The family drama is as much a staple of theatre as Shakespeare—as are stories about characters facing addiction to pills or booze or sex. Less common are family dramas about eating disorders, but that changes with Domenica Feraud’s new play Rinse, Repeat, premiering at Signature Theatre Center July 16–August 17.
After spending time in a clinic to treat her anorexia, Rachel returns home to family that considers her illness with varying degrees of sincerity.
Feraud evokes a relatable family struggle about an oft-ignored epidemic; through her performance as Rachel, she brings a well of personal experience: “It was everywhere with the women that I knew.” And Feraud could no longer stay silent about an illness that thrives on invisibility and stigma.
Here, Feraud dives into crafting Rinse, Repeat, mother-daughter dynamics, what we can all learn about diet culture, and the power of theatre.
What inspired you to write this story?
Domenica Feraud: The journey for this story has been really complicated. When I was 19 years old, I was actually going through my own eating disorder, closer to the version that [the character] Joan has.
I've been going to the theatre as long as I can remember. Especially when I started living in the city, I'd go see seven or eight shows a week. I started realizing: I don't see this represented in the theatre, and when it is on TV, it felt like something that you then get over by the end of the episode like, "Oh, that was just a phase," and it was always women very, very young women. I went to school for acting and that's what I had planned on doing but there came a point where I just started writing down a story from my real life.
How has the play evolved since you first began writing it?
I did readings and [the response was] "This will do so well in high schools across America." I thought, "Well I'm not doing my job. This play isn't good enough to be taken seriously." I took a lot of time away. I did a lot of research. I started building a family story based on what I read about family models for eating disorders. I decided that Rachel was going to be dealing with anorexia, [but things changed] once I decided that I knew it would be a two-fold story and that the mother would be suffering with something as well—something that isn't so easy to name. Something that's easy to hide but that can have huge effects and ramifications on herself and everyone in her life.
Before the script begins, you wrote that the stage directions cannot be separated from the dialogue of the play. How do you ensure you accomplish the unsaid things the story needs?
We're also working with this thrust stage so there will be some things people don't see! I knew the really f*cked up patterns that I displayed with food, and that the women in my life have displayed, and they are fascinating to watch—in a really disturbing way—and also normalized and not seen as a big deal in a lot of ways. The challenge is: How do we show something that might be something a lot of people can relate to in terms of the way of eating? The play starts and Rachel's picking at her bagel at first, but then it goes into this scene with the salad, rubbing off all the dressing. I’m on the outside of it and saying, "Take your time because that is a really fascinating ritual to watch and really disturbing."
What I've accepted and what excites me is that audience members will be tracking at different times what's going on and tuning into things. There will be people who have no idea that Joan, the mother, has an eating disorder. It hasn't been shown before, but when I've noticed these things in real life they're painful and they're compelling and they're disturbing. That's what good theatre does in a lot of ways.
The play deals with anorexia and eating disorders, but it really feels like a play about mothers and daughters and how they trigger each other. Tell me about developing that mother-daughter relationship.
I consciously decided, “Let me look at family dramas.” We deal with addiction in family dramas so much and this is a form of addiction. It's about the family really, not so much about the food, so that's been exciting to discover. The actor who plays Joan that I'm working with, I remember she said to me, "This is more than a story about food, it's a mother-daughter love story," and she was right.
And yet there is a huge shift in the dynamic between Rachel and her mother and her father.
I did a reading at Signature back in October that was around the time of the Kavanaugh hearing and I saw What the Constitution Means to Me and I was thinking, “I don't want to write a play about eating disorders that blames women.” I want to look at the fact that we are finally talking about the fact that we play by men's rules. We live in a world where white men are deciding so many things for all of us. Yes, women, we play into it with one another. Who is editing the magazines? But somebody taught these women that to be thin is beautiful and I don't think that it was women. I know that when advertising agencies started they were run by men.
In these scenes, her dad is so on top of her to eat, and in the same breath just offering her mother coffee for breakfast and taking away her bagel. Daughters want to be like their mothers. When your father glorifies a thin body, it affects you, it affects your idea of what is attractive or what is beautiful, and he has enabled her mother's illness.
What do you want people to understand about eating disorders from seeing this play?
The way in which Joan eats is accepted. It's discipline, it's good for women to deprive themselves—how strong we are when we do that. It breaks my heart when people say “I’m being good today” and it's said so often! Even the idea of the cheat day and food as punishment and reward. The comment you hear when women do eat a lot: "You're so thin, where do you put it? You eat all these carbs." Nobody does that to guys—but people think that men don't struggle with these things and they absolutely do.
It’s an addiction and a mental illness that is encouraged and praised! What inspired me to write was I lost my period for a long time and no doctors understood what was going on because I was still a healthy weight, but I wasn't eating. What I wish I had known is that, for women, diet culture is a huge thing. But we don't talk about the fact that for hormones, eating is really important. Maintaining your health and your body fat is really important, it's not so cut and dry. There's so much information that I didn't have because it wasn't being represented anywhere.
You integrate “Rachel's poetry” by having her brother read it. Where did the idea of using poetry to develop Rachel and as a storytelling device in general come from?
They're probably the newest addition to the piece. That was something that came from a dramaturgical standpoint [to help with scene transitions]. We hear so much about Rachel's writing, but we never actually heard the writing. I was at another show and I got inspired and I started writing on the pages of my Playbill. I've never written poetry, but these pieces started coming out. I decided that it would be her brother Brody [who found and read them], because Brody is such an interesting complicated character and member of this family. He's almost like an outlier. He is adopted, he is his own person. He sees Rachel in a way that nobody else does. He asks her real questions. [The idea is] Rachel sent these poems to Brody in an attempt to explain why I left. Ultimately what this piece is about is that she did this to herself to show her mother something. She’s disappearing in order to be seen, but also showing her mother "This is what you're doing to yourself and maybe it needs to be this extreme for you to see."
How does being an actor, and playing Rachel, specifically, affect how you write?
It's very complicated. I’ve done other readings where I've had other people play Rachel. I actually find it more helpful to be inside of it. I learn a lot about the character and the dynamics. The thing for me that I've had to do this past week is I've had to be like, “I'm no longer the playwright, I'm going to be the actor" because telling this girl's story is the most important thing. As the playwright I have all the answers, but Rachel does not have the answers—not until the end. What's been important for me is finding a team that I really trust. I don't know what it's going to be like in previews because I do want to be making re-writes while also being completely lost in the character, so I do have some people I trust that will be coming to the first three previews and sitting on different sides of the audience to help me calibrate because I cannot be the playwright when I'm performing.
You say didn't intend to be a playwright, that Rinse Repeat came out of a frustration. Do you have plans to write more in the future?
I do! I've been working on a screenplay for a while about that’s more personal. This family is not my family at all, so it's not my life. I'm really interested in looking at things that aren't represented, I'm really interested in talking about gender and sexuality and fluidity and things that don't get represented. It’s why Rinse Repeat is a Latinx family, that wasn't always the case. Also, my family is Ecuadorian and my mother comes from deep, deep trauma and that play might take me ten years to write, but it's something that I've been wanting to write.