MU Interactive Theatre Troupe brings topics of health and body image to stage in interactive performance

"Nutrition 101" includes an open dialogue between characters and audience members, allowing both groups to discuss issues relating to media portrayal of body image.

MU professors and students have developed an interactive play encouraging audience members to discuss issues about appearance.

The play, “Nutrition 101,” includes an open dialogue between characters and audience members, allowing both groups to discuss issues relating to media portrayal of body image.

Suzanne Burgoyne, Curator’s Distinguished Teaching Professor of Theatre at MU, said the interaction between characters and the audience aids discussion on these open-ended topics.

“(Interactive theatre) is for problems where there isn’t one right answer,” Burgoyne said. “If there was one right answer, we wouldn’t be doing interactive theatre on these issues. It’s for problems where we don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer.”

But before the play could promote such discussion, there came months of research. María Len-Ríos, associate professor of strategic communication in the School of Journalism, led a team of five undergraduate students who conducted research through a series of focus groups. Beginning in the fall of 2011, the team hosted focus groups to discuss topics such as the social conditioning of body image.

“One of the issues that the play looks at is how people feel about their bodies,” Burgoyne said. “How does society condition how we feel about our bodies through advertising and magazine covers and other media? In what ways are we taught to feel bad about ourselves?”

These questions guided discussion, which in turn provided a basis for the script. Carlia Francis, playwright and assistant producer of interactive theatre who writes under the name cfrancis blackchild, used transcriptions of the focus group sessions as the foundation of her script.

“I took the research information, the raw research data, and after reading through the transcripts of the conversations that came out of the focus groups, I looked for recurring themes,” cfrancis said. “I also looked for some interesting ways that people expressed their opinions.”

In addition to the focus group transcripts, cfrancis said she also wanted to weave a political aspect into the script.

“I tried to bring in some of the politics of agriculture, not in a big heavy way, but the politics of fertilizer and food access,” cfrancis said.

Upon completion of the script, Burgoyne and graduate assistant Kate Wintz worked with the actors to make the play come to life. The troupe performed for [Mizzou Advantage] (, the group that provided the grant for funding of the production.

After some more collaboration with members of the original focus groups, the MU Nutrition and Exercise Physiology Department and Mizzou Advantage, the team fine-tuned the script for presentation.

“We had about 10 people with expertise on these issues who came in, observed a reading of the script and gave us suggestions,” Burgoyne said. “After that we made a few more revisions and then we started rehearsing.”

Burgoyne said the troupe performed “Nutrition 101” twice last spring semester, and had five showings this past fall. She said the production will continue this spring, but they will be required to ask departments or other sponsors to cover the costs.

“Mizzou Advantage funded the development of the script, but they did not give ongoing funding forever for performances,” Burgoyne said. “Because we pay actors, we have to have someone who is willing to sponsor us.”

The interactive aspect of the play allows the actors in character to tailor discussion for each audience, or the focus of each class. Joshua Johnson, graduate student in Department of Theatre, said the play’s design allows for various interpretations among student groups.

“It’s different for each audience because they find different parts of the script to identify with,” Johnson said. “It really just depends on the purpose of the group and why they’re bringing us in.”

Johnson, who also acts in the play, said that his personal experience with an eating disorder was one of the reasons he got involved with the production. He said “Nutrition 101” rejects stereotypes that body image issues are associated solely with females.

“Men are depicted in the media as needing to have a certain body image,” Johnson said. “There are pressures on men, especially when they’re athletes, that they really need to live up to, and sometimes it’s not realistic for them to be able to live up to it.”

Johnson also said the interactive aspect also challenges the actors, as they must improvise depending on the audience’s response.

“Doing this particular (production) is always kind of like wading in shark infested waters because you don’t know how an audience might react to it,” Johnson said. “For that reason, I love doing it because I love finding out those ways that you can reach out to people to make sure that you’re getting the message across, the message of the script.”

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