How one theatre artist draws from her own struggles with an eating disorder to help others

Photo by: Andrew Alexander

When Lisa Jeans was abruptly taken out of school to go to a psychiatric ward at the age of 15, things didn’t feel right.

Jeans had been struggling with an eating disorder at the time, but she says the blunt intervention didn’t help her—it actually slowed her recovery.

“It’s very threatening,” she says. What she needed instead was empathy.

Years later, Jeans wants to help open up the conversation that people like her younger self so desparately need.

LIGHT, a theatre production running till the end of the month at Arts Court Theatre, follows Dr. Helen Rose, who struggles with the idea of perfection as she suffers from an eating disorder.

The play was inspired by Jeans’ own journey, as well as her past work in medical education, where she witnessed first-hand that she wasn’t the only one dealing with those problems. At the medical centres where she worked, she could see how her fellow residents would struggle through high-stress and high-stakes career paths.

“You see people struggle with a number of things and one of the places (where) I was working, there were several of the group who were clearly suffering from anxiety and other things, among them anorexia,” she says. “And I thought, oh my goodness, here is my context. The character of Helen emerged through the overlapping of my two worlds I was working in.”

The production’s writer, director, and lead actress, Jeans tells the story by interacting with video projects in how one theatre artist draws from her own struggles with an eating disorder to help others involving 10 other actors, often improvising with cues from her team.

LIGHT also features an educational discussion after each performance. Representatives from Hopewell, an eating disorder support organization, alongside Dr. Iryna Ivonova from the Centre for Eating Disorder Research, engage the audience in a conversation about what they saw and learned from the play.

Series curator Bronwyn Steinberg says Jeans’ idea for the production fit perfectly with her vision.

“It’s just so relevant with eating disorders,” says Steinberg, an alumnus of the University of Ottawa’s master of fine arts in theatre.

In a 2005 study, the Canadian  Mental Health Association reported that more than 500,000 Canadians suffer from eating disorders. Steinberg says LIGHT will help promote a nonthreatening environment to openly talk about them.

She says she can relate to the main character’s drive to meet high expectations—it’s a notion most students can relate to, and the stress comes in many forms.

For anyone with a friend or loved one who struggles with an eating disorder, Jeans says the best thing to do is to let them know you’re there for them.

“(That) person has to decide. You can’t really force it,” she says. Jean suggests empathy rather than intervention to help those struggling. “You’re not trying to take away their control, or impact their agency and autonomy.”

LIGHT runs until Jan. 31 at Arts Court Theatre.