When Abby Schachner was 14 she stopped eating. She and a boy at school had fallen in love, and when it didn't work out she withdrew.
"I was anorexic for three months and then I was hospitalized," says Schachner, a comedian and performance artist. "I didn't have any therapy. No one told me what I had. They just stuck me in a hospital, and I learned so many bad habits from the people around me.
"One woman put quarters in her underwear before weigh-ins to make it look like she'd picked up weight. This other woman would take all the salt packets on the table so she'd bloat up. My roommate would take the fish out of the fish sandwich, put it in a napkin, stick it in her pants, and just eat the bread. I was so impressionable. I started doing these things too."
After she got out of the hospital, Schachner became bulimic. "That was much worse, because I'm a pretty guilty person anyway, and when I'd see myself doing that to myself, and I'd see the vomit dripping down the heart wallpaper next to the toilet seat, it just--" she stops suddenly, twisting off a piece of the Rice Krispies treat she cradles in her lap. "It was hard to get close to people."
Ultimately, Schachner says, her love of performing saved her life. She studied theater at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she began writing plays and sketches. Her first full-length show, The Body Piece, was a collection of dark comedy skits about eating disorders. The show struck a chord in her audience. She says women "would come up to me after the show crying and say, 'I vomit in the shower.' Of course, that night I'd do that too."
Though she was confronting her illness in public, she still hadn't been cured. She had a brief bout of bulimia when she first came to Chicago after college. But as she settled into improvisation classes at Second City, she began to feel as though she had found direction. At the encouragement of friends she started taking classes with Del Close at the ImprovOlympic, where she now performs with an all-female improv team called Jane. She also began writing and performing solo shows at places like Cafe Voltaire and events like the Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins festival.
Her first solo show was at Zebra Crossing. "I did it with belts around me. I'm into belts. I think they are the most symbolic of accessories. They are symbolic of being closed off and locked up." During the short piece Schachner, who entered wearing lots and lots of belts over her clothes, performed a striptease, slowly taking off the belts one by one, fingering the leather, pausing after each belt hit the floor. "Do I take this one off? I don't want to take it off. Well...OK." At the end of the piece Schachner fell to the floor.
Her second solo show, the well-received Plate, was produced last January. Calling it her "food and body show," Schachner sings one of the songs she wrote for it: "Open up, you're in my refrigerator / Come see what's in store / I will feed your brain with love and pain / And you'll be wanting more! / Open up!"
It was during the run of Plate, Schachner says, that she realized she had outgrown her eating disorders. "Finally, 10 or 11 years after all that, I feel like I'm opening up." She felt strong enough to make her latest work her "fear show": Boxing Chicken. The title says it all.
In the hour-long show Schachner performs with two plucked and prepared roasting hens. Over the course of the work she talks to them like friends, argues with them like family, seduces one with nice talk and soft caresses, and finally, in one of the show's most surrealistic and hilarious images, wears them on her hands like gloves while she shadowboxes with her inner demons.
"Boxing Chicken is about not wanting clipped wings. I want to fly. And maybe when people are watching they'll be able to stretch their wings too."
Boxing Chicken just completed an initial run at the Lunar Cabaret and will reopen in December. Schachner continues to perform with Jane at the ImprovOlympic and is also part of a sketch and improv comedy team there called the Ne'er Do Wells. The Ne'er Do Wells perform at 10:30 PM Saturdays at the ImprovOlympic, 3541 N. Clark; tickets cost $10. Call 773-409-7266 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Abby Schachner photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.