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Wake Up, I'm Fat

An interview with actress and playwright
Camryn Manheim

By Gloria Cahill

Reprinted from the Summer 1994 issue of Radiance

Summer 1994, #39The 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 into propaganda.

"As a director, Mark is like a painter," Manheim explains. "I 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 professor's daughter."

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 will.

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 them?"

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 PrizeĞwinning 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 halfway there!"

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 someday.

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.

Visit our Fall 98 Celebrity Interview
with Emmy Winner Camryn Manheim
about her role in the
ABC drama The Practice.


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