An interview with actress and playwright
By Gloria Cahill
Reprinted from the Summer 1994 issue of
stage - bare except for three ladders, a stool, and a circus drum -
evokes images of dancing elephants. A figure stands silhouetted in
the darkness, replaying the oh-so-familiar dialogue of Evelyn and Ruth,
two unseen "yentas" who discuss the pitiable state of the
professor's daughter. "She got so fat. What a shame. She has such a
pretty face. Rach munis to the whole family." Slowly, a single
light comes up on a towering female figure dressed in "a long,
sleek, slenderizing, unbroken line of black" (a strategy which is
later referred to as "Rule #1 for women fashion forgot"). She
gracefully peels back the pop-top of a diet Coke can and announces,
"Just one calorie. Imagine, I can drink twelve hundred of these a
day and still lose weight." And thus the stage is set for Camryn
Manheim's autobiographical one-woman show, Wake
Up, I'm Fat, which recently finished a successful limited
engagement at New York's Classic State Company, produced by Home for
Contemporary Theater and Art. Following its run at CSC, the show moved
to New York's Second Stage, and Manheim is planning to tour the show
nationally in the near future.
Wake Up, I'm Fat is a tale we've
all heard before, yet with all its familiarity it never cross the line
into cliché. Manheim candidly relays a series of deeply personal
stories that include a near-fatal addiction to speed and the harrowing
process of overcoming that addiction. Another story points an accusing
finger at the academic environment that turned a blind eye to her
college drug addiction, choosing instead to praise its slenderizing side
effects. In a more comic vein, she describes her quest for "a
boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend," by recounting a
hilarious odyssey through the personal ads,which eventually threw her
into a brief encounter with "the Canadian Marlboro man!"
A blend of Manheim's outrageous sense of humor and courageous
self-examination, the piece ultimately tells the story of her struggle
for acceptance in a family that she describes as "obsessed with
weight and nutrition," and a profession that demands adherence to
an unrealistic standard of physical perfection.
One of the challenges of performing a one-woman show, particularly
one that deals with such personal issues, was finding a director who
could be both sensitive to the material yet objective enough to
transform the written play into a theatrical event. Manheim chose Mark
Brokaw, a prominent director whose work has been featured both
regionally and at numerous off-Broadway theaters. Brokaw brought an
important new perspective to the play. A tall, thin man, he was
sufficiently distanced from the material to keep the play from slipping
"As a director, Mark is like a painter," Manheim explains.
am a storyteller. I would have been happy to sit on a stool and tell
stories all night, but that wouldn't have been as exciting." Brokaw
provided the kind of boundaries that Manheim needed to keep the stories
sharp, funny, and hard-hitting. "He never let me ask for pity, and
he never let me become self-indulgent," she says. "There was
not a lot of discussion of the painful moments that brought this piece
about. We seldom spoke of things that were tangential to the production.
It was strictly business. I never looked to him to take care of me. We
had a play to put on." Together, they never lost sight of the
integrity of the text. Their mission was always to present an artistic
expression of human struggle and self-discovery, rather than a two-hour
dose of do-it-yourself psychotherapy.
Ultimately, Manheim sees her play not in terms of "fat
acceptance," but rather, in terms of self-acceptance. And therein
lies the success of the play. "It crosses gender, racial, and
religious lines," she explains with an apparent sense of wonder.
"It was unbelievable to me to see how many people it seemed to
touch. I think the play actually became bigger than me. No pun intended.
At first, I thought it was a little play about me growing up fat and how
I was tired of waiting to be thin to make progress in my life. And in
the end, all kinds of people, from thin black Christian men to petite
Asian Buddhist women, found something in it. I found that very
surprising. It wound up being about what each person hates most about
themselves and how that prevents them from moving forward."
Does this mean Manheim hates being fat? It's a question that she
describes as "the major conflict of my life as an adult."
Being fat has shaped much of her identity. "It is how I define
myself," she says. "Almost everything I do is related to being
fat. So on one hand, I can say that being fat is the thing I hate most
about myself, but on the other hand, I know that it defines me and is an
important part of who I am, and I really like who I am."
Manheim also defines herself as an activist. "I mean an activist
not just in political terms but in human terms, in visceral terms, in
cerebral terms." Raised in a liberal Jewish family with a strong
socialist philosophy, she speaks with pride of her parents' commitment
to social causes. "On my table in my living room is a picture of my
father holding a picket sign. It says, Don't Discriminate! My mother
took that picture fifty years ago. This is my legacy. This is what I am
most proud of." And yet the parents who raised her to share in that
legacy and to fight injustice are chief among those whom she calls to
task in her play for discriminating against her as a fat woman.
"Let's face it," she quips. "Parents know how to push
your buttons because, hey, they sewed them on." This is one of the
lighter moments among her recollections of growing up as "the
The play features a searingly frank look at Manheim's parents'
response to her weight. In this excerpt from the play, she recounts
episodes of her mother and father trying to bribe her to diet:
My parents have always been offended by my weight, embarrassed maybe.
It didn't fit with their sensibilities. As long as I continued to be
overweight, we would never be the perfect nuclear family . . . which we
were far from, anyway. They hounded me throughout my childhood about my
weight. They brought me to psychiatrists, to hypnotists; they bribed me.
When I was eleven years old, I signed my first contract: "If you
lose 15 pounds by March, we'll give you a brand new bike." And I
signed it. "If you lose 30 pounds by September, we'll buy you a new
puppy." And I signed it. I felt like my parents would have sold
their house if it would've made me thin.
She also recalls a year-long silence between herself and her father,
who once suggested that she resume smoking in order to control her
weight. It was her treatment of these relationships that caused Manheim
the greatest trepidation in writing and performing the play.
On opening night, the audience was filled with family and friends,
many of whom had come at the invitation of her parents. Manheim was, to
say the least, nervous. "I had prepared my parents," she
explains. "I had let them both know. I didn't go into detail. I
told them the stories that I would be using and then I let their
imaginations and memory fill in the blanks. Then before the show opened,
I asked my mother again if she felt ready to see it and she said, 'Have
you ever heard of Rashamon, Camryn?' And I said, 'Yes. It means, through
your eyes, we see what we see.'" Seeing the painful memories of
their daughter unfolding before their own eyes did not keep Dr. and Dr.
Manheim from appreciating the courage and talent of their daughter.
"They were very proud," she reports. "In my play they
became the universal parents. Nobody would look at my father and say,
'Oh, you're that asshole who said such and such.' They became the
parents who, try as they may, never really got the whole picture. Seeing
the play, they were able to distance themselves from the story - which
was fortunate for me, because I still have a trust fund!"
Wake Up, I'm Fat is as much about
waiting as it is about weight. Manheim's prerecorded voice utters a
litany of "ifs." "If I were thin, I'd skate out to the
middle of the lake." "If I were thin, I'd jump on a
trampoline." "If I were thin, I could be on top." The
decision to write the play was her declaration that, at last, the
waiting was over:
When I was ten, all I wanted was to be thirteen. When I was thirteen,
all I was waiting for was to be sixteen, so I could drive. Then I was
waiting to be eighteen, so I could vote. Then I was waiting to be
twenty-one, so I could drink . . . and drive. When I was twenty one, all
I wanted was for college to be over so I could start my life. And then
there was graduate school - and certainly life can't start there. And
then I'm twenty-eight, thinking, Now my life can finally start. But then
I'm twenty-nine, and, well, you know, I'm waiting for a boyfriend. And
then I'm thirty-one, and I'm waiting for a great apartment.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. All my life, I've been waiting for my life
to begin, as if somehow my life was ahead of me, and that someday I
would arrive at it.
In fact, I have wanted to write a one-woman show for ten years now,
but I've been waiting. Waiting to be thin so I could write about what it
was like to be fat.
At thirty-two, Manheim has decided to stop waiting for her life to
begin, and Wake Up, I'm Fat is the
proof. Describing her feelings about the piece she says, "It's the
best gift I have ever given myself. For the first time, I was able to
shed the shame of being fat. Since I have performed this play publicly,
I have been able to talk about being fat in a way that gives me courage.
I thought that by telling the world about my fat, I would leave myself
vulnerable for attack, but quite the opposite has happened. It has given
me a renewed sense of strength, compassion, and hope."
Manheim's hopes are being fulfilled. Days before the opening of her
show, she landed a feature role in Alan Parker's upcoming film, The Road
to Wellville, starring Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Broderick, Dana Carvey,
Bridgit Fonda, and John Cusak. Manheim plays Virginia Cranehill, "a
wealthy woman in the midst of her own sexual revolution who is clearly
having a good time exploring her sexuality." When asked how she
relates to Virginia personally, she replies, "I'm terrified of her
because she gets naked a lot. But I think we'll be good friends as time
goes on." Manheim will be featured in two nude scenes in the film,
a fact that she finds both frightening and intensely challenging.
"I don't even like to be naked in front of myself!" she
laughs. "I'm taking a blind jump, and someone's going to have to
push me. In my fantasies, I always wanted to play the ingenue, but in
reality, in my bones, I am so used to playing the grandmother that I
don't feel safe or even sure that I can do it. The great thing about
Virginia is that she's not the ingenue. I don't really think Mr. Parker
was looking for ingenues."
The role came as a surprise to Manheim, who had originally auditioned
for two other parts, which she describes as "a big, mean nurse, and
a dowdy, roly-poly woman." These are the types of parts she has
come to expect: mean, aggressive women, or enduring old grandmothers.
"It was actually Alan Parker who suggested I read for
Virginia," she recalls. "I think he saw something in my spirit
that was more like her. And he asked me after I read the part if I would
be willing to be in a scene with total nudity and I, like a good
actress, said sure." But these scenes represent a change in
Hollywood's portrayal of the sexual woman. In a preproduction meeting,
director Parker asked Manheim if she felt there should be any reference
to her size in the film. "He asked me what made the better
statement about my body, having Virginia say, 'I'm big but I like my
body' or having her say nothing. At the time I said it would be better
to say nothing. But after I thought about it for a while, I thought it
would be better if I could look at Bridgit Fonda and say, 'You know,
dear, you're a little thin, but I still think you're attractive anyway.'
That'll be my suggestion. We'll see what happens." And indeed we
By selecting Manheim for the role of Cranehill, Alan Parker is
suggesting a new willingness on the part of Hollywood to recognize and
celebrate the sexual vitality of the large woman. For Manheim, the film
represents the realization of her long-held belief in the importance of
casting on the basis of an actor's ability to fit the role and not just
the costume. After all, she declares, "If art is supposed to
imitate life, why do they want all the actors to be thin? There are fat
people in the world. Shouldn't there be a few of us actors to represent
Although The Road to Wellville may be paved with gold, the road to
professional acceptance has been anything but smooth. One of Manheim's
greatest struggles occurred while she was a graduate student at New York
University's Tisch School of the Arts. It was a time in her life when
Manheim admits she "had a bit of an attitude problem." That
problem escalated into a life-threatening addiction to speed when drama
teachers pressured her to lose weight or risk being dropped from the
program. The amphetamines did the job but almost cost Manheim her life.
During the summer vacation before her final year in the program,
Manheim lost 35 pounds by taking crystal methane. She tells the story of
her addiction in Wake Up, I'm Fat,
sputtering the words out at a dizzying pace, recreating the frenetic
world of the addiction. "I went back to school and was celebrated
by my peers, and all my teachers took a renewed interest in me. I felt
like a star. I was afraid if I stopped taking the speed, I would put all
the weight back on, so I continued to take speed for the rest of the
year. By the spring I was 80 pounds less than I am now. I don't think
anyone ever noticed I was on speed, but then, of course, I could have
been in denial."
The hilarious rush of language comes to a screeching halt, and
without missing a beat, Manheim recreates the anguish of a terrifying
night when she overdosed and had to spend hours sitting on the bathroom
floor, struggling to stay alert for fear that if she fell asleep, she
might never wake up. "My heart just couldn't take it anymore, and I
mean that in every sense." After that experience, Manheim stopped
taking drugs, stopped smoking, and gained back the 80 pounds that she
had (all too literally) been dying to lose.
Although Manheim traces some of her most painful memories back to her
years at NYU, she also credits the university's acting program for being
the place where some of her most important personal and professional
alliances began. It was in her third year in the program that a young
director had the courage to cast the 210-pound graduate student as the
romantic lead in Caryl Churchill's Fen. The young director was Tony
Kushner, who has since become the Pulitzer PrizeÐwinning author of
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. The production
of Fen marked the first time that Manheim was ever given the opportunity
to play a character her own age. It was also "the first time I ever
kissed a boy on stage!" Manheim recalls Kushner's firm decisiveness
when she tried to avoid the role by declaring, "I play grandmas,
that's what I do." Kushner refused to recast the play. He
established a safe environment in which Manheim was able to create, for
the first time, the role of a vital young woman. He even went so far as
to clear the rehearsal hall on the traumatic day when she finally had to
rehearse "the kiss." She looks back on this production as a
turning point in her career. "I kissed a man on stage. I played a
woman my own age. I became an actor," she recalls with pride.
Four nights before the Broadway opening of Perestroika, the second of
the two plays that compose Angels in America, Kushner went to see
Manheim's one-woman show. "He said he was very proud of me, and
very moved," she recalls. Knowing that Kushner was in the audience
was initially very intimidating to Manheim, who generally prefers not
knowing who's watching her work. "But after a while, I thought,
He's not an enemy; he's an ally. He was there to support me, and I was
so proud to have him there. It was as if he had built the ladder I was
climbing upon, and now I had a chance to say, Hey, Tony! Look at me! I'm
Manheim credits much of her success to NYU peers, who have remained
loyal to her and to one another. "We made a promise back then to
ride on one another's wings, and they've gone out on a limb to cast
me." One of those peers is director Michael Mayer, to whom she is
particularly grateful. "Michael has given me great parts that have
had nothing to do with weight at all. He is very special. His visions
are so wide." Last fall, Mayer selected Manheim for the role of Dr.
Benton, a domineering and decidedly wacky criminal psychiatrist in the
1993 Young Playwrights Festival's production of Carter L. Bay's Five
Visits from Mister Witcomb. "There was even a love interest with a
tall,thin man!" she exclaims, and once again, she got to kiss a man
on stage. But this time, she had no fear. "It's because of people
like Michael Mayer and Tony Kushner that I've had the opportunity to
play great parts that weren't specifically for overweight people. I rely
very much on my contemporaries to make that possible for me."
Playwright Daniel Reitz is another of those contemporaries. Reitz
wrote a play called St. Joan of Avenue D, which played in 1990. The role
of Joan had originally called for an anorexic woman, but when a friend
suggested that Manheim read for the part, Reitz rewrote it, tailoring
the part for her. "It is my favorite part ever!" Manheim
declares. "It's about a very bright, sexy, intelligent Jewish woman
who gets arrested and seduces the police officer. It's the most exciting
role I've ever played." And it is one that she hopes to revive
In the final moments of Wake Up, I'm Fat,
Manheim finds herself standing at the crossroads that she calls Life and
You'd Better Get Going, Camryn. "The way I see it, I can either
cross the street, or I can keep waiting for another few years of green
lights to go by." As the play ends, she turns to face a green
light, thus assuring the audience that she is indeed taking those steps.
She walks with confidence and power, accompanied by the sound of Van
Morrison's 'Moondance,' a song that, on the surface, seems to have
little to do with the issues raised in the play. Asked why she chose
that song, she replies, "I was introduced to "Moondance"
in the '70s, at a time when I was at my loneliest. It was the song that
I would fall asleep to at night when I was in high school. By closing
the show with that song, I am taking that longing and turning it around
to make it symbolize my satisfaction with where I am now. I think that
the opening line means that every night is a marvelous night for a
moondance. It's the night that we're living in now. It's a happy tune,
but it was filled with grief for me then. To turn it around and make it
the song that I am going to embrace as I cross my street was another
kind of victory for me." A victory indeed, for the audience as well
as the artist.
GLORIA CAHILL is the education director of Young Playwrights,
Inc., a nonprofit development organization which produces plays for
writers eighteen years old and younger. She is a graduate student at
University of Arizona, where she is writing her dissertation as a
comparative study of the theme of fat in American literature.
our Fall 98 Celebrity Interview
with Emmy Winner Camryn Manheim
about her role in the
ABC drama The Practice.
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