Director James Duff faced a tricky situation when tackling his latest theater production, 36-24-36. The subject was eating disorders, and the material was mostly derived from cast members’ lives. But he didn’t want audiences to feel as if they were tuning in to an after-school special. The solution, he found, involved a delicate balance of satire and raw emotion, self-deprecation and brutal honesty.
“We have some satiric commercials in there,” Duff said, “and the characters actually poke fun at their own disorders. I think that’s kept it more real and less preachy.”
But don’t expect a care-free, raucous laugh, during the Fringe Festival. After all, the play was the brainchild of Ann Malinowsky, an actor and bulimic of seven years who wanted to produce a piece of work about eating disorders. She gathered a group of like-minded performers and spent months compiling a script based on each of their stories.
Duff, who was brought on as director shortly before the play’s debut, at Bard College this past May, had previously worked on a film about eating disorders. He’s also seen the issue play out in the lives of loved ones. The result of this group’s collaboration is a 75-minute piece that examines the many ways that image obsession is part of our culture, from dieting and weight fixation to gym addictions, over-eating, anorexia and bulimia. The material is raw, Duff said, and the actors go all-out in exposing themselves on stage. But audience reactions have been strong.
“They laugh—and this is going to sound weird—but people literally are crying at the show,” he says.
It is a visceral experience for the performers as well, who have spent long stretches together in the past few months wading into emotionally-charged territory. “When you’re spending four or five hours a day in it, and talking about it—if you have an eating disorder, it triggers certain things,” he explains.
But cast members watched out for each other, calling out someone who wasn’t eating right, or who was married to a daily tofu-and-salad routine. Eating disorders predominantly affect females, and the cast is nearly all-female, as well—which could have made it difficult, as a male director, to connect to the material and performers.
Duff says that wasn’t the case, however. His experiences and research into the psychology of eating disorders provided good background, but the affliction was also easily relatable for him because of his profession.
“A lot of the root behind eating disorders deals with trying to be perfect,” he said. “As an artist, those are certain things I can relate to—trying to do things and not living up to my expectations. I can relate to the psychology behind it.”
8/20 @ 5pm
8/25 @ 9:15pm
(Linhart Theatre @ 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette, 3rd Flr.)