Griffin Podcast: Mental Health and Theatre


Professional and personal boundaries. The myth of the suffering artist. Method acting.

In this podcast, Griffin’s Artistic Director Lee Lewis has a frank and open discussion with The Almighty Sometimes playwright Kendall Feaver, and the production’s lead actor Brenna Harding, about mental health in theatre.

Produced with The Prop.

Lee Lewis: Look I think a conversation like this is part of how we make it an acknowledged stress in our industry. It is. I think in the past there’s been much more of a culture of suffering in silence and in fact, burying that information in case you don’t keep working. Fear of people finding out, which has compounded issues that people may have had, and been suffering with… so I think just talking about it, and acknowledging that it is a regular workplace hazard—there is emotional stress in the work that we do. Yes, that’s what we sign up for and that’s what you have to learn to manage in your life, but acknowledging that we’re doing it in a community of people that understand that is part of making it easier to bear. I was in a rehearsal room today and there was a conversation about how a family member had passed away, and the director had said “Well, can they move the funeral is in the morning, so we don’t interfere with tech.” And this was a few years ago, about ten years ago that that comment was made, and another actor said “Was there just no compassion back then?” And I said “No, not really.” Even the fact that a young actor said that, and thought that was terrible as opposed to “Oh right, I’m now learning I just have to suck it up and whatever happens and the show must go on”… It’s a very different conversation that’s starting to happen that feels alive and healthy and I’m not saying it’s going to solve everything but at least people can talk about it, and we’re building a language as a community for how to take care of each other in the work that we want to keep doing.

Brenna: I feel like that really covers it!

Lee: Well no, it is an interesting thing though, the way that early conversations about working together, it came out of a pattern, I’ve started to have, even in auditions I’ve started just saying to people, “Look, this work might not be the right work for you to be doing now. Two years from now you might be in exactly the right place to do it so it’s ok to say no.” You don’t have to take things that mightn’t feel right at the particular time, if it’s too close, don’t do it! Absolutely having lived the story can work against your capacity to cope with carrying that story for the three, four, five months that a run can be. So, I started the conversation around The Almighty Sometimes with that. “If you’re not in a pretty stable place, please say no to this play.” Which I said to all the actors who auditioned. And don’t say yes, just because I’d love you to do it. It’s really easy to go “Oh yeah great!” and then the next day think “Oh man, can I really do this?” And if you do have that thought, it’s ok to step out of the role.

Brenna: Personally, I don’t feel pressure to say yes to everything. I’ve come to feel quite comfortable saying no to auditions, to roles, mostly because I like to do work that fits with my social values, and so if something doesn’t, I’m inclined to say no, because acting fits into a much larger realm of things within my life, and if it’s not enhancing what I believe politically, then it’s not the kind of work that I will be able to bring my best to, but also want to contribute to. So within that scheme of things I do find it I do find it easy to say no, but I know for a lot of actors that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve been very fortuitous, getting quite consistent work, and I’m also at university, so I’m not putting all my pressure on my next job. But I know for a lot of actors there is a pressure to say yes to every job, because you want the opportunity and work breeds work, so, if you’re doing one thing, you’re more likely to get other work, so yeah, I think it is something that we have to be conscious of.

Lee: It’s interesting working in a new writing company, because often writers are writing into some of the big difficulties that we’re having in our society at the moment, so they’re trying to get right into the conflicts that we’re living. That can be harder, I think. Sometimes I think it’s harder, but then you go back to some of the classics and the things that they’re wrestling around in are just as difficult once you get into it and can be as confronting. I suppose we’re just a little bit more ready for it on the surface at Griffin, because every play is digging round in the very personal of the present. But in theatre specifically, a lot of plays structurally are built on conflict. As soon as you’re playing conflict, your body doesn’t necessarily know the difference, does it? You go home and you’re as exhausted as if you had had an argument for six hours, and how do you take care of your body and your mind? How do you learn how to do that and you know there are no great handbooks, there really aren’t, so it’s about actors talking to each other, directors talking to each other, directors talking to actors, about how to do these things, you know. How big is the thing that you’re carrying? And knowing that that shifts over the course of a show too. That’s been really interesting to me, things that will seem ok early on can turn out to be really difficult, and the other way round; things that seem difficult at the beginning can actually be the easiest thing to do. You’ve got to be ready for the surprise that words in your body will wake up. I find that fascinating.

Brenna: I think one of the beauties of theatre and dealing with difficult things is you get to sit with it for so long and really unpack it. In the first week of rehearsals, Lee talked about the fact that you never really know the project you’ve signed up to until you sit in that rehearsal room for the first week and start reading the text and you just have so many moments of “Oh God. Oh God this is what we’re doing” and yeah, I think that I definitely had that experience on this play, of feeling the enormity of the world, but that’s also the beauty of it because you get to feel that enormity and feel it in those waves and feel it in different places and new places but then you get to sit with that for a while and kind of become wise with those feelings and understand how you can then, as Lee was saying, pass them onto the audience and communicate them in the most effective way possible, to allow them to come away, feeling like they have been through something, or learned something from the piece. I still learn new things in this play, there’s still moments where a pin drops and I’m like “Oh! Didn’t put that one together! Wow, that one feels in this particular place!” and also you have different moods, I come into the show and I do the show in a different mood to the day before and suddenly it’s hitting in all different places, and so you get this enormous exercise of empathy for these characters and for this situation, which you then get to take into your life, which means you’ve almost lived these extreme experiences of so many different people. It’s just a real richness, which is one of the gifts of acting, I think. And also thinking of friends I know who’ve been through similar experiences, even talking to people post-show, I remember having a friend, telling me that… I was listing all of the medications that Anna’s been on, and she was like, “You said seven… I’ve been on seventeen, I counted the other day,” and just understanding how much the play speaks to her experience, and understanding her more as a person and empathising with her more as a person because I’ve lived a small fragment of Anna’s life every night.

Kendall: I love that anecdote from Brenna, she said to me before, because as I was as I was writing the play and researching it and speaking to psychiatrists, every time I sent the play out, one of the things that they kept coming back with a big red line through was the number of medications that Anna was on and they said “That’s terrible practice, we would never allow poly-pharmacy of this magnitude,” but every young person I was speaking to was saying “Fourteen, sixteen, eighteen,” and you know the psychiatrists were asking me to get it down to six, so it’s just… it’s fascinating. The journey that I went on with this play and it was such a long one, was so marked and influenced by the many people that I spoke to, the many families I encountered, the many psychiatrists that so generously gave up their time for me, they’re all in there, and that’s why I hope it’s a very human piece of literature, there are so many voices and so many real experiences bubbling under there.

Lee: For me, I think, there’s also the question over time, if we really are going to pull apart that thought about mental illness having a stigma in our workplace that we can’t talk about, how do we make it ok, that thought that diagnosis is something that, it’s an identification around any number of symptoms at a given time, that goes some way towards pointing towards some condition, and that will change over time. I had the very great pleasure of working with a young actor who I worked with, and he was still at NIDA, and it’s really interesting coming back to him as an actor, as a creative being, he’s transformed entirely, and knowing that people do change so much, that’s a really interesting thing for me and how that, that people (not him at all) had had difficulties when they were younger in dealing with certain things get older with ideas and they manage things differently and how do we carry that information about people very carefully. As a director I might know something about somebody from ten years ago that might not apply at all now, and that’s not fair to bring that into a room.

Kendall: One of the easiest ways to go about that is to recognise that people are not mental illnesses, and that’s also a journey that people who have received a diagnosis have to go on. There’s this really interesting train in psychiatric thought at the moment called narrative therapy which I love because I’m a playwright and it becomes this extended metaphor for what I do and what I was trying to do with this play, which is all about that they’re realising that young people, even adults with a diagnosis that’s scrambling their identity, and so what a number of fantastic psychiatrists are trying to do at the moment is not just diagnose and give out medication, some are even refraining from giving a label entirely. It’s helping people deal with the reality of their suffering on a day to day basis but also to construct an identity that’s completely separate from label which-

Lee: So you don’t play the story of your label—

Kendall: Exactly.

Lee: You don’t just follow that path, you stay with yourself and where you’re at.

Kendall: Yeah absolutely, but you have these things that you know that you need to deal with and manage so that in a… and this is just one option of many and some things that work for some people might not work for others and that’s another part of the mental health journey is working out what you need in a workplace environment and then having the courage to ask for that.

Lee: And then on the employer’s side going “Ok, alright, how do we accommodate that. We want this person, they come with complications, like everybody, how do we accommodate that complication, and how do we want to do that, I think that’s the interesting thing is that there’s a shift in company culture across different industries is saying “We want this.” You go back to theatres it used to be families and little guilds and so the ‘strangenesses of people’ were taken care of, and then as the money got bigger, as the venues got bigger, as the pressures got bigger, so more and more it was like “the show must go on,” and you know, you suck it up and that’s just the way it is, and we’re now in the age of pulling it apart and going “Actually, that’s not ok.”

Kendall: I think that one of the main things is that—I’ll speak for writers as opposed to anyone else because I’m friends with so many of them—that we all really struggle with is that it’s kind of death by comparison. There are so many ways to be a writer. The suffering of the artist is an absolute myth, but that does not mean that there aren’t people who suffer for their art. I personally really, really struggle to write—it breaks me up, I spend a lot of time sobbing at the laptop, it’s kind of for extended periods of time, and we are talking weeks, weeks and months and the only person you have to talk to is yourself, and you don’t like yourself very much. It’s not a happy experience for me, writing, it’s more of a compulsion. But then I have other playwriting friends who can get up in the morning, go to the writing table and hit their goals for that day, and they call them goals, and it’s incredible and I admire them, so I don’t think there’s any specific way to be an artist and if we could dismantle that a little bit it would be easier for all of us and that leads back to the original points we were making of asking for what you want. If you, rather than striving to be something that you are not, if you can work out what your artistic process is, work out how you like to write, then you can start asking for that, but I think there’s just so much misinformation about it that a lot of the depression and anxiety in writing particularly is of this idea of what you should do, and what you should have achieved by a certain point, the fears around certain ages that you reach. There’s no one journey, there’s no one way to make art, and I just want to wrap us all up in a big hug and say “It’s gonna be ok. You do you.” Which sounds overly simplistic but it’s changed my life, realising that, realising that we’re all different.

Lee: There’s a beautiful—I think her name is Wisława Szymborska, she’s a poet, a Polish poet who won the Nobel prize, and for her Nobel prize acceptance she talked about how impossible it is to actually make a movie about a poet. She said “Because my life is very unexciting—I get up in the morning, I walk towards my desk, I get a cup of tea, I sit down at my desk, I think, I walk away from my desk, I sit on my couch, I get up, I go wrote a word, then I get another cup of tea…” and it was just this lovely thing about— and she was describing her process and how interesting that process is and how it’s not a good story and I think a lot of the myths around the suffering in the creative process are because they’re good stories to tell. They can be represented in dramatic ways which can be then told as stories on the stage and film and the boring ones don’t get told, because there’s nothing to see there except a table and some paper, or a computer, and this strange still person digging around inside their mind to see what comes out. I mean, yes, there’s all sorts of seeing the world, but how do you depict that? So the suffering becomes a story that can be told.

Brenna: From an actor’s perspective, and I’m sure it has similarities with writing, but it’s as if that suffering artist, doing everything for your work, gets put at the highest point of the hierarchy and deserves the most respect because it’s you going as far as possible for your art and therefore you wanting it more, but I think it’s like Kendall was saying, and it’s like the play is saying—we’re all human and we all exist in really different ways, and it’s important to take care of yourself within that, and I personally think that I produce my best work when I am mentally well, and when I am rested and when I am physically well and when I feel supported. Other people might be different. They might perform their best work when they’re under an enormous amount of pressure, but at the end of the day, maybe it’s not worth it, but that’s something we all have to decide for ourselves. But definitely, I feel a pressure to fit that narrative and that I may not be working hard enough or don’t want it enough if I’m not putting myself through hell to get there. But that’s just something that I’ve had to unpick and a lot of people, a lot of actors around me have also had to unpick, some successfully, others not so much.

Lee: There’s also a really interesting question around heritage of acting, especially with the twentieth century method of teaching different methodologies. Now we’ve got schools of ways of acting and what can be handed on and what can’t, and I always worry about the tradition of method acting, of pulling on the ‘authentic pain’, because I even have questions about the idea of authentic, or how that word gets valued more than other things. We’re losing the tradition of transformative acting, where you can imagine something that never happened to you, and how do you create that, and I think that goes into writing as well, I always wonder about the pressure on writers to write their own story. Like no, you can actually find a story that’s not yours and you can research and work and you can create something that feels authentic to people watching. That’s a lot of work, sure, but it doesn’t have to be your story, that’s not your ticket into an industry and I think, with method acting, I worry a lot. I understand its use in film, where you only have to do something once or twice, but I also worry about that really private place and the temptation to dip into that. I like to think of actors as professional imaginers—

Brenna: Yeah.

Lee: And maybe that’s over years of watching friends just not being able to keep going with constantly dipping into the real to create the fictional, what that does, it wears out valuable memory in certain ways and it damages people sometimes. Some people—those methodologies were built by a particular group of people who could manage it—when things get transferred to other people they might not be able to manage it in the same way and I don’t think we’re questioning that transmission of methodology enough.

Kendall: One of the reasons I got into theatre in the first place was because it allowed me to use my imagination, and I hope that we all don’t start underestimating theatre’s role in tapping into human empathy. So, how important it is for an actor to, as part of their process, to try and work out and try to understand what someone else’s experience might be. The responsibility for myself as writer if I’m writing about something that is not my lived experience… there is something quite helpful in someone else learning about that, interrogating that. But the flipside of that, of course, is that if you are writing about something that you don’t have direct experience of, is to develop as much awareness as possible so that you’re not making the mistake of stepping into a trope. So you’re actively steering against tropes, or, you’re driving directly into them with the express purpose of interrogating the shit out of it.

Lee: It is funny though, as an industry we do attract people with a heightened capacity for empathy, and then they build all sorts of skills that amplify that capacity over their life, and then manage that. But it is a gift, it’s not something that people can just… you can’t just step into theatre and be good at it, there’s a gift involved, and then the skill to manage that gift over time, and it is interesting, it is lovely to work in an industry with people that do feel other humans more. That sounds terrible when I say it like that. We’re not supposed to be feeling quite as much are we? What I am liking though is we’re starting to hear people say “Oh no, that doesn’t work for me.” I loved what you were talking about earlier, about choosing work according to a congruence with your ethics, and your choice to try and construct a working, acting life in that way, which as an idea, you may hav had, ten, fifteen years ago, but you wouldn’t have said it out loud, do you know what I mean? And now I can hear that idea out there for other younger actors going “No I can actually live a life that is making choices that don’t tear me apart,” and I think that’s with young roles across the industry, male and female.

Kendall: For me personally, I’ve tried both. I’ve been in full time work, while attempting to write plays, and I’ve been writing plays full time now for two years, and I think both are completely valid, and there’s often a lot of pressure on artists to be exclusively—to work solely and exclusively—in the arts. One of the things I’m going to be doing next year is getting a part-time job, because I’ve realised over these past couple of years, that I don’t want to get so… I mean, money obviously, but I don’t want to get to caught up with myself and my laptop that I forget to engage with life, and if you look at the history of theatre, so many people, the majority have had to do that out of sheer necessity, but a lot of people have also done it out of choice, so that’s something that I would offer up, that it’s not a bad thing to have a day job and there can be many positives attached to it. I think also surrounding yourself with people who love you and have this wonderful sense of awe that I feel is warranted in what we do, because it is really difficult, it’s an industry in which you don’t often get a lot of pats on the back or just, acknowledgement of the sheer determination it takes sometimes. I had a couple of months with a therapist at one point because I was struggling with writing, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it, with my life, because it was making me so unhappy and I was struggling to find an access point, and there was this wonderful moment where she said to me, “But Kendall, all these negative voices are in your head, they’re totally in your head,” because she hadn’t dealt with that many people in the creative industries before, so I went home and I printed out all my rejection letters, and a couple of bad reviews, wrote down some direct-quote criticisms I’d had from Artistic Directors, and I brought them back in and she went, “Oh shit…” and said “Yes, critical thought manifest.”

Lee: They’re not in my head, they’re real people in the world and it sucks!

Kendall: And that’s just the realities of working in the arts, it’s an industry in which we are constantly judged and scrutinised and yeah, one of the things I personally… that’s helped me deal with that is not to—and I’m still doing it—is to actively construct an identity outside of the arts but also to surround myself with people who just, in a really beautiful way are just in awe that you would choose to do something that hard, are pleased for you, when a play does go up, and give you that quite literal pat on the back that I think we’re all endlessly desperate for.

Lee: You know, I’m quite fascinated in the last little bit, there’s three industries that use the word ‘theatre’. Obviously theatre, but surgery and war, and I find it really interesting reading about mental health in those different fields as well, because there’s something about ‘theatre’ and what that word is, the ‘aliveness’ of it and the risk of it in that space, and when I say it out loud it seems really ridiculous, and I go “It’s not life and death what we do,” but part of my brain goes “Actually, it is,” it is actually that important to our culture, to our society, this space, and it is akin to the theatre of war, or the operating theatre. There is life on the line, and keeping work in that space is difficult, and there is a cost, and I find some of the language that’s coming out of hospitals—surgeons and stresses on surgeons and post-traumatic stress on soldiers—I don’t think it’s that out of left field to be looking at the language coming out of those industries.

Kendall: And the solutions are the same, they’re absolutely the same. It’s absolutely about, you can drill it down to self care. It’s a very modern idea, actually, that mental health is separate from physical health—they’re actually completely intertwined. As Anna has to do in the play, as Brenna has to do in real life. Sleep, eat—

Lee: Exercise.

Kendall: Exercise! If you are a scared, vulnerable, ambitious, workaholic writer like myself, it’s often about, because you don’t have a nine-to-five job, or you don’t regularly have a nine-to-five job, it’s about ensuring that you carve out time for pleasure, which is such a weird thing but it’s… you know, things that make you happy, it’s so, so important and we forget it really easily.

Brenna: There’s also an interesting phenomenon I guess, that this work doesn’t have set goals and benchmarks that you reach. You don’t clock out at five, you don’t finish your task list and go home. As an actor, you can go over your lines for as long as you possibly want, you could do rewrites forever, and as a perfectionist, which I’m sure a lot of us here—I’m assuming Kendall—

Kendall: Absolutely, that assumption is correct!

Brenna: I mean that’s almost an impossible challenge, because you can just keep going and you’re setting those limits yourself. I think that one of the biggest self care strategies that we have to employ is creating those boundaries and those limits for yourself, so that you do get to clock out and have time to decompress, because it can be really damaging to go twenty four hours and be thinking about these things constantly, and that’s actually one of the things that I really love about having a director, because at school I would go over and over again and rewrite and sort of kill myself with getting my work to a perfect state, and then I got on set at I don’t know, fifteen or whatever, and the director would say after a couple of takes, “I’m happy with that. Great, we got it.” And I could keep doing that scene forever and ever and ever ad nauseum because my standards are enormous for myself, impossibly enormous. But to have a director who can see something from the outer and says “That serves what it needs to serve for the rest of this story,” that takes the burden of weight off my shoulders in that realm of being, so it’s, acting has actually become something really beneficial for my perfectionism when I trust my director.

Kendall: Lee did exactly the same thing for me. So I was still tweaking in rehearsals, and at one point, Lee goes “Kendall, stop. Trust it, it works, it’s good.” And that’s having fantastic people to work with who recognise the fact that they are probably, statistically likely that they are dealing with really vulnerable bunnies…

Lee: It’s presenting humanity! You want to get it right, you do want to get it right–

Kendall: That’s a big mandate Lee!

Lee: I don’t use that thing of life and death lightly, I do mean that. One of the things I’ve found really useful is strategies of humour around your process, identifying moments where you get to an extreme and actually building in ways of laughing at it. I just got this little phrase… I was a very competitive young child, and I said to someone, “Oh no I’m not really competitive,” and they fell over laughing and I was like “What are you talking about?” I think I chose theatre because you can’t win theatre.

Brenna snaps her fingers.

Lee: You can’t! It’s funny, you just can’t. It will defeat you every time: the imperfection of it, the changeability of it, even when everything is running on rails in the most contracted of shows, there’s still this little spirit that moves through it that will be different each night and you can’t control that, and I think that’s why I do it, because I hated the version of myself that was evolving in an industry where you could win, where it was measurable, and you could win. I was becoming a terrible person, and so I think I re-chose theatre because I can’t win, and it defeats me all the time and there’s compromise, which I hate, and there’s things going wrong which I hate the loss of control and I really hate theatre for all of that stuff but it’s the thing that keeps me human, as opposed to being an awful human.

Kendall: So one of the things that Griffin Theatre has is a very clear note on the website and in the foyer that if you struggle with a mental health condition or are worried about triggers then you can chat to Box Office, you can call in, you can talk to the ushers, all of whom have been trained, they have processes in place, so that that audience member is not prevented from experiencing this play, it’s allowing them to make an informed decision about whether or not to come to it. And I think that’s really really important. I don’t think that we should steer away from difficult topics by any means, and I think a theatre maker should feel safe and free to be able to create work that explores contentious and complex topics, and there will always be members of the audience who are unhappy with that representation of mental health, and again, it’s giving a bit of power back to that audience member that they can make their own decision about whether or not to go.

Lee: Again, it’s things that we’re talking about that we didn’t talk about in running theatres twenty years ago.

Brenna: Yeah, it was also really important for me as an actor who has friends who have dealt with some of the issues that Anna deals with—it wasn’t a sensationalist depiction of that, that fit into stereotypes. Thankfully, the writing serves that purpose a lot, and Kendall’s research and empathy for the people that are experiencing this gave me a very great place to sit in with that. It’s hard, it would be hard to depict Anna in a way that does do that, but part of my process was actually talking to friends who have lived through mental illness and through medication, from a young age in some circumstances, and actually a friend of mine read the play, so I could talk about very specific things in the play to make sure that there were corners that I was not cutting with the representation, and it’s been really wonderful, getting feedback from audiences who have really noticed that in the play, that it’s a very realistic and complex and nuanced representation, rather than a simplification, or using the mental illness as entertainment, rather than an empathy access point.