Finally kicking the blackness of lockdown cabin fever to the curb, the creative arts is, once more, taking its first tentative steps toward the light.  Rebooted after a 2020 season cancellation – yes,  due to VIC Lockdown – Theatre Works now proudly welcomes audiences back to the venue with an engaging and lively premiere season of WellBless – a darkly satirical, spectacle-filled comedy described as timely examination of the parasitic world of wellness.

For co-writer and creator Debra Thomas (written with Ella Roth Barton) the work holds a deeply personal significance as well as first hand insights into the sometimes shady world of wellness. Thomas was 30 and very fit when she was shocked with a cancer diagnosis in 2018.  “I got plenty of unsolicited recommendations for natural therapies that people believed would ‘cure’ me – but the most damaging thing I heard was that I needed to ‘re-evaluate my life choices’”, she says. “The implication that it was my fault for developing cancer was incredibly toxic.”

Thomas’ experience was well after Belle Gibson had been exposed as a fraud for claiming she cured her terminal brain cancer with natural therapies. Thomas’ questions centre around: How were these lies still so easily bought and sold? How many people were being steered away from medicine by wellness gurus?

“The physical and mental trauma of cancer are hard enough,” she says. “You shouldn’t be further burdened with the idea that it’s a punishment for not keeping your body ‘pure’. The idea of body purity is a patriarchal lie that’s been used throughout history to control women – wellness is exploiting that same old story to separate us from our money. This was a conversation Ella and I wanted to have with our audience.”

The work  focuses on uncovering very dodgy and downright dangerous elements of the wellness industry. For Thomas, the examples of wellness gone wrong are endless. Thomas goes on to cite horrific examples including a woman who sustained second-degree burns after attempting to steam her vagina at home (Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop advocates the practice); Goop’s ‘Balls in the air’ supplement package promises to help you ‘function at an intense pace ‘. How does it do that? By containing over 3,000 percent of the recommended daily dosages of B3 and B12. This causes a range of harmful side-effects. Then there is Pete Evans who also famously received a $25,000 fine by the Therapeutic Goods Administration after trying to sell a $15,000 light machine marketed as a cure for COVID-19.

The show centres around Wellness Guru, Juniper, who is ready to unveil her cancer and COVID curing Miracle Tonic at her annual Soul Convergence. There’s only one problem – Instafamous cancer-patient Maha (who stopped chemotherapy to follow Juniper’s wellness program) dies onsite. With Juniper’s world set to unravel, she solicits advice from her team of ‘experts’. Together, they go to extreme lengths to hide the truth from her followers. She might just get away with it – except that journalist Mindy Flores is asking too many questions about Maha’s treatment. This is when things start to get a little… complicated.

Thomas wants people to understand that the message from celebrities, who are not medical professionals, is clear – just keep buying until you feel as good as I do. “It’s important to keep challenging their power when they abuse their platforms to monetise women’s bodies,” she says. “In reality, the real toxin we need to be cleansing ourselves from is wellness.”

Thomas will, no doubt, have her detractors  in this multi-billion dollar industry gone mad, but her views are clear, unflinching and filled with passion.  Her belief that medicine has historically ignored women – with the idea of hysteria a lingering hitching post -allowing the wellness industry to flourish is, again, a personal experience that many may relate to.

“I’ve had very serious conditions remain undiagnosed for years because doctors dismissed my symptoms as the side-effects of stress,” says Thomas. “Of course I was stressed – I was sick. But it took so long to uncover the actual diagnosis because assumptions were made about my capacity to judge what was going on with my own body.”

Thomas states that this is a frighteningly common experience for women – we’re gaslit into believing we’re fine when we’re not, and when we finally get answers (if we ever do) we feel liberated. Wellness gurus feed on this. When they stand up and make you feel seen, heard, and validated in your experiences, it can be very seductive.

Thomas goes on to make the argument that celebrities are in the incredibly privileged position of being predominately well already. “What they think they’re advocating in good health and wellness is really just the advantages that come with wealth, power and access to the best medical care in the world,” she says. “They also largely exist in a bubble where everyone tells them “yes, great idea!”. When they’re excitedly ranting about some life-changing product they’ve developed to improve your life, you need to think about the supply chain and why there might not have been a health expert in the mix to stop and question the product. Will this celebrity actually have people around them willing to stand up and say ‘hey, wait a minute, this might be dangerous?'”

Thomas is adamant that the medical industry needs to lift its game. “If it didn’t treat women so poorly, wellness would not have had the chance to flourish into carnivorous plant it has become. It’s all well and good to say people should be more informed and not listen to Influencers – that’s very true – but when Influencers are listening more than doctors, the people with expertise and power need to rethink their approach.”

Set at a wellness convention, WellBless is an immersive theatre experience with audience cast as “attendees” at the event. That being said, they are witnesses only so  no direct audience participation is involved.

The choice for this angle was a fortuitous discovery by both writers. “There was an article by the incredible Lindy West (creator of Shrill) a few years ago after she’d attended the In Goop Health Summit,” explains Thomas. “She describes the panels, the aura cleanses, and the crystal healing ceremonies. Ella and I were fascinated by her experience, and since we were writing a play about wellness for live theatre, it made sense to heighten the theatricality by setting our story at a similar conference.

By casting the audience as the conference attendees at our fictional wellness summit, we were able to play with the public vs the private sphere in a way that is both engaging and entertaining. I love theatre that’s big, bold, and full of spectacle – naturalism, for me, works better on screen. By having the audience play a key character, we dramatically heighten the stakes. This makes for an explosive energy between the performers and the audience.

There’s always the threat of audience participation, but don’t stress – we never pull anyone up onstage (particularly not in a COVID-19 world) or do anything more than wink at you.”

Written by both Thomas and Ella Roth Barton, the work took a year to write and develop (NIDA supported their development) and that’s generally how long Thomas believes any good work needs to sit and breathe. But with the initial postponement, this work has now been a three-year ride!

While writing, Thomas says the duo mostly just had a lot of fun, which is why, she adds, the script is bursting with life. “We ran it like a TV writers’ room by plotting the story together, arguing a little (I’d inevitably win her over), then we’d split scenes up and go off on our merry ways and write,” she says. “We’d swap our work, discuss it, before tidying everything up (things like ensuring every character had a consistent speaking pattern and rhythm), then we’d do re-writes.”

The biggest challenge for the project was obviously the COVID-19 cancellation. It put enormous financial pressure on the team and was heartbreaking since the project was just a few days from opening. “The bittersweet twist is that we’ve come out with a stronger script, a stronger bond with our team, and a story that could not be more relevant to where the world is at right now,” says Thomas.

On the flip side, the most exciting moment for Thomas was incorporating pole dance into the show. “I was in a really bad relationship with my body post cancer treatments, as I had so many bizarre side-effects, was incredibly weak, and just felt disgusting,” she says. “On a friend’s recommendation, I started pole dancing. It not only helped me regain my strength, but with each new trick I mastered, I learned just how amazing my body is.

I was also surrounded by some of the most beautifully supportive humans I’ve ever met. While the wellness industry preaches body purity and cleansing, the pole community focuses on acceptance and kindness. The disconnect between the reputations of these two industries, vs the stark contrast in how wellness made me hate my body, whereas pole brought me back to life, was something that deserved exploration in this show. In many respects, this play is my love letter to the pole community.”

As well as the writers, both creatives are also actors in the piece which has meant the opportunity of more of an injection of their everyday lives into their story and characters. Thomas explains: “We cheated a little. Writing it means we could leverage our performance skills in the show (I’ve been pole dancing for a few years, so we added that in as my character’s backstory). Ella on the other hand can do anything she sets her mind to, including playing a complete demon of a woman (even when she’s the most empathetic person in the world). Anyone who knows El will not recognise her in Juniper.

The trickiest part for me is that while my character is heavily fictionalised, there are some very personal elements of my own cancer story running through her arc – but in the interest of doing what’s best to serve the work, I’ve just had to run with it.

We’ve had a long time now to work on the script, and NIDA gave us a development back in 2020 – so the script was in a good place at the top of rehearsals. But since there’s no point forcing our dialogue into the actors’ mouths when they’re generating something more truthful on the floor, we’re always happy to make revisions in rehearsals. ”

Thomas and Barton met during a short course in 2013 and, according to Thomas’ telling, she wanted to be friends, so harassed Barton until she gave up and agreed. “El has a history working in film and TV, whereas I’ve been focused on live performance, so as a team we have a good mix of experience,” says Thomas of her creative partner. “This is our first joint work but won’t be our last, as I’ve now learnt how to press all her buttons until she caves and agrees to come along with me on my crazy journeys.”

The duo decided to write together after sitting through a “car crash” of a play several years ago (it’ll remain nameless). Every female character in the show was there to serve the male protagonist’s woefully boring story arc. “We wanted better – so we wrote ourselves a comedy filled with women who are full-bodied characters, with goals and desires outside of the patriarchy.”

The COVID impact was devastating but the team is ecstatic to be at the other side. “Our initial run was postponed in March 2020 – just a few days before opening at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival,” explains Thomas. “It was heartbreaking, but Theatre Works were incredibly supportive and helped us move the season. Strangely, the delay and the pandemic gave us the bittersweet chance to explore the wellness industry’s exploitation of COVID-19. It’s now more relevant than ever.”

The creators can’t WAIT to share this gem of a show with Melbourne. “We’ve missed live theatre and Melbourne audiences,” says Thomas. “Melbourne desperately needs some laughs right now, and we’re going to deliver. Come laugh with us! It’s a high-energy, fun, funny, and you’re guaranteed a good time.”

December 1 – 11