In new play ‘I Will Eat You Alive,’ fat women reclaim their right to take up space
by Courtney Proctor
Published January 24 in The Baltimore Banner
Katie Hileman is fat.
She is also a writer, director, actor, intimacy choreographer, teacher and the founding artistic director of Interrobang Productions. In her play “I Will Eat You Alive,” three characters — each simply named “Fat Woman” — commune around a dining table to rage against, reclaim and revel in the experience of being fat.
“The No. 1 thing I’ve learned is that we don’t talk about our bodies on our own terms very often,” Hileman said. “We grow up with a narrative that you’re fat and it’s your fault and you’re not fixing it so sorry your life just sucks. Why does it have to be like that?”
Hileman’s debut work, opening Jan. 25 at The Voxel, is her primal response to that narrative.
In 2019, Hileman was pursuing her Master of Fine Arts at Towson University and going through eating disorder treatment for bulimia, an experience that left her feeling radical. During a playwriting class, “I Will Eat You Alive” came to fruition as her thesis project, sparked by her treatment and the theatrical world that Hileman had been navigating for years.
“[In treatment], you are the fat girl in the place where no one wants to be fat,” Hileman said. “So once I got out of that I was feeling very energized. I had never had anyone tell me that you don’t have to be on a diet. I’ve been on a diet my whole life. I felt inspired to spread that message.”
Hileman soon put out a call on social media to talk to other fat people and spent that summer interviewing volunteers to inform her writing process. But ultimately, the play is her story, based on experiences from her own life.
After 12 drafts, Hileman’s playwriting professor Juanita Rockwell offered the key that unlocked the current iteration of “I Will Eat You Alive”: setting the play around the dining table. The suggestion brought all Hileman’s ideas together, and the first performance took place at Towson in 2020.
The play is structured as a dinner party, featuring a massive dining table set with empty serving dishes that offer nothing. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” one of the Fat Women insists repeatedly throughout the meal, with courses that include heaping helpings of diet culture and Ozempic.
The three actresses playing the Fat Women in the Voxel production of “I Will Eat You Alive” are Vicky Graham, Betse Lyons and Meghan Taylor — the latter two of whom were in the workshop production at Towson.
“We have created a culture where food is the enemy for so many people, and such a source of stress and contempt, that it’s hard for everyone to come to the table as equals,” Taylor said. “By setting the play at a dinner party, we are inviting the audience to create community with us in a way that feels universally familiar, but we’re highlighting the things that might make it different for someone who’s fat to feel safe at that same table.”
The shorthand of shared experience, as well as having worked together before, eases communication between director and cast. During the recent rehearsal of a particularly traumatic monologue about sexual assault, decisions were made quickly between Hileman and her actors, showcasing their collaborative process. Someone stops and asks, “Does this work?” Should we link the Ozempic shots to the shots being taken at the bar?” and consensus is easily achieved. Another pause as someone declares that something doesn’t feel right for them. Hileman asks a question and nods — “Yeah, I get that” — and a new choice is made.
“Every person in the room is considerate and genuinely wants to honor everyone’s boundaries, which makes the process feel like real theater instead of therapy,” Graham said.
“It’s really special to work in a room with three fat actors,” Hileman said. “I am used to being the biggest person in the room, particularly in a theater space, but with these three people we don’t have that separation, and we can all feel a little more free to talk about how the content of the play aligns with what we’re going through in real life.”
Hileman used to be a working actress herself for many years but has since given up her time on the stage, now focusing more on writing, teaching and directing.
“We don’t see fat bodies anywhere and when we do, they’re usually being ridiculed or laughed at,” Hileman said. “That was why I stopped acting, because I was sick of trying to compete for these roles written for a skinny person. I would love to act again but I would only do it if it was written for someone of my size but that doesn’t happen. That’s another reason I felt compelled to do this.”
Hileman’s rejection of traditional theatrical paradigms has helped her create inclusive work that is more meaningful to her. And Interrobang Theatre Company, which she formed 10 years ago with a handful of her fellow University of Maryland, Baltimore County, undergraduates, has also kept up to date with the changing theater world. Now known as Interrobang Productions, it has adapted its production archetype to fit a post-pandemic world by “working in a project-based production format, foregoing a traditional season model,” according to its website. The elimination of that model is a way for theaters to survive and be flexible in an era with a scarcity of funding and the continued threat of COVID canceling a production.
As an artist in residence at The Voxel, Interrobang is also able to have free use of the space and the equipment in the historic Baltimore theater that was restored and reopened in 2020. “We give artists time, equipment, and keys to the building, and after that we mostly just get out of the way,” said Artistic Director Chris Ashworth.
During the run of “I Will Eat You Alive,” which closes on Feb. 10, Interrobang will host a series of fat-positive events. A plus-size clothing swap will take place on Feb. 3 in partnership with the Skylight Boutique. Following the matinee performance on Feb. 4, @FatPositiveTherapist Kayla Stansberry will join Hileman and the cast for a post-show conversation. And on Feb. 10, Two Strikes Theatre Collective will curate an hour featuring Black and brown storytellers reading and performing poems, essays and more about body image.
“The pressure of being perfect or the best is a heavy weight on the industry as a whole,” Graham said.
Her co-star Lyons added that, “On top of being expected to take up as little space as possible, there are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ ways to be fat. Let’s not even get started on the only personalities fat women are allowed to have.”
But Hileman’s characters claim their rightful space and invite audiences to laugh with them at the ridiculousness of diet culture. Ultimately, the Fat Women take back their bodies and their power at the dinner table and in the theater.
“These are experiences and thoughts that are pretty universal to fat people, and I want the fat people who see this to feel like they can sort of project themselves onto these women and move through these experiences with them,” Hileman said.
“As we as a society are becoming more conscientious about representation in general, it would be nice to see fat people included in that as well.”
Courtney Proctor is a Baltimore-based freelancer who covers the theater industry in the region.
This story was republished with permission from The Baltimore Banner. Visit www.thebaltimorebanner.com for more.