It is the special remit of theatre-in-education to explore an educational topic through the lens of drama. Working as a live-simulation of an unfolding challenge or context, theatre stimulates active participation rather than passive absorption, and complementary drama workshops allow students to work out alternative outcomes within the safety of a classroom setting. TEAM Theatre have been leaders in the field of Educational Theatre in Ireland since 1975, applying these lessons in a primary and post-primary setting. Skin and Blisters, a play about body image, identity and individuality, is a welcome addition to their repertoire of work for secondary schools, and one which connects with the SPHE curriculum.
Skin and Blisters is specifically targeted at a female audience of 12 to 15 year olds; not because eating disorders are gender specific, as TEAM Education Director Norah Stillman explained in a pre-show introduction, but to allow "safety and transparency in the accompanying workshops." And the lessons of Skin and Blisters are indeed universal rather than gendered: the poisonous perogative of perfection and the preoccupation with physical form communicated through film, TV and magazines, is one that applies to young men as well as young women. For teenage girls, the obsession with image might be whittled down to weight; for teenage boys, there is the equal imperative of six-packs and pecs: you need only look to the latest instalment of the Twilight films, Twilight: New Moon, for confirmation of the latest teenage torso-obsession.
However, with its unisex audience in mind, Skin and Blisters captures the particularly bitchy atmosphere of an all female environment. The story focuses on Ella (Kerrie O’Sullivan), a young girl on the cusp of womanhood on her first day at secondary school. Guided by a venomous inner critic, Kelly (Elise Stewart) she is torn between being popular and being true to herself, between falling in with the coolies (as represented by Jean, Lorna Quinn) or the freaks (as embodied by Becky, Aíne Ni Laoighre). Eating becomes an issue, because it is the only element of her nascent new identity that Ella feels she can control or really own. As Kelly puts it, “you can bluff, rich, pretty, popular; you can bluff anything except thin”; being thin becomes the ultimate mode of self-validation.
Marcus Costello's circular set creates a self-enclosed space that evokes the self-absorbed world of the teenager. The pastel pink walls, adorned with posters of a variety of thin teenage 'role models' - Kiera Knightley among others - visually underscores the theme of young girls on the threshold of becoming young women; how the sugar-coated dreams of childhood are giving way to harder realities and harsher friendships. As the play moves towards its darkest moments, skinny becomes skeletal and the faces of the "acceptably" tiny icons are turned around to reveal the thin line between dieting and starvation. It is a shock tactic, yes - but one that is effective in drawing attention to how easily even the most controlled of behaviours can slip from beyond the grasp of control.
This hard truth is perhaps more effective in communicating the central message than Audrey O’Reilly's somewhat fussy storyline, which packs as much tragedy as a Jodi Picoult novel into Ella's life. While this is undoubtedly an attempt to show the complexity of psychological, emotional and social stimuli behind Ella's crisis, it sends the story into soap-opera mode. Family troubles, death, eating disorders, bullying, a ghost (or is it?)... the script raises so many issues that the central one risks getting lost.
It is appropriate, however, that Ella should find liberation through her body in the end, as she gives in to the music and joins Becky in her transformative, totemic dance. The greatest lesson that O’Reilly’s play teaches is that the body can be a site of joy as well as an enemy. From looking at the resource material provided by TEAM, the workshops will allow the students to discover that for themselves too.
Sara Keating is a critic and journalist. She is a judge for The Irish Times Theatre Awards.