Could you first introduce yourselves to the readers?
Chelsea: My name’s Chelsea Hillier, I finished school about a year ago and I play Heather.
Jayden: My name’s Jayden Marshall and I play Romeo in the play. I moved here from a place called Whyalla to study the ACA, which is the Actors’ Centre of Australia, in 2016.
Kiara: I’m Kiara Wiese and I’m playing Anna.
What has it been like, doing a play about teenagers suffering from mental health issues?
C: Well, when I got into it I had no idea what it was about. I just went to an audition and thought it looked pretty cool, and then I actually read the script. It was very hard-hitting for me; it’s something that’s very close to my heart because of personal experience. I do have a single mum who was quite abusive in my childhood, and watching Heather try and tell her story in her own way is really hard. I’m nothing like Heather - I’m loud, I’m boisterous, I’m very noticeable - but Heather is the person who sits in the corner and doesn’t want to be noticed by anyone. When trying to become Heather it was quite difficult because of those differences, but knowing that her and I aren’t really that different it was, I guess, kind of easier. We have gone through the same stuff, we are both coming out the other side, and we’re going to become better people because of it.
Were you glad you were cast as a character who’d had similar experiences to you, or would you have rather played a character who’d had completely different experiences?
C: Well, when Laura cast me I don't think she realised that I personally related to the character, and when I found out that I was playing this character everyone around me got quite upset and wondered if I was going to be okay, knowing my history and everything, and I said yes and no. It’s an issue in my life that is very raw, but I used the play as a way to come to terms with it, and used it as a way for me to look at it from another person’s perspective, and understand that yes it happened, yes it sucked, but it’s not happening anymore. I’m out of that situation and I don't have to deal with that anymore. I guess, coming from that, I've learnt that if people in your life are treating you with such disrespect and treating you like you don't matter, and being physically abusive, they don't deserve a place in your life. You don't need people around who treat you like sh*t and make you feel like sh*t, because that's not okay. Life is too short to have people in your life who don't care about you and your wellbeing and have a negative impact on you.
Jayden or Kiara, do you relate to your characters in any way?
K: I actually auditioned for a different character - I auditioned for Anon - and then they approached me and said ‘we don't want to play on stereotypes but you're really thin’, and asked me if I’d like to audition for Anna. And I was actually laughing to myself, because when I was 12 I was diagnosed with anorexia, and when they found out they asked me if I was sure I wanted to read for that character, but it’s been so long that it’s okay. So I auditioned for her and I ended up getting her, which was nice in a way; I suppose it’s been so long since I've been experiencing it fully that it was okay, and I wanted to use it to help other people. That was my mentality on the character.
J: In some aspects I do, in some I don’t. he’s definitely there for a lot of comic relief, and he’s definitely the ladies’ man of the group - that’s where I come in! But there’s also a serious aspect about him that's not in the play; he was raped when he was younger, which is why he’s so focused on getting girls and stuff like that. I only found that out halfway through rehearsing, so it was strange how much that changed it for me.
How did that change your portrayal of him?
J: Well, for instance, in the scene with Jane, when I say ‘I’m no boy, I’m a man, a real man’, before I found out what had happened I thought he was just playing with her, but now I know that it’s because he’s scared of being a boy, because when he was a boy he was raped. So everything sort of changes its meaning. But I enjoy playing stuff that I have no relation to, because it’s fun; you get to start from scratch.
There’s a lot in the play about masculinity and ‘being a real man’; did you experience a lot of those expectations growing up?
J: Yeah, I have seen it a bit. Not so much in my household, but I have seen it a bit. But the reason why I haven’t seen it so much is because you don't see it - it’s hidden. But the expectations are there - if you were to walk into the hallway at school crying it would be a joke.
How do we change that?
J: Good question! I think it’s all about the younger generation. If you get them to realise that it’s okay for men to have feelings, they’ll grow up thinking it’s fine and then it will just become normal. That’s why it’s so good that this play is happening and it has a younger cast and schools are coming to see us, because they’re going to see it’s okay, and then when they see a guy crying they’re going to think it’s normal.
What support did you have when you were going through the struggles you faced?
K: Well I was really ashamed, so I was only 12, and in the year leading up to it my mum had a stroke. I was always the troubled child so I took that upon myself and thought it was my fault that she’d had the stroke, and I was modelling my behaviour to this ideal of perfection that I had, which obviously isn’t healthy. And my uncle died, and he was someone who I was extremely close to, so I was feeling all this pressure to be this perfect specimen of a human and it got to a point where I was having panic attacks every day before school. One day my mum told me she thought I had an issue, and privately I agreed with her, but at the time I was adamant that I didn’t. They wanted me to go to hospital - I was not going to go to hospital. It was just such a shameful issue and at the time there wasn't so much awareness, like there is now, and there weren’t plays like this that I could go to and see myself portrayed and know that this is okay; this is something that it’s fine to have, and it’s normal. I was in a place where it wasn't ‘out in the daylight’, I guess. It was something to be ashamed of - or so I thought - and I was so young that my school weren’t really aware that it was an issue they had to think about, so they didn't handle it very well. But my family were really supportive of me. My mum was amazing throughout my recovery. And they gave me options: I could quit school, if I needed that, I could go to hospital, they’d support me in that, I could go to a dietician, I could go to a psychologist, and they left it all up to me and supported me.
J: I didn't struggle with mental health as such, but I guess the thing that I struggled with was, living in Whyalla, when you finish high school there's two routes to go, you go to uni and study engineering or you go to the mines. None of that was appealing to me at all. And it’s not the kind of place where you can get up in front of your classroom and say ‘I want to be an actor’. You’d be ridiculed. So that was tough to keep in, but my mother always told me that I should do what I wanted, and I never knew what I wanted to be but I knew it was something public. So every day she’d ask me what I wanted to do and it started as a TV host, then it would move to a journalist, and every day she’d print me off ten different articles about how to break into that career. I do owe it all to her, because she didn't have to do that stuff for me, but she cared, so as long as you have somebody that cares I think you're fine.
C: Personally, I didn't have a lot of support - I didn't have many friends at school, and my mum was the abuser so I couldn't really turn to her. However, I am one of eight siblings, and we were all going through it together, so turning to each other and being there for each other was pretty much the only thing that we had. And because it had been happening pretty much since I could remember it was kind of normal. It just became a routine for us, and we knew that if mum was in a bad mood, then we wouldn't talk to her, we’d just wait for her to be happier. But in terms of support, I didn't seek any because I guess I was ashamed that my mum was doing this to us, and no one knew about it. I only started to seek support when I got kicked out of home. That was a really tough time for me, and I am a lot better now after seeking that support, but it took my world to crumble before I was able to seek that help. I was in a position where I didn't feel like there was anyone out there who could support me, but then, once I actually looked, there are a lot of people.
How do you think the changing attitudes towards mental health have affected those who suffer from mental health issues?
K: So, I have an uncle who’s very firm in his ideas, and very strong-willed, and we were chatting about his youngest son. He has issues with food in a different way to me - bingeing, mainly, because they didn't have enough food growing up - but my uncle said the issue doesn’t exist until you get diagnosed. And I was completely freaking out in my head because I wanted to say something and I wanted to stand up for everyone who’s had a mental illness, but I knew at the time - I was young - that he wouldn't take my word. And it’s rubbish - you can have a mental illness whether or not you’ve been diagnosed - but it struck me that there are people out there who just completely don't realise what its like. But the turn of the tide of the media, making it more open, is so beneficial; I have a friend now who has an eating disorder as well and she's extremely open about it, and it’s amazing because back then I couldn’t even tell people. And she has an Instagram account and is supporting others, and it’s just amazing to see how she can do that and have the support of everyone else. It blows my mind - it’s incredible how much it’s turned the tide and how people can be so much more open. It’s such a better way to deal with the problem because there’s so much shame associated with mental illness, so by bringing it into the public eye it gets rid of that shame and people can get the help they need.
C: Obviously growing up it wasn't something that I could tell people about, however now that I’m older I have had support, and people who say ‘it’s not your fault, it’s not something you brought on, there’s nothing you could have done to stop it’. Because of the issue itself I got a lot of personal self doubt and it basically just made me feel like crap. But once I realised that it’s not my fault and it’s not something I could have changed, I began to see it in a different light. I don't really talk about it to a lot of people, but if I feel like I’m in a situation where it can help a lot of people I’m a lot more open about it. I guess, in terms of media, they do still try and suppress it - there are way more people who try to suppress it than people who want to be open about it - and it’s still something I fight every day. It’s not something that happens to everyone, and you don't go into a public place and say, ‘look, I was abused by own mum, but I still aspire to be like her and I love her with all of my heart, but I hate that she did this to me’, because people look at you and think you’re attention-seeking and that you just want people to feel sorry for you. It’s definitely something I still struggle with every day; it is a pressing issue in my life, it’s been a pressing issue in my life since I can remember, but I think that knowing that the world is changing, and knowing that it does happen to more people than you think (or would like to think), does make you feel less different and broken and wrong.
J: I think the most important thing is that people just don't stop talking about it, because the more people talk about it the more it becomes just like talking about where you’re going to have dinner tonight. I think that the most powerful tool of communication is word of mouth, so if one person talks about it to two people and those two people listen and understand that it’s okay, those two people will then go and talk to more people about it and it starts a chain reaction and everyone will be talking about it. Especially role models. I think if role models are talking about it, then all their followers think ‘well if they’re talking about it I can talk about it’. So just don’t stop talking about it, and know that mental health issues are difficult, but they can be fixed.
What advice would you give to young people struggling with mental health issues?
C: Almost everyone says it; you aren’t alone. You’re not the only one battling with this issue. You may not see it in other people because a lot of people, when they have a mental illness, tend to hide it, because they’re ashamed or they feel like no one will support them. However, it is very important to understand that you are not alone. If you feel alone it’s just your mind telling you that. You have so many support networks around you, whether it’s your family, your friends, your partner, whoever, there are people around you who love and care for you. Your life is precious. You make a difference in this world, no matter how small you think it is. Your presence on this earth is a big thing that fulfils the world - everyone is here for a reason, in my opinion - so I need people to understand that, just because there’s an issue happening now, doesn’t mean there's going to be the same issue happening in the next ten years. Things change, people change, things go away, things stop being an issue when you come to terms with how they’ve affected you.
J: Again, the main thing is talking about it, but talking about it is only half the battle - there needs to be someone there who wants to listen. And organisations like headspace are incredible but a lot of people don't want to talk to strangers, they want to talk to someone they love, and if they don't have anyone who wants to listen they’re not going to want to open up. So I think the other half of the battle is, people who aren’t suffering and know someone who is, need to offer to listen, so that they can talk about it.
K: I think something that’s really important is not to be ashamed, and to seek help if you need it. Don't think you can tough it out or do it on your own, because even if you can, you need that support. There are other people who have been through it and can guide you through your recovery. That’s hugely important. Also, you don't know the impact you’re making on other people - like, for me, I can actually talk to my friend who’s struggling through the same thing and be a really big support for her, and do this, do this play, and actually relate to my character. And take each day as it comes, as well, and celebrate the small victories - if you’ve gotten out of bed that’s a great thing, you’re not wallowing in your own brain, which is something you can fall into really easily. And be kind to yourself. Let yourself do what you need to do and treat your body nicely.
How do you think the arts are important, particularly with regards to mental health?
C: In general, I think the arts love grasping a topic that nobody wants to talk about and throwing it on a stage or at a screen and they just force you to look at it and force you to be a part of it. It’s such a crucial thing in our society because there are a lot of topics that nobody wants to talk about because they’re too hard, or because everyone’s struggling, and I love that the arts make us talk about them because it’s helped me personally, and I can only imagine how many other people it’s helped.
J: I think the arts are important because at the end of the day it’s an escape. You can go somewhere for two hours and just be completely transfixed by this performance or movie or whatever, and whether it’s a serious topic or just to be entertained I think it’s very important.
K: I suppose even for the people making the art there are ways to put your emotions into something that’s really tangible, instead of just wallowing in your own brain, which is something I find when I create things. You’re able to create things that can make a lasting impression on others, and in doing that you give the feeling less power over you.
C: There’s a line at the end of the play where Kate says, ‘Don’t look at the words, look at what they really mean’, and I think you can apply that to every single production, film, or piece of art that is given to the world. Don’t hear the words and just be done with it. Understand what we’re trying to say, or at least try, because with every form of art there is always an underlying issue that we’re trying to tackle. Take the time to work out what the artist is really talking about.
Thank you so much to Chelsea, Jayden and Kiara for doing this interview and sharing so much with Voicemag. We wish you all the best of luck with everything.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity