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Max McKenna on healing through theatre

Max McKenna chats to Hannah Diviney about their journey to self-discovery, the importance of non-binary representation, and their new show The Almighty Sometimes.

Max McKenna is making their mark on the Australian theatre landscape. McKenna, who burst onto the theatre scene with the stage adaptation of Muriel's Wedding the Musical, now stars in Kendall Feaver's play The Almighty Sometimes.

Kendall Feaver's multi-award winning play echoes conversations happening at dinner tables across Australia, while exploring into the universal tension that we're all too familiar with between a mother's care and a child's independence. Max plays Anna, an 18-year-old who stumbles upon stories she wrote as a child. It's a performance not to be missed - and one that we're sure will spark a lot of conversations.

Our Editor-in-Chief Hannah Diviney recently sat down with Max to discuss their brilliant new play, the importance of non-binary representation, and healing through theatre.

What can you tell us about the play? And what do you want people to know?

It's a beautiful Australian play by Kendall Feaver. It's about a young girl who has struggled with some mental health issues as a kid. And she is now 18, and she's trying to figure out what she's going to do with her life.

But some stories she wrote as a child she has recently found, and they've opened her mind to a whole new world of what she could possibly do in this world. This brings up the conversation with her mother of whether she should still be medicated or not for an illness she had as a child.

Wow. So how did you get the role in this play? Does it come to you? Do you audition for it? And had you heard of it before?

I was lucky enough to send the script for this and so what my interest was in it, and I read it, fell in love with it, and thought it was so modern, relevant, and powerful.

Yes, I know that feeling. What do you think it was about the play that particularly hit? I feel pretty confident that your teenager experience might have not necessarily been the smoothest? I mean, everybody figuring out their teenage identity is one thing, but your identity had a little more complexity to it than the average teen.

Yeah, being a non-binary neurodivergent person, my high school experience was incredibly difficult. And so this place has been really amazing. Healing in a lot of ways because I can relate to a lot of the stuff I've been through and that that sort of loss of identity and being told who you are, when you're still figuring out who you are.

Do you think part of that is because you almost get to reclaim some of your high school experience through playing Anna?

Definitely. I think being able to also give myself grace for that time as well. And, and to play through this character, how hard it is to be that age and to feel like an outsider, and to have had a different school experience a lot of your friends. It's been hard and painful to relive some of it. But it's also healing.

Definitely. How did it make you feel to be approached for this role as a non-binary person because - and this could be an assumption - but from what I can read, wasn't initially written that way?

No, and Anna as a girl still uses she/her pronouns in the piece. I feel as a non-binary person. It's interesting because at that age Anna is, 18, I was still using she/her pronouns and was masking a lot to an extent.

So it does, in a lot of way feel true to my experience, because that was the performance I was playing at that age anyway. And stepping back into it, I think that discomfort, will you know, whether Anna turns out in later in life that they do become non binary or they don't, it does go into that so much. But I like playing this age, because identity is so massive. I'm just going: "Who am I and where is my place in the world?" and "what do I look like in terms of the systems of the world? Where do I fit?"

It's a big question. I think part of the pressure is feeling like you have to have it all figured out. Which you definitely don't because life is long, hopefully, after 18 and there can be many, many chapters. And many changes.

You've had a very successful career so far and kind of gone from opportunity to opportunity, especially post pandemic. But what do you think the lay of the land is for you and up and other trans non-binary people who might want to be in your position?

Yeah, I feel it's changing. We're having more discussions around identity and representation on all fronts. I think that's positive. I think we still have a long way to go. I think I would really love to see more, you know, trans, non-binary, disabled people in positions of power. And in the positions of creating the work and producing the work. Because I don't think we're at that stage yet where that's happening enough on a commercial scale.

So there can still be a lot of tokenism. And so I think that's the biggest change I hope to see in the next 10 years, is that the positions of power start changing and reflecting our world a bit more.

On that note, is creating and producing something you would like to move into doing?


Well, I'll be right there with you! Now, obviously, this play is very beautiful and tender and there's only like four characters in it and you're obviously on stage a lot. What was the process like of preparing for the play? What were rehearsals like?

I tried to learn most of my lines before stepping into the rehearsal room. Yes, it's a lot of words and it's very fast paced text. I knew that it was a massive role to take on and I was already overwhelmed. And nervous. I did a lot of preparation work. Then in rehearsals, we've just been exploring and having lots of conversations about the family dynamic and about these characters. It's been a really cool experience and a really open experience. And most people in the room have dealt with these issues in their life or know someone who has and it's very touching and moving for all of us to be able to relive some of these experiences and shine a new light on it. 

Absolutely. I can imagine it would be a very bonding experience. And the like, you need to be specific you want audiences to take away from watching the play.

I definitely hope people walk away having good conversations and hard conversations, and I hope they break apart the play and the characters and decide for themselves what they think is right or how the system has failed some of these characters, because you know, the system is flawed.

My last question: if you could go back and show your 18 year old self you onstage, thriving and flourishing as you are, what would you say to them?

I would want them to know that life gets better and it keeps moving. Things are always going to change. I think at that age, I was very stuck in feeling why I didn't know how to get out of my situation. I didn't know how to find myself.

It's nice to know that you do find yourself, and things will always continue growing and flourishing and nothing stays stagnant.

The Almighty Sometimes is now showing at Melbourne Theatre Company.