One evening in 1994, four women came together for a feast. They had never met one another before. As far as anybody knew, they only had one thing in common: they were all obese.
Dreaming of Fat Men was produced in 1994.
Originally from South Africa, Lorelei Harris has spent the bulk of her working life in radio. There was a spell in current affairs but after producing a number of features for RTÉ Radio 1, Lorelei ended up working exclusively on radio documentaries and became commissioning editor for documentaries for RTÉ Radio 1. She has won many awards over the years, national and international.
Lorelei is now the Editor of Arts, Features, and Drama for RTÉ Radio 1. She has held various positions on radio documentary committees and has served on the EBU Features Group since 1996.
Learn more about Lorelei Harris.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Lorelei Harris
Ed. note: Dreaming of Fat Men isn't your typical radio production: in making it, Lorelei Harris invited four women into a radio studio in which a culinary feast was served, and she taped the conversation that ensued as the meal was consumed.
What was the initial inspiration behind the making of Dreaming of Fat Men?
The initial inspiration for Dreaming of Fat Men was utterly banal. I was out for dinner with friends one evening and, looking around the table, realized that all the women present (including myself) had bizarre relationships with food and the process of eating. This is not to imply that we were all anorexic or bulimic -- just that the ways we approached food were loaded, overlaid, encoded, and conflated with factors that had little to do with physical nourishment. More than this, we had all developed ways of dealing with this and talking about it socially: something like watching a very elaborate and formal dance being executed unwittingly before one's eyes. I remember thinking at the time that if I could capture this in sound, if I could render it transparent, what a program it would make. I couldn't think my path through to something that wasn't po-faced or didactic or patronizing, so there it rested for a few years until the idea of staging a feast came to mind.
The logistics of its production are so unique -- can you explain how it came together?
I knew what the structure would be before I started with any of this: a feast for four fat women, overlaid with material gleaned from individual interviews recorded separately beforehand. By the time we went into studio with the feast, I had recorded for several hours with each woman. With this material in mind, I also had a running order for the evening. The feast did not happen randomly: it was highly structured with a director on the studio floor (me) moving the women through the material. Further to this, one of the women acted as "ringmistress" for the evening.
Once the notion of the feast was in place, the logistics of the piece were in fact quite simple. Obviously, the key to planning the piece was the feast itself. First, the selection of the venue was of paramount importance. With a completely private occasion in mind, I ruled out a restaurant straightaway. In the end, I went for the simplest venue: the main drama studio of the station. This done, it was a case of sitting down with the sound engineers and planning the microphone design. The set ended up rectangular with the women sitting one at either end of the table and two on one side, each woman facing a microphone suspended above her.
Then, the decor: the bottom line for me was that it had to be fun. I wanted to create an exotic playpen for the women for the evening. We dressed the studio like a sumptuous boudoir with lots of pink; low lighting and flowers; candles and crystal and china. The substantive point here was that I wanted to give them visual triggers for a sound piece. I knew that the feast would provide me with an audio context for the program.
How did you find the women who participated in the feature? How much did you prepare them for the recording session?
Because of the work I did at that time on a daily basis, I was extremely adept at "trawling" for people. I knew the "ringmistress" beforehand and decided to use her because she's extremely articulate, sings like an angel and is wonderful at improvisation. As far as I can remember, I got the other women by asking around. I pre-interviewed quite a number of women. I didn't want women who were unwell with food disorders or women who would be coy about their relationship with food. I also needed a spread of accents so that one could distinguish between the women. And I needed women with the ability to tell the stories of their lives.
By the time I found the four women who were included in the feast, I knew that I had all these things. What I didn't know was how they'd interact on the night or what the chemistry between them would be. None of them had ever met before and they came from very different backgrounds, so there was a quite a high risk involved. I didn't really prepare them for the evening further than asking them all to dress up for the occasion and instructing them to react verbally as they entered the studio for the first time. What actually happened was that when the studio sat down, I had four strange women sitting alone in a reception room looking at each other and a looming disaster looking at me. So I sent somebody down the road to a bottle store to buy champagne.
How much tape ended up on the cutting-room floor? Was any of the material collected to risque to use in the production?
About six hours of tape ended up on the floor. Dreaming of Fat Men was a vile program to edit. The women were cutting in on each other all the time. Their language "progressed" with the evening and the station has a policy on decency in relation to these matters. It was very difficult. All of the material was too risque but most of it was useable, if that makes sense. The real problem lay in keeping the tension of the erotic sub-plot that emerged during the night.
How did the public respond to the piece when it aired? How have men reacted to the story, compared to women?
Dreaming of Fat Men was received with a mixture of amusement, affection, and bewilderment. Men tend to respond to the raunchiness of the women while objectifying them because of their size. Women tend to approach the piece as co-conspirators. However, it's hard to generalize. One woman of my acquaintance was deeply distressed by the breaking of taboos; by the auto-eroticism. Another (very thin) woman was almost violently angry with me for making the program, feeling that it trespassed upon secret terrain.
Do you think of Dreaming of Fat Men as a political piece or more of four personal stories woven together?
Of course Dreaming of Fat Men is a political piece with a small "p." It is feminist in its orientation and in its attempt to provide an arena to women in relation to this issue. It is subversive in its humour and its form. But then I think decent radio is by definition political.
What role does humor play for you as a tool in storytelling, especially in the case of sensitive subjects?
I don't set out to incorporate humor. If it happens, that's great. If not, it doesn't worry me. Anyway, I suspect I think more in terms of irony or wit. Being funny for me, as I've already indicated, is about playing with forms, not being funny ha-ha.
The most difficult thing about approaching politics or other sensitive issues through humor is that most humor isn't really funny and a humorous approach to matters of the soul depends on a fine balancing act that doesn't often work. Personally, I'm not at all fond of comedy: it bores me to tears in the main. What is of interest is the way in which we can play with traditional forms to say things which are hard to articulate. I think the humor in Dreaming of Fat Men works because it's actually about exploring profound pain and it sits on a knife edge doing so.
One thing I did that teetered on the brink of failing in its attempt to use humor to explore a complex cultural, political and emotional issue was a piece called Confession. It amused me deeply to make. I had the 1952 Archbishop McQuaid catechism that was taught to an entire generation of Catholic children in Ireland set to music like a cross between a bad church choir and a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I set up a confessional booth in the main street of Dublin and invited passersby to come in and confess over a PA system to the tune of "Salve Regine." I recorded with priests and psychoanalysts, police interrogators, etc -- And it's fine, but it's not funny. I think it fails because it offended too many Catholics here and didn't offer the possibility of communality to those who weren't Catholic, both in Ireland and elsewhere: a bit like a map without the right coordinates.