In February this year, Bowral-born Gen Y playwright Kendall Feaver anxiously seated herself among some 750 audience members at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in the UK for the opening night of her debut professional play, The Almighty Sometimes.
The Australian expat writer was “terrified”, although not because of the gimlet-eyed theatre critics. Rather, she was spooked by her proximity to the invited psychiatrists she had consulted in her research, seated in the row behind her.
The Almighty Sometimes is the story of Anna, 18, who has spent seven years on psychotropic drugs, her mother Renee, boyfriend Oliver and therapist Vivienne, all of whom have an opinion on what they think is best for the teenager.
Had Feaver portrayed this young fictional woman authentically, she wondered?
The critics were won over: The Guardian, the Times and Telegraph gave this world premiere production four stars, praising the play as “sharply observed, drily funny and compassionate”, “heartbreaking and acutely alive” and a “powerful indictment of the modern-day desire to medicate”.
But Feaver had heard the psychiatrists one row back on opening night attempting to diagnose Anna.
Drug withdrawal symptoms?
The psychiatrists repaired to the theatre’s bar after the performance, continuing to debate as they drank.
Borderline personality disorder?
Marked depression in early childhood?
In the play, Anna’s juvenile fiction writing, much of it preoccupied with death, is used as evidence of mental illness to help justify treatment. Her coming of age offers little autonomy as her loved ones block her plans to move close to a university four hours from home and her intention to abandon the medication she believes is giving her writer’s block.
Having moved from Australia, aged 22, to do a Master’s in Playwriting at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2012, Feaver spent five years interviewing psychiatrists, psychologists, parents and service users in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia about complex mental illness treatment in children and teenagers.
I’m speaking to Feaver in the foyer of the Stables theatre in Sydney’s Kings Cross, where Griffin Theatre Company is rehearsing the Australian premiere of The Almighty Sometimes, directed by Lee Lewis with Brenna Harding as Anna, Hannah Waterman as Renee, Penny Cook as Anna’s therapist and Shiv Palekar the boyfriend.
Feaver says she deliberately withheld naming Anna’s condition in the script, to make the story as widely relatable as possible, while mindful that diagnoses are “man-made labels”, subject to shifting assessments through the patient’s life as well as prevailing orthodoxies of medical academics; “mostly men who sit around a table and decide what things are called”.
“What can also happen is if you give a young mind a label, an identity can be formed around it. It’s a basic developmental process,” she explains “There’s a possibility the child can begin [for instance] ‘performing bipolarity’ and [his or her] identity will be inseparable from the label.”
An avid news and politics reader, Feaver says she was inspired to write The Almighty Sometimes when she began reading about a “bipolar epidemic” in the United States – an explosion of diagnoses among her Millennial cohort, with the UK and Australia not far behind.
She wondered why no one had made a film about the subject.
“I started writing the play from quite an angry place, but that’s not where I ended,” Feaver says. “The issue is so complicated. I held onto a lot of my original opinions about over-diagnosis. But I met so many psychiatrists who are just trying to keep young people alive. There’s no villain.”
Feaver remains deeply interested in what a mental illness diagnosis does to the construction of a sense of self – who are we with or without medicine or an illness label – and how the stakes in the inter-generational tug of wills are raised hugely when a parent spends the better part of life fearing their child will kill herself.
In the play, Feaver makes clear that psychiatrists are not even sure how drugs work on the brain, and cannot guarantee their use won’t permanently alter our chemistry.
As Vivienne says in the original published script, the mind “is a frustratingly intangible thing – so there are a million unknowns – a million different possibilities at play – including a small chance that – as Anna seems to believe – there was absolutely nothing wrong with her to begin with”.
Some people connect Anna to the playwright herself. Feaver offers, unprompted: “Personally, I am really prone to depression and I am a deeply anxious person, but the play is not in any way an exploration of what happened to me. But I can connect to it.”
I ask Feaver could she have written this play without her own experience of depression?
She sighs. “I don’t know. It’s the age-old question: are all plays autobiography? I think I could write anything and there would be a lot of me in there.”
I tell Feaver of a post I read recently on social media: that women’s writing is assumed to be autobiographical more often than men’s writing.
“Yeah, every time I’m interviewed for this play, almost always the first question is – or it’s not even a question, there’s a clear assumption made – that Anna is me. And I really struggle with that.
“It’s just really hard to separate that [assumption] from my gender. If you’re a woman, the assumption is always made that you’ve written about yourself, even if you haven’t.
“The second thing that happens, if proven right, it’s not always a positive outcome. It’s seen as ‘Oh, that work must have been much easier.’
“I went to The Glass Menagerie in the West End [London], and someone had written this giant program note on Tennessee Williams. I was astounded, because it said [she paraphrases here] ‘A mark of great genius that he could take aspects from his life and use the skill and craft of playwriting to transform that into something bigger than himself’.
“I sat there and went, ‘Fuck off’. That would never happen with a woman. That would never be said about a woman; that they have taken aspects from their life and crafted it into something big. Fuck off!”
Feaver’s sweariness is delightfully impactful with its slightly British tone, followed by a laugh and polite English-style manners: “Yeah, sorry. When a woman does it, it’s seen as something domestic and small, you know?
“So yes, I can absolutely connect to the depression and anxiety Anna feels. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say that it does help you write from a place of authenticity. But the amount of work that goes into crafting something like this, it’s much bigger than my experience.”
Feaver likes to situate her political theatre in the familiar, which saw some theatre companies in the UK and Australia dismissing the script for The Almighty Sometimes as “too domestic”, failing to fully grasp its deeper politics about individual autonomy, identity and gender.
Some observers, however – such as theatre critic Kevin Jackson – understood Feaver’s potential early.
Jackson wrote in 2012 that Feaver’s work The Hiding Place, staged by the Australian Theatre for Young People at Walsh Bay, was “full of a love for language and its usage … a play deeply lived, felt, stuffed with compassion … with an urgent will to be heard”.
Jackson’s review was posted as Feaver undertook her journey to the UK to study at Goldsmiths. “Let’s hope she gets back here,” Jackson wrote. “We need her.”
But for now, Feaver plans to remain in London, although she says she will always remain an Australian playwright. Her mum, Jennifer Hordern, to whom The Almighty Sometimes is dedicated, is a property valuer, and her dad Kevin is a financial adviser. Her younger brother, Sam, works in property.
“My dad writes secret poetry at night,” says Feaver. “I stumbled upon it on the computer one morning. He loved writing and his dream was to be a journalist, but he was pushed [by parents] into a business degree and always struggled with that [decision].”
Feaver calls her parents friends now but says she had a “really fraught” relationship with them growing up. “When I started to realise my parents were fallible human beings, I really struggled with that. It took me a long time to put it together; that they could be human beings and parents.”
Feaver went to Christian primary and high schools in Bowral. Phrases in her school reports noted she “dominates play”, was “bossy” and “attention seeking”. Was school a straitjacket?
“Yeah, absolutely. I found the primary school really debilitating. I once had a detention for witchcraft. Harry Potter was the craze, and all my play used to manifest in something theatrical. I just wanted to perform. I used to write spells, and got in a huge amount of trouble for that.
“My next phase was I wanted to be a magician. I got a cape for that. I got into trouble, because it had satanic connotations.”
Feaver wanted to act, but found herself too anxious about going on stage. High school she would find a somewhat happier place than primary. At 16, she began writing musicals for fellow students to perform. While those early efforts will never again see the light of day, Feaver hopes to return to writing musicals at some point.
“I was wildly independent as soon as I left high school. I went straight to Vietnam [teaching English], lived there for a year. Went to New York. Then came back, lived in Sydney, and went off to the UK.”
Does she think her family’s Christian faith fuelled her rebellion? “Yeah, I think so. I’m trying to write a film about it at the moment. It’s about losing my virginity, and losing God. Those things happened at the same time.”
Now a declared atheist, Feaver says she likes playwriting because she enjoys “interrogating things. I don’t necessarily need to land on an opinion, but I think everything should be questioned”.
Feaver says she is an extrovert, and got into theatre because she thought people would surround her constantly.
“Instead, I realise that for the most part, it’s an incredibly lonely thing, and it’s a long game.”
While the critical enthusiasm for The Almighty Sometimes is opening doors, Feaver says she is still facing others’ reservations about her work, including a new play she is writing about rape culture.
“You try and pitch it and people’s eyes cloud over. They go, ‘That’s not an interesting play; it will end up like a TEDx lecture.’
“I go, well, that’s where the playwriting comes in: I take a topic that makes me really angry, or really interests me, something that’s a little bit contentious. You try to find the humour and the humanity in it; you try and find these believable characters you can pull outside of the issue and still imagine them walking around.
“I started pitching this play about rape culture about two years ago, and almost all literary managers said, ‘Oh, it’s too zeitgeisty; we can’t put it on’. So I stopped writing it for a while. And of course, hashtag #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein came up and I was like, ‘Oh fuck’.
“That was a hard lesson to learn: I had a chance to be prophetic about something, and instead it’s reactive.”