Wellness guru, Juniper, is hosting a conference with her fitness-obsessed sister, Ava. With sold-out sessions offering everything from clean eating, Polga (yoga-styled pole dancing), vaginal steaming and crystal healing, and millions of Instagram followers flocking to see them, the sisters look set to take their brand WellBless – wellness when you are #blessed – to entirely new heights.
But when Instafamous cancer-patient Maha – who has rejected traditional treatments to follow Juniper's wellness program – dies onsite, Juniper's empire looks set to unravel. With the discovery of Maha's body meaning the end of their incoming millions, the sisters work together with their panel of 'experts' to concoct a story about Maha's complicity in her own death by choosing the path of chemotherapy and filling her body with 'toxins'.
With journalist Mindy Flores asking all the questions Juniper should be asking about her own program, the sisters must work quickly to hide the truth. This darkly satirical comedy examines the parasitic world of wellness, a trillion dollar industry that preys on vulnerable women.
18-28 March (no shows Mondays).
7:30PM (5:00PM Sunday).
All tickets $20.
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda.
Question: Can you tell us about WellBless?
Debra Thomas and Ella Roth Barton: WellBless is a dark, satirical play that explores the dangers posed by the wellness industry; the ridiculous lengths people will go to in order to feel 'well' and the charlatans who are happy to take their money. The story follows wellness guru Juniper and her business manager sister Ava as they try to cover the fact that Juniper's advice has led to the death of a beloved alternative cancer treatment influencer.
Question: What should audiences expect from WellBless?
Debra Thomas and Ella Roth Barton: Laughter! We're inviting the audience to observe the ridiculous people who profit from this industry, and the horrible ways they make their consumers feel inadequate to sell product, so there will probably be some uncomfortable laughter too. The story is infused with comedy that comes from a very dark place, and our magnificent team have really embraced this bleak sense of humour and infused it into the play. It's an exciting, dynamic production. WellBless is not for the faint hearted.
Question: What inspired the creation of WellBless?
Ella Roth Barton: It started with Deb's cancer experience, where she was told by friends that she needed to look at her lifestyle and what she'd done to bring it on with her diet and exercise. We began researching Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop empire and Belle Gibson's cancer con, and writing a satire became a way for us to channel Deb's experience into something positive. The idea that people are responsible for getting sick is psychologically damaging. We wanted to talk about the dangers of the wellness industry and how it thrives because traditional medicine ignores women, and we've done this in a way that is both entertaining and highly theatrical.
Question: What's the main message you hope audiences take from WellBless?
Debra Thomas and Ella Roth Barton: Don't get your medical advice from Instagram. Gwyneth Paltrow is a mediocre actress, not a medical specialist. Going to the doctor can be a really awful experience, both of us have had truly terrible times trying to get medical help, but there are fantastic doctors out there, you just have to find them. Follow positive celebrities like Dr. Jennifer Gunter and Jameela Jamil online and stop following anyone who is telling you that your body and mind need to be changed with diet shakes and green juices. And finally, you're not at fault for getting sick, don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
Question: How easy was it to step into your characters?
Debra Thomas: Challenging but strangely cathartic. I'm not like Ava at all, but there are parts of her, her cancer experience in particular, that are based on my own, and I've found her ability to say what she thinks without caring about the consequences has been a nice way to release a lot of the things I've held onto.
Ella Roth Barton: Very challenging! But a lot of fun. Juniper is essentially my polar opposite, so I've really had to dig deep to find try those traits. Having said that, it has been truly hysterical to play around with behaving in a way I would never dream of in my own life.
Question: How are you preparing ahead of the show?
Debra Thomas: Having written the script, Ella and I are in an advantageous position since we did so much research as we developed the script. Since I'm playing a fitness trainer to the stars with questionable techniques, I've watched a lot of Tracy Anderson videos to capture the right vibe for Ava.
Ella Roth Barton: A lot of physical and voice work for me - I don't walk through the world like Juniper does so I've really had to use her physicality to get into character. I've taken inspiration from a handful of different people in the public eye who've tried to succeed within the wellness industry but have ultimately failed. It's been a very strange process. And just lots and lots of rehearsals with our incredible cast and director. I don't think I've ever laughed so much in my life!
Question: How is your health now, Debra?
Debra Thomas: Much better, thank you. I was very lucky since I had a treatable type and it was caught early, and although there have been side-effects of treatment, I'm feeling great that I'm finally back to living the way I was previously.
Question: What's next, for you?
Debra Thomas: I'm always writing theatre, as well as fiction and non-fiction, and have a few projects on the go. But I can't wait to work with Ella again on a new comedy. We have such a beautiful symbiosis and our talents really complement each other - and we have a lot of fun in the process, which shows in the production.
Ella Roth Barton: Another comedy! Deb is my creative soulmate and our ideas align so well. My background is in film and television, and I'd love to create something for that format next. Maybe WellBless the 10-part series for television?
Interview by Brooke Hunter