Food for ThoughtFeb/Mar 2010 Issue

Acting Out: Food Allergies

Growing Up With Food Allergies

Growing up allergic to wheat and dairy, I lived in a bizarro world where I learned to pretend. I pretended to myself, gorging on allergy-friendly cookies like they were the Queen’s cake. I pretended to my friends, making excuses for carrying my own food everywhere and for declining invitations.

By the time I got to college, I had so many years of acting under my belt, it's no wonder I went into theatre.

I'd grown accustomed to my allergies prompting pretense in most social settings (don't get me started on dorm food!) but I never expected they'd cause issues in class. Most actors don't think twice about eating on stage. I, however, am not most actors. During a class performance, I'd hold food in my mouth instead of swallowing. It worked until I had to talk.

I was acting on stage and off stage at this point, carrying baggage (food and otherwise) to every rehearsal and party. When people asked about it, I shrugged it off.

Back in acting class, we were working on “Three Sisters,” a Chekhov play. The script specified that my scene partner and I feed each other bread and cheese. Julie knew I couldn't eat either of these, so there was no point in trying to hide. I told her I'd figure out something for myself and then feed her the bread. But she couldn't have bread because of Passover. She suggested soy cheese for me but I couldn't find any without casein. As a last resort, I said, "Julie, why don't we just cut up some bananas? The audience is far enough away—no one will know what we're eating."

That's when she confessed she was allergic to bananas.

It was a relief to know I was not alone. We performed the scene with a mixed plate of food, feeding each other carefully.

When I walked into auditions, on top of thinking about my voice, my acting, my dancing, my body, my clothes, my fill-in-the-insecurity, I'd also worry about eating on stage. Yet my allergies have no bearing on my talent. Why should they carry such heft in my head?

Growing Up With Food Allergies

Auditioning to be a Blue Man with Blue Man Group, I avoided talking to the director about my allergies out of fear they would preclude me from the role. Which they did not. The truth is my allergies have never stopped me from booking a job. So why all the pretending and the lying, the anxiousness about eating in public? It just wasn't worth it. My allergies were only a big deal when I made them a big deal. It was time to change my script.

Now when I walk into my kitchen, I bring the rules of the stage with me. What happens when the lights blow out or an actor drops a line? I improvise and roll with it. Same scene when life happens in the kitchen. Want to make a birthday cake for your gluten-free, dairy-free kid? Improvise. Pull out the alternative ingredients and start experimenting. The little speed bumps in life bring out our best and inspire the curtain calls. I’ll leave the acting on stage. I don't want to pretend in real life any more. LW

Dan Kohler, formerly a Blue Man with Blue Man Group, lives in New York City. He is founder of renegadekitchen.com.

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