Jan Rosenberg’s Haunting Plays Bring Necessary Attention to Critical Issues

When it comes to writing plays, Jan Rosenberg understands the power of making an audience uncomfortable while simultaneously comanding their attention. She’s smart, insightful, and curious—qualities reflected deeply in her writing. I had the privilege of working with Jan at the Last Frontier Theatre Festival in Valdez, Alaska last year, where her play How to Destroy an American Girl Doll was presented as a staged reading. As for her other plays, Jan “writes about things that terrify with her,” and possesses a sharp apt for understanding the depths of the human experience.

One of her plays, Never Have I Ever, has been swarming college campuses, illustrating a powerful message for those battling eating disorders, addiction, and other all too common (but rarely addressed) issues that plague a wide variety of students. Jan shares her wisdom below.

Tell us about “Never Have I Ever.”

Never Have I Ever is a play about recovery. It’s about coming home after a long battle and fighting tooth and nail to stay alive. It’s set on a college campus, and it forces audiences to think twice about preconceptions that are commonly held about eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and addiction. It is not an after-school special. The characters are in their late teens and early twenties, but really, they could be any age, any gender, any ethnicity, any sexuality, etc. The biggest takeaway I hope this play gives audiences is that they’re not alone in their struggles and that it is possible for things to change. No one is doomed to a life of misery because of their Eating Disorder.

The play has received quite a few performances over the last month or so. Can you tell us about what the production and performance process has been like?

We just had two productions: one at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama, and more recently at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. It’s been a pretty revolutionary experience for me as a playwright. This was my first commission, and I started writing it just over a year ago. Anyone involved will tell you that the script has changed tremendously since the first draft. I’ve learned so much from everyone involved. This play started out as a casual pitch. I hadn’t written a word, and I spoke with the students early on and asked them what scared them the most. The characters grew out of what they shared with me. I did a huge rewrite between productions, and both schools were incredible in keeping me in the loop and inviting me to their rehearsals. This is not easy material. It hits home for a lot of people. But the cast and crew of both productions are true warriors.

We had talkbacks with the audiences after performances. It’s so rare to be in a safe space where people feel like they can ask questions and share personal stories. It’s not even something that needs to be communicated in words. There are scenes in the play where I heard nervous laughter, gasps, and uncomfortable inhales. I know some of those responses are because eating disorders are a foreign concept to some. But for every audience member that is learning something new, there’s another one who’s connecting to the play on a personal level. We’ve gotten so much feedback from audiences about the show. One student reached out anonymously and said that she has an eating disorder and was bawling during the show because she’s never seen it shown honestly onstage. Responses like that remind me of why I wanted to write this in the first place. I wanted people to know that they’re not alone.

How did you get started on this script? What issues were you most driven to tackle?

I was commissioned by The Farm Theater in New York City, led by artistic director Padraic Lillis. The College Collaboration is an incredible project that’s about to enter its fourth year. Since the play is written for college students to perform, it’s important to The Farm that the subject matter be especially relevant to that age group. I walked into the interview on fire with this subject. I think Padraic sensed that. I’m so passionate about educating people about eating disorders and helping people find recovery, and I’ve been writing about this topic for a while now. I had a few Plan B pitches just in case, but this is what I truly care about.

Why is this story important?

This story is important because it’s a lot of people’s stories. It’s my story. There are parts of myself in Callie. I know that I share this story with so many people. Eating Disorders are have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. That’s an undeniable fact. It’s absolutely dire that we change the conversation. There’s so much focus on what feels hopeless, and not enough on hope itself. Never Have I Ever is not a play about victims. Callie’s journey in the play is a lot like Odysseus’s in The Odyssey. The years spent away at battle fighting your Eating Disorder are all par for the course. But the homecoming—that’s recovery. And life changes when you’re no longer in the throes of your Eating Disorder. It’s like landing on a whole new planet. With the right support network, anyone can be free from this insidious illness. People with and in spite of their Eating Disorders are the most strong-willed people I know. Eating disorders, food Addiction, body dysmorphia—they’re a motherf*cker. We have to eat. A lot of people struggle in silence because they’re embarrassed or ashamed. I hope this play helps people to become more self-aware. For some people, simply eating breakfast is the biggest hurdle of the day.

Eating disorders aren’t often portrayed in TV, film or onstage. Why do you think this is? What would you like to see change?

The thing is, they are portrayed in popular culture. They’re just not portrayed accurately. It makes me sad to think that someone’s education about the realities of eating disorders would come from a single television episode where a white teenage female miraculously overcomes her eating issues in a day. Lifetime has done countless movies on the subject (and I admit, I’ve watched them all, let’s be real), but it’s always portrayed incorrectly and irresponsibly. And when I say irresponsibly, I mean that people with eating disorders can be triggered by certain images. Some of these movies are basically a how-to guide to kickstart your eating disorder. It ends up being the exact opposite of a cautionary tale. The characters are often whiny, bratty, and selfish, which is one of many misconceptions that eating disorders are just a ploy to get attention. On the surface, eating disorders are about food and body image, but anyone who has an eating disorder or treats people with eating disorders will tell you that that’s all on the surface. Eating disorders are about control. It’s a torturous obsession. It’s not being able to quiet the irrational voices in your head telling you that if you don’t do this, your life is going to fall apart. It’s about fear. It’s constant fight or flight. There’s a line in Never Have I Ever where Callie says, ‘It’s not like I just woke up one day and decided to torture myself every day until I no longer have the will to live.”It’s not a hobby. It’s a deadly affliction.

And on that note, what are some misconceptions people (including other women) might have about eating disorders?

Oh, boy. The misconceptions are extreme. First of all, take weight out of the picture. You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them. A person’s body, gender, ethnicity, age, or sexuality will not tell you who has this disease. Popular culture has shown us this image of what an Eating Disorder looks like, and it’s usually a young white female with a small body type. It’s unfortunate because it creates an added stigma and shame for people who don’t fit into that mold.

Also, bulimia and anorexia are not the only types of eating disorders. There’s a whole spectrum. For every person who can’t bring themselves to eat, there’s another person who can’t stop eating. Some eating disorders have been widely accepted into our culture with the introduction of #Fitspiration. There’s a whole culture of yoga and fitness that’s blown up with social media, and unfortunately, people take eating ‘clean’ and working out to dangerous extremes.

It’s important to realize that eating disorders are an addiction like any other. Being diagnosed with an eating disorder does not have to define your life.

You’re currently the Stella Adler Playwright in Residence. What’s this experience been like?

It’s an honor to have this residency. Some of my favorite playwrights like Halley Feiffer had this position before me, and I’m excited to see my play What’s Wrong With You onstage after years of development. We have a workshop coming up this weekend, this time with a small invited audience consisting of playwright friends of mine so that I can hear some other people’s voices in the room. I love having the opportunity to work with students. Never Have I Ever and What’s Wrong With You are centered around young adults, and I’ve found it so rewarding to develop my plays with artists who are the same age as my characters. I’ve grown so much as a human and an artist just by sitting back and listening to them tell me what their experience is.

How do you see the current state of theater? Why is it important, and what would you like to see change?

Theater has always been reflective of the world we live in. Sometimes theater is a much-needed distraction, but art has the power to incite social and political change. I’m pretty sure cave paintings preceded government. You can’t quiet someone’s desire to express themselves. I think there a lot of examples in our world today of people who are the product of a life devoid of art and empathy. It’s pretty scary. I think all schools should have a program where students get to put on a show.

What other topics are you excited to tackle, or feel need to be discussed?

I write about things that terrify me. What’s Wrong With You is a cautionary tale about what happens when all human connection happens online. I’m a big fan of horror, and I’m so inspired by artists who can combine the genre with social commentary (shout out to Jordan Peele’s Get Out). My play A Little Piece Of You is the creepiest play I’ve ever written. It’s a commentary about how our society treats differently-abled people.

I toying with the idea of writing about these school shootings.  It’s really hard to create art in the wake of a tragedy, but it also feels like this compulsive need to heal and fix things. I definitely want to keep writing for young adults. Just look at Emma Gonzalez and her classmates. It’s time for adults to shut up and listen.

How can we use theater as a tool for positive change?

Theater has the power to change how we treat ourselves and others. Theater can heal. Think about it—aside from eating and sh*ting, storytelling is the thing humans have been doing the longest. Speech is theater. Dialogue is theater. It’s collaboration and communication. It teaches us how to be heard, and how to listen. I don’t know where I would be without it.

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