Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Daniella Isaacs: Hear Me Raw

By | Published on Thursday 12 October 2017

If you’ve been even vaguely awake for the last few years, you’ve probably noticed how huge numbers of people have taken up the notion of ‘clean eating’, and you might even have tried it out for yourself. Writer and performer Daniella Isaacs threw herself into that world unreservedly, until one day she realised that her obsession with ‘wellness’ was making her ill.
But something good came out of it, as we recently witnessed at the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘Hear Me Raw’, a show based on Isaacs’ experiences, won much acclaim, not least from our own reviewer, who praised the play’s honesty, hilarity and superb writing. When I heard that the production was set to run at Soho Theatre, of course I wanted to find out more.

CM: The play is about your own experiences isn’t it? Can you tell us a bit about what happened to you?
DI: I was 23 and I’d just graduated from drama school. I was in debt, I was back living at home and I had no plan, no routine. I had suffered for years with OCD, anxiety, depersonalisation and intrusive thoughts – you’d never have known though, unless you looked in my bedside table and saw my packs of Escitalopram and a range of other tranquilizers that I had to reach for from time to time.

I was on my sister’s hen, surrounded by sixteen of her beautiful friends. The other hens had perfect jobs, perfect skin, perfect bodies and an all-round perfection confection. I remember the exact moment I looked at my reflection in an intimidatingly cool club in Berlin and thought, “Daniella you need to grow up”. I spoke to one of my sister’s bridesmaids and I overshared. I wasn’t feeling good: bloated, foggy brain, I was just generally ‘bleugh’. She smiled at me and advised me to order a ‘clean living’ book. She said: ‘It will change your life. It teaches you about how to be kind to your body, your skin, your weight, your mind, your energy levels, everything.’ An easy sell.

I’d been coeliac for a number of years so I had already cut gluten out of my diet, now I just needed to cut down on dairy and then sugar and then meat and then grains and then I would be ‘clean’. All the answers were in this book. I then joined my local gym and all of these new additions gave me a much sought after routine. More than that, they gave me validation, compliments. I can track the exact moment my interest in wellness began, it was the month after I downloaded Instagram, which is no surprise at all. When your worth is judged on your photos, who wouldn’t want to look like Gwyneth Paltrow?

I loved it. I finally felt like I was in control of my life, I had the answers to happiness, success, health, I was bionic. And I was supported by a whole community online. Deliciously Ella, Honestly Healthy, Clean Eating Alice, they were all there to inspire me. I started lecturing my parents, or I’d watch my friends eat and I’d feel sorry for them because clearly they didn’t understand how to look after themselves. It was my religion. And through a twist of wellness fate, a show I had created with Rosy Banham (my best friend and director) and actress Karla Crome, transferred to Australia – the wellness mecca. Here’s an extract from my diary at the time:

“I don’t have the option to miss the gym or let someone else choose where we should go for lunch. I feel like I don’t have the option to switch that off. When I think logically I know it means I miss out on fun sometimes and it leaves me feeling so tired. I’, so when I get home I will spend time on regaining balance as this has gone on too long”. (Feb 2014)

I couldn’t get off the wellness treadmill though, and as soon as I got back to London, I started ghostwriting for one of the world’s best ‘clean living’ brands. It was the perfect way for me to retain total control over my way of life. I was surrounded by people who reassured me that this existence was the way to live: alcohol was banned from events, every item on the menus had to be free from sugar and gluten and everyone exercised daily. I never questioned where these wellness facts were coming from, until I started ghostwriting books for various wellness leaders and I realised that the information was just being rehashed by other wellness gurus who were taking inspiration from other wellness gurus and it spiralled like that until all that was left were clickbait headlines and scaremongering captions.

We, the meagre wellness believers were just being led by a series of fake truths. Even though I was beginning to wake up to this reality, I refused to accept the scary facts. What I did realise though was that there was something inherently dramatic in this world. On the surface it was all candy coloured phrases of empowerment but underneath, it was full of fear, anxiety and control.

CM: At what point did you start to move away from it?
DI: It wasn’t until November of last year that I actually began to reassess my obsession. My sister had broken the news that she was pregnant while I hadn’t a period in over two years.

I went to the gynecologist. He weighed me and I was in the ‘normal’ range of the BMI spectrum, if you saw me, you would have thought I was a perfect example of ‘fitspiration’. My oestrogen levels however, were non-existent. I was suffering with RED-s (relative energy deficiency) which means I was at an energy deficiency relative to the balance between dietary energy intake and energy expenditure. And my diagnosis of RED-s was due to orthorexia; an eating disorder characterised as an unhealthy obsession with healthy living (yet to be officially recognised by medical bodies).

I remember the analogy the doctor offered me whilst I was trying to suppress the tears. “If you were a plant,” he said, “you’d be withered and on your way out. Daniella, your body hasn’t been truly nourished, looked after or cared for in a very long time. You need to learn to love yourself again. What are you scared of?” I hated the question. I couldn’t answer it. I’m still not sure why, but the question felt overwhelming – I was scared of the thoughts in my head, I was scared of being a failure, I was scared I was just doing life all wrong. And in this Insta-worthy size, I felt a bit more in control of all of that.

I knew I had to change if I wanted to bring my period back naturally. I also knew that each day I spent in the wellness world, I would grow to resent it more.

CM: How would you describe the performance? Is it theatre, storytelling? Are you being you, or is it a role you have written for yourself?
DI: Although the show comes from an extremely truthful and honest place, I was always set on it being a well-crafted like a piece of theatre. My biggest reservation about making an autobiographical piece of work was that it would feel too indulgent so at every step of the way, Rosy and I kept thinking about ensuring the show excited us as theatre goers, what would make us sit on the edge of our seat?
We all play versions of ourselves at different stages of our lives, this show is a version of me. As the show progresses, I get to a more truthful version of me so I guess I go from playing a character to just being myself.

CM: Is it entirely factual? Or is your own story just the jumping off point?
DI: There is a huge amount of fact in there but then for the purpose of creating the most dramatically interesting story, I have added in fictional plot twists and characters. As I mentioned above, we wanted to make the best story and there were times where truth was abandoned in favour of making good theatre.

CM: What made you want to create a performance about what happened to you?
DI: I recognised that the wellness world was dramatic gold, the inner conflict of the wellness gurus that I surrounded myself with was palpable. Initially I wanted to make a totally fictional show about the wellness world but after Rosy and I had workshopped different ideas, we realised that there was no need to create a new world as my own story was interesting enough. Also, if the point of this project was to ‘peel away’ the Instagram filter, I had to be honest with myself first.

CM: How did your creative process work? How did you put the show together?
DI: It started off with Rosy and I meeting up and just writing and talking lots about why I think I had fallen down the ‘wellness trap’. The question I wanted us to focus on was ‘What does it mean to be well?’ as I felt that from there we could uncover lots more interesting values and thoughts. We then started to look at my own story and break it up into a five act structure with the help of our amazing friend and dramaturg Joe Hampson.

What is so brilliant about working with Rosy is that I never felt scared to show work, I knew that she would be sensitive as the work developed and offer such incisive, smart feedback and that kept me going. It was addictive, each time we had a reading we opened it up to new friends that we trusted and respected and that mean that each draft got closer and closer to something we were both proud to share. The challenge of it remaining active, so that the audience always felt that they were needed in the room by Ella/Daniella was vital and the moment that plateaued we knew we had to change something

CM: Our reviewer saw the show at the Fringe and loved it. How did the Edinburgh run go from your perspective?
DI: The Edinburgh run really was a dream. I think that the issue is rife at the moment and that meant that people were interested in seeing what ‘Hear Me Raw’ was all about. I loved feeling the audience sit forward when the show twisted to somewhere they didn’t expect. Also, I was continually challenged, we were never happy to just accept moments that we didn’t feel worked, so we made changes all the way through. There was a sense of agency as writer and performer which meant I knew I could make updates whenever I felt they were needed. Ironically (because of the subject of the show), I was in control, and it felt great!

CM: Have you made any changes to the show since then?
DI: I’ve rewritten a few sections of the show since Edinburgh, with a view to making certain story strands clearer. Getting everything ready in time for the Fringe was predictably hectic, and so there were moments which we never felt quite satisfied with, but which we had to put to bed until we had a little more brain space. This second rehearsal period is giving us that brain space, and the show is going to be better for it.

CM: What plans do you have for the future? What’s coming up next?
I hope to take ‘Hear Me Raw’ further in different forms. I am currently developing ideas for a television adaptation as no-one has yet explored the dirty world of clean living on the small screen. I’d also like to tour it. Rosy and I will continue to make new work as LIPSINK and also I have lots of ideas for other small screen and theatre projects. Basically world domination, please.

‘Hear Me Raw’ is on at Soho Theatre from 17-21 Oct, see the venue website here for all the info.