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Tim Dorsett and Laura Hanna talk to Tom Wicker about tackling male anorexia on stage in new play LEAN

According to NHS stats, hospital admissions for anorexia and bulimia in men have increased by 16% in the past year. And the B-eat website reports that males with eating disorders are less likely to be diagnosed or to come forward due to lack of awareness and a perceived stigma attached to eating disorders.

In light of these issues, Strip Theatre Ė praised by Time Out last year as an ďimpressive young new-writing companyĒ Ė presents Lean, a bold and frank insight into the impact of male anorexia on a married coupleís relationship. The show opened on Tuesday at Tristan Bates Theatre and runs until Saturday 23 February.

The play is directed by Chelsea Walker and written by award-winning London-based American playwright Isley Lynn, a graduate of the National Theatre Studio's Aftershocks programme and a recent graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers course.

Laura Hanna plays Tessa, who arrives home unannounced to find her husband, Michael (Tim Dorsett), has stopped eating again. She makes a deal with him that she will move back in, but will only eat what he does. This culminates in a battle of wills that will either save them or destroy them.

On the eve of opening night, I spoke with Hanna and Dorsett about what attracted them to Lean, the misconceptions surrounding male anorexia, creating a believable relationship on stage and the buzz of working with new talent.

With one day go to, how are you feeling?

Laura Hanna: Excited, of course, and a little apprehensive because we are in tech at the moment. Itís a pretty tech-heavy production in that we have a fully-functioning kitchen.

A fully-functioning kitchen?

Tim Dorsett: Itís absolutely amazing. I canít tell you. To be told youíre in a kitchen is one thing. But then to sit down on what has actually been your chair and table for the last month of rehearsals, but in a fully-functioning environment? Itís incredible.

LH: To be honest, itís been quite a luxurious rehearsal process in that sense, because weíve had a real table, real chairs and most of the props Ė the TV, the microwave Ė for quite a long time. We even got our fridge last week.

Is that verisimilitude important to the play?

TD: In the sense that when you see it, you feel immediately safe within the space. And the two characters are so comfortable, maybe not together, but in that aspect of a house that we hopefully all have somewhere. It immediately brings you into the production.

LH: And it sounds obvious, but nothing has to be faked. Thatís amazing, because generally stuff on stage does have to be. Itís making our jobs much easier.

What attracted you to Lean in the first place?

TD: Research. My drama school was keen on that, and itís a way I like to work. So unlocking something so personal in someoneís life, like anorexia Ė such an easy thing for people, including myself, to think they know all about Ė was a whole new world. Every time I was called back for another audition, I wanted to do more research. By the end, I was absolutely desperate to do it. I wanted to unfold this manís life and his relationship with his wife, which is key to everything. So it was the character, the writing, and the arc of this coupleís journey.

LH: It was slightly different for me. Itís not a play about male anorexia, but it features male anorexia. That was intriguing because I had never seen any film or anything in any artistic medium about that. But for me, it was more about how two people in extraordinary circumstances repair a relationship that has gone so, so wrong. Thatís completely identifiable to everybody. And in terms of my character, Tessa, how do you forgive something that is unforgivable? That was what drew me in.

There is very little unexplored territory in theatre, so why do you think male anorexia is so rarely dealt with as a subject?

TD: I think itís because itís such a personal illness. From the research Iíve done and the first-person accounts Iíve come across, itís not a generic disorder. Itís not something that is the same for everybody. So the story weíre telling of Michael and Tessa might be different to somebody elseís. But hopefully, the way Isley has written it, itíll be recognisable to anorexics but also to other people relationship-wise.

LH: Also, male anorexia is much more difficult for us to easily label as a society. With female anorexia, weíre quite quickly able to say, ĎOh, itís to do with body image,í because you have size zero models. Itís quite easy to say anorexia equals image for women. Iím not saying thatís true Ė in fact, itís not Ė but itís easy to say. You canít delineate it in that way for men. Thereís not a clear relationship because there are lots of different types of male imagery in society. I think thatís what makes it difficult to talk about, because we donít know why itís happening, whereas with female anorexia we can pretend that we do.

TD: So many people think itís a physical condition, when itís not. Itís a mental condition with physical side effects.

Was it important to ensure that your characters were real people, not just ciphers?

TD: Absolutely. Being a two-hander, itís very rarely in rehearsal been explicitly about the anorexia. Itís about these characters and what theyíre going through. The anorexia is something that we, as actors, have to take on board, but the most important thing in their lives is their relationship.

LH: The anorexia is an obstacle in the middle of everything they are trying to overcome. Just as Tim was saying about it being a mental rather than physical illness, this play is about a relationship trying to survive through the difficulties of one person having a mental illness. Thatís much more the approach that the play takes, and that we are taking as well.

What is it about the writing that appealed?

TD: The fact that I could hold my breath reading one of the scenes, but laugh out loud during the one afterwards. I also love moments of stillness and Isley isnít scared of writing those. Thereís an A4 page-long scene with no talking and you just know exactly what she is getting at. Itís tough to do, but every scene is so alive. Iíve discovered something new every day in rehearsals.

LH: Iíd met Isley before and read bits of her writing in the past. I know it sounds like a cop out, but, genuinely, Iím not sure Iíve ever read dialogue that is so natural, that represents so accurately how people are with each other when they speak Ė all of the difficulties and clashes that happen with words and speaking.

TD: The subtext Ė the complete knowledge that when someone you know so well says Ďyesí, they mean Ďnoí Ė that was so clear from the writing.

Plays often live or die depending on how convincing the central relationship is. How did you work on yours?

TD: I have to give the director, Chelsea Walker, a lot of credit for that. For the first week of rehearsals, we did one read-through and the rest of the time was spent on back-story: what do we know about these people? What have they gone through? When Iím telling people about the play and the relationship, I get halfway through and realise that half of what Iím saying isnít in the script! Theyíre things that Laura and I have discussed Michael and Tessa going through. It came from the text and then we moulded it into something that felt truthful for us. We were lucky to be given a lot of time to do that.

LH: I would second that. Itís something I think other directors would ask you to do, but the fact we were given so much actual rehearsal time in which to share those sorts of things was great. On top of that, weíve got this amazing movement director called Sinead OíKeeffe. All of the familiarities of touch you have with someone youíve known so long and shared so much with Ė we spent a lot of time looking at those with Sinead.

How easy is it to leave such weighty subject matter behind at the end of the day?

TD: Itís been very easy. Itís been a very nice process, with Isley being in most of the rehearsals as well as Chelsea. From early on, there was a space that you felt very comfortable and open in. Itíd be a pleasure to go for a drink after the show with all of them!

LH: Having said that, while it is easy to separate from rehearsals, you do carry it with you. Not in a traumatic way, but you canít help but carry certain things around. I started dreaming in lines last week! Weíll see if I stop doing that...

How did you prepare for your role, Tim?

TD: I did try to lose a little bit of weight for the piece. Not too much Ė and not for myself Ė but because, as an actor, you want to be convincing. Iím not the biggest guy, but it was a challenge. It gave me the impetus of feeling hungry. We would try not to snack during rehearsals so we would remember what hunger felt like. Itís easy to forget how powerful that is, and how someone can actually push past it. You donít feel it after a while, which is a powerful, terrifying thing.

LH: Something thatís sometimes overlooked is the strength of will that you need in order not to eat. We might expect anorexics to be tired people, lacking energy, but thatís not actually accurate. There is willpower and overriding focus.

TD: We watched lots of YouTube videos and read really interesting first-hand accounts of anorexia. They are very alive; their bodies find it hard to keep up with their minds, which are as active as ever. Theyíve eaten at their muscles, theyíve eaten at their fat, and the chemicals that regulate their emotions change.

Do you see any irony in the fact that you are in a profession that places such a premium on physical appearance?

LH: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I was carrying out of rehearsals with me was a much greater awareness of my body: what I eat, what I donít eat. Thatís something thatís sort of ever-present as a woman in this industry, anyway, but even more so doing this.

You are both young actors in a new play written by an emerging writer and produced by a young theatre company. Is that exciting?

LH: Absolutely. I canít think of anything much more exciting than working with people who are at the start of their careers and have 100% commitment, drive, energy and dedication to what theyíre doing, and who have the same high expectations of themselves as of each other. There really is a sense of being in it together.

TD: I second that. Itís exactly the kind of project you want to be involved in, as an actor. Weíve been handed a brilliant new script, feel as though theyíre trusting us and we know what we want by the end of it. Hopefully, the audience will get that too.

Tim, I know that Timothy and Rafe Spall are family. Has that ever been a pressure for you in terms of also pursuing acting?

TD: No, theyíve always been very supportive. Iíve never asked anything of them, apart from maybe coming to watch me. I want my own career, just as Rafe did from Tim. Hopefully, theyíll come to see Lean Ė Rafe is a patron of the Tristan Bates. But I want my own journey and this production is a really great step.

Whatís up next for you both?

TD: All the big things! Oh, I donít know, really.

LH: Iím flying to Hollywood tomorrow!

TD: Weíre at the start of our careers so we want to get involved with as much as we can. I donít have anything set in stone, but what we do know is that we have four weeks of an amazing play that weíll get so much from.

LH: I think I might actually go on holiday, because I havenít done that for two and a half years. So after this play, I think Iíll be off.

Do you hope Lean will have another life after this run?

TD: I think if the right people come and see this play then, yes, absolutely. Itís a special script.

LH: I completely agree. I did a reading of it way back last summer and I really hoped, then, that it would be taken on somewhere else. So, yes, fingers crossed, Iíd love it to have another life, because itís fantastic.

Lean is at Tristan Bates Theatre from 29 January to 23 February. For more information, and tickets, go to:

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Above the Stag Theatre | Albany | Almeida Theatre | Arcola Theatre | Arts Theatre | artsdepot | BAC | Barbican | Barons Court Theatre | Bloomsbury Theatre | Blue Elephant Theatre | Bridewell Theatre | The Bush Theatre | Camden People's Theatre | Canal Cafe Theatre | Chickenshed | Cochrane Theatre | Cock Tavern Theatre | Cockpit Theatre | Courtyard | Drill Hall | Donmar Warehouse | Drill Hall | Finborough Theatre | Etcetera Theatre | Gate Theatre | The Globe Theatre | Greenwich Playhouse | Greenwich Theatre | Hackney Empire | Half Moon | Hampstead Theatre | Jacksons Lane | Jermyn Street Theatre | Jerwood Vanburgh Theatre | King's Head Theatre | Landor Theatre | Leicester Square Theatre | Lion & Unicorn Theatre | Little Angel Theatre | Lyric Hammersmith | Menier Chocolate Factory | National Theatre | New End Theatre | New Players Theatre | Normansfield | Old Red Lion Theatre | The Old Vic | Orange Tree Theatre | Oval House Theatre | People Show | Pleasance Theatre | Polka Theatre | The Queen's Theatre | Rich Mix | Riverside Studios | Rose Theatre | Riverside Studios | Roundhouse | Rosemary Branch | Royal Court Theatre | Shaw Theatre | Soho Theatre | Southbank Centre | Southwark Playhouse | Tabard Theatre | Tara Studio | The Space | Theatre Royal Stratford East | THEATRE 503 | Toynbee Studios | Tricycle Theatre | Unicorn Theatre | Union Theatre | Upstairs at the Gatehouse | Warehouse Theatre | Watermans | Watford Palace Theatre | White Bear | Wilton's Music Hall | Young Vic is a United Kingdom (UK) based company serving the international, the UK and London based theatres and theatre goers.
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