TW: fatphobia, eating disorders, self-harm.
Vessel, the new theatrical anthology from Dawn Productions, examines our relationship with the body and food through episodic fragments. Inspired from 128 survey responses from Oxford students, Grace Olusola wrote and directed this quasi-verbatim play to bring forth discussions surrounding these topics.
Talk to me a little bit about the title of Vessel. How did it come about?
It’s gone through a lot of changes actually, this show. The title always did stay the same actually, apart from the very beginning, but the format was a bit weird. At first it was going to be a one person show, but then I was like “How far is one person going to represent so many voices?”. I’m very aware that I’m speaking to an Oxford, mostly student, audience. That’s when the whole issue of diversity came in. “Okay, this can’t just be about one person”. We need more voices, more opinions, more thoughts in the conversation.
It was just very important to me that the title wasn’t didactic. I don’t want to tell the audience how to feel or think. So, ‘vessel’ is a noun that holds things. It also speaks to that idea that it’s amorphous, the idea that it’s about bodies and it’s about the things that carry us through your life, like our bodies as vessels and morphing from vessel to vessel.
You say that you are aware that you’re speaking to an Oxford audience. What does that mean to you?
It’s very important to me. I think it’s easy to forget that, especially with local theatre, you are speaking to an audience of people who might be your peers, or you are speaking to people in a very specific context, and theatre is kind of uniquely powerful because you can speak to them quite directly. I think that’s such an opportunity that we can’t miss, especially because it’s Oxford.
Oxford unfortunately has quite a high number of people with eating disorders. And I think even beyond that, people sort of find their relationships with food difficult, just because it’s such a high-pressure environment. Like, during the crazy terms, you kind of come to the end and you wonder, “Oh, when did I take any time for myself?”
What prompted you to conduct these surveys and then write a play about them?
I was Women’s Welfare Rep at St Catherine’s College, and it was in the midst of lockdown, so we wanted people to let us know how they’re doing. And so, we just sent a survey and surprisingly, people just kind of poured their hearts out. Giving them a little box and saying, “I want to listen to you, I want to read what you have to say”. That for some reason, got people very confessional. I think they just needed to get it out.
In my time as Welfare Rep, I also witnessed a lot of people struggling, especially with food and body image. Also, within myself, I witnessed weird food and body stuff rising. I think it just felt more urgent than it ever has been because of the pandemic.
[Then I wondered] what if it’s not just my story, but we can get people to contribute, looking more into verbatim stuff, and it kind of all spiralled from there.
You said that you’re going to look at the relationship between food and body image post-lockdown. How has that relationship changed?
I think for me, it started out with the idea of being alone with your brain, what that does to you, and the proximity of food in isolation, just kind of being always there, and the idea that everyone was saying that routine is the best way to keep yourself sane in the pandemic. What I was seeing around me and in myself was the habit of making food part of that routine in not such a healthy way. And I think we haven’t really recovered from that post lockdown. I can see how easy it is for people to transfer habits and rituals, I guess ways of feeling safe, that maybe they didn’t really find pre-lockdown.
I definitely think that we’re kind of coming out of a period where it’s time to assess, and I think that’s up to the individual. Like just assessing where you are at with food. Unfortunately, some eating disorder cases skyrocketed during the pandemic as well. I think people weren’t really connected to their support systems. Talking to one of the BEAT ambassadors (BEAT is the charity to which we are donating 5% of each ticket’s sale) and she was saying that calls to the helpline went up by, like, 300%. It just made it feel even more like we’re kind of reaching a bit of a peak here.
Do you think the relationship between your body and food changes with circumstance?
I grew up in a context where we always had food. My mom was quite a nice cook. But I was always very aware of my shape and size and how I was always quite a bit bigger than people around me. I think, especially if you come from sort of low-income backgrounds, food becomes a bit more of a concern because the price of food, what you’re eating and the perceived healthiness of that food all come into question. And so, I guess food became this precious thing because I know that my mom worked very hard to make sure that food was available to us and she always did. And I’m just very grateful for that. She worked hard in general, including to put good food on the table and it wasn’t always easy. She taught us to appreciate and finish off food. And then coming to Oxford where everything’s so busy, sometimes I find that I don’t eat until dinner. I have to take time and carve out a space to eat mindfully or I have to just grab something on my way and not enjoy it properly.
So it definitely changes. I haven’t quite figured out what my version of health is – I was thinking about what healthy eating looks like to me in different contexts. So, when I go back home, what that’s like compared to when I’m back here. Just trying to fit it into different contexts, I guess, because it’s not always going to be a blanket thing you can add to.
Vessel runs from Friday 10th to Saturday 11th June at the Old Fire Station. Tickets are available online here. Visit Dawn Productions on Instagram @dawnproductions_.
Image credit: Dawn Productions.