leaving hospital and deciding where to go next. Sophie is smart, with so many dreams and ambitions, but at the same time she’s trying to understand what recovery looks like to her, learning how to articulate herself and say what she most needs to say.
As soon as I read the script, I knew it had something special about it.
How important was it to you to ensure that this creative piece of work handled difficult themes responsibly?
Emma: Very important - I’ve had so many conversations with people suffering eating disorders who’ve talked about how easy it was to take hints, information and even target weights from books, films etc which were supposed to be about raising awareness and using them to further their own disordered behaviour. It’s very commonly discussed in treatment settings, but we don’t seem any closer to having a culture where we try and describe these things in terms of the emotional harm and the devastation they cause rather than the numbers and physical complications. I tried very hard to make sure there was nothing in the script which could be taken out of context to fuel someone’s eating disorder. Even after consulting the media guidelines for portraying eating disorders and asking campaigners to review the script I’m still quite nervous because it’s so insidious and this illness in particular is so cruel in the way it uses someone’s thoughts against them. I’m hoping we can start to have a conversation about that as a wider culture.
Juliette: The script has been developed so carefully and everyone involved is so passionate that it handles some of these difficult themes responsibly. We’ve been careful to make sure nothing is triggering, there are no hints or tips. I’d feel reckless and irresponsible if I was to get on stage and present a narrative that doesn’t really give people an authentic insight into what it’s like to live with mental illness or to care for someone who does.
The play also has its humorous moments, how did you weave those into the script? Were any of these lines inspired by things that have happened to you in real life?
Emma: I probably did steal a few one liners… I’ve always stored away really good jokes or phrases people used to work into my writing later. I think a couple of the jokes came from my brother actually! I didn’t find it too hard to add some lighter moments to it. Firstly, I think it’s really difficult to absorb a lot of really emotionally charged moments if there’s no levity, and secondly I think it’s important that you see the characters as people who are flawed and struggling, but also people with a lot of good qualities and warmth that they bring to their relationships and are trying to offer each other even in the really strained circumstances we find them in.
Juliette: The play covers some challenging themes but at its core it’s also funny and beautiful. It’s the kind of play you could watch over and over again to fully grasp the number of gifts it offers. In a way it’s been a gift the pandemic brought things to a halt as the writing is even better - in every day of rehearsals we found new layers to it.
Without sharing any spoilers, what message do you want to stay with the audience after they’ve left the theatre?
Emma: I think what I’m trying to express is the particular difficulty of early recovery when it can seem too overwhelming to either go back or move forward, and the difficulty of making that choice over and over again in your life until you have a firm foundation. The situation throughout the play is precarious for all the characters but I really want there to be an element of hope that stays with people watching. Recovery is always possible and the rewards aren’t always immediately obvious, but they’re immense. I hope that shows through the story as well.
I’d feel reckless and irresponsible if I was to get on stage and present a narrative that doesn’t really give people an authentic insight into what it’s like to live with mental illness.
What has been the best part of bringing this idea to life and putting it on stage? Has this also helped to support your own recovery?
Juliette: It’s been a privilege to play this character, in fact I feel quite protective of her now! Thanks to the magic of writing and drama, we follow my character through a process which took me years to do the same. It’s wonderful that the character I play has such similar lived experience to me – I can bring those experiences, as difficult and painful as they were, to this piece of theatre.
Emma: For me, I’ve never had a play professionally produced before and working with a director and actors - especially the amazing company we have together for this production-has been absolutely joyous. They’ve found things in the script I never knew were there and have made the characters so much more rich and complex than they were on the page. I was very unwell when I began writing the play and my recovery has been stable for some time now, but it was definitely a really motivating force for me, and the experience was so rewarding it’s reinforced for me the reasons I wanted to recover. In a strange way this production feels almost like drawing a line under my own eating disorder experience. I’d be unbelievably happy if anyone else found meaning and hope in it too.
Measured runs from 22 Feb until 12 March at the Hope Theatre in London.