Writing the fine line between sanity and madness: Wakefield’s Kristen Dunphy

Drawing on her own mental health struggles, the award-winning Australian TV writer talks about creating characters who are more than their diagnoses.

You might think we’ve come a long way in terms of talking openly about mental illness. But according to Kristen Dunphy, the Australian TV screenwriter, creator and co-showrunner of Wakefield, the ABC’s new 8-part drama set in a Blue Mountains psychiatric ward, we’ve still got a very long way to go.

Dunphy says that stigma, fear and ignorance persist, and admitting you’ve been a patient in a psych unit is still a very brave thing to do. She knows what she’s talking about. The only way she could pitch and sell her show was to get personal and talk about the fact she was writing from intimate and painful experience.

Getting personal

‘I had a hospitalisation in 2009,’ she says on the phone to Screenhub. ‘And when I got some distance on that experience – which was horrible and devastating – I realised that it was an incredibly rich and dynamic environment. I’ve written a lot of TV series across my career, lots of medical procedurals and crime procedurals, and I was asking myself, “why aren’t there more shows set in psych units?” I guess I got my answer when I tried to pitch the series. Pitching and selling and getting the money together was incredibly difficult. It’s difficult anyway, but when you’ve got a subject that people are afraid of, it’s that much harder.’

The power of Dunphy’s personal story, and the license her candour gave her to tackle the subject in fiction, were recognised by producer Jason Burrows of Jungle Entertainment, who took on the project and insisted that Dunphy be active for pitching to investors and broadcasters, including telling her story multiple times at the MIPCOM TV market when they were looking for an international distributor. 

‘That was very challenging,’ she remembers. ‘Telling my story ten times a day to different people was like speed-dating, telling them about my awful time in a psych ward. I started to get used to it and that’s why I now wear a T-shirt now that says “Batshit Crazy!”‘

A recurring fear by those being pitched about the show was that it would be ‘too dark’, which Dunphy says is ridiculous considering how easy it is to sell shows about raped women and dismembered bodies.

‘Telling my story ten times a day to different people was like speed-dating, telling them about my awful time in a psych ward. I started to get used to it and that’s why I now wear a T-shirt now that says “Batshit Crazy!”‘

Kristen Dunphy

The initial draft of the screenplay was written when she won the 2012 Foxtel Fellowship, a $25,000 writing award for an established TV screenwriter to take some time out to work on a passion project. Foxtel ultimately passed on the project, and after some years of anguish, the ABC gamely came on board. Now all eight episodes of the ‘psychological mystery’, with its unique mix of comedy, drama and musical numbers is screening on iView, with a linear broadcast set from the 18th April.

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Structured as a puzzle, and starring the charismatic British actor Rudi Dharmalingam as a capable and caring pysch nurse wrestling with his own demons, the show skilfully explores the idea that everyone, from patients to doctors, exists on a spectrum of illness and wellness, and this can change dramatically over time. Sam Meikle is co-writer and co-showrunner, Chloe Rickard is Executive Producer, and Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt are the directors on the series that was made, with some difficulties and delays during the horrors of COVID.

Kristen Dunphy on the Blue Mountains set of Wakefield. Photo: Mark Rogers. 

Mental illness doesn’t fit the procedural show

Across her 30-year-career of writing, story producing and script editing, Dunphy has been the recipient of three AWGIE Awards, for Best Mini-Series Television Drama for The Straits (ABC) in 2012; Best Television Series Drama for EastWest 101 (SBS) in 2008; and Best Television Series Episode for White Collar Blue (Network 10) in 2003. She famously got her start in the industry in 1987 after cold calling a list of producers looking for work, including Sandra Levy, who was producing Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide. Dunphy was given the role as Armstrong’s assistant, and then Levy took her over to the ABC when she was appointed Head of Drama.

Dunphy’s earliest scripts were for medical show G.P. and in the years since have taken in medical drama All Saints, teen dramas Heartbreak High and Bluewater High and police shows Wildside and Water Rats. In summary, she knows her way around the formulas and structures of writing episodic drama. And this was another thing that struck her when it came to putting mental illness on screen. It didn’t work that way.

‘With procedural drama you’re relying on solutions, often within an episode and you’re just not going to get that with mental illness, because it’s not a quick fix. It’s very very complex. You can’t just throw someone on a table and operate. So I knew I couldn’t do Wakefield as a procedural, not that I wanted to, anyway.’

‘With procedural drama you’re relying on solutions, often within an episode and you’re just not going to get that with mental illness, because it’s not a quick fix.’

She says that with the series she intended to create a piece of entertainment that depicted characters as people first, avoiding giving them diagnostic labels, because diagnostic labels ‘are really just shorthand for medical professionals trying to describe clusters of symptoms. It’s a way of getting funding and assistance for people by giving them a tag, but those diagnoses often change over time to be another thing. Mental illnesses are very amorphous.’

‘What I was trying to do was, first of all, get inside the head of various characters, whether they had a diagnosed mental illness, or whether they were a staff member or family member. Just walking in people’s shoes, really getting in their head and using a lot of point of view so we can experience some of what they’re experiencing.’

These differing points of view, often around a single incident or piece of time, allow the series to switch focus, whether that’s to uptight psychiatrist Kareena (Geraldine Hakewill), aggro unit nurse Linda (Mandy McElhinney), or a variety of patients, played by actors including Dan Wyllie, Harriet Dyer, Bessie Holland and Megan Smart.  

Wakefield co-writer and co-showrunner Sam Meikle on set with Kristen Dunphy. Photo: Mark Rogers.

People do get well, and live productive lives

Dunphy said she also wanted to show that people do get well, and do move back into normal life and into continuing to function at work, despite recurring cycles of illness, as has been the case with her own life. ‘People do manage their illnesses and lead valuable lives.’

‘I told this story on my segment on the Tap Into Mental Health program,’ she recalls. ‘I had postnatal depression and I was in St John of God’s hospital, and my husband and I had no money and it was like we were going to have to sell the house. I got the offer to write on All Saints, and I had to take the job, and I talked to the hospital and they said’ we could work around it. I was extremely unwell, but my husband brought the outfit in for me to go to the plotting conference and I turned up – they had no idea I’d come from a psych ward. I plotted the story with them, went back to hospital and shuffled up the corridor and wrote the episode. They took the baby at certain times so I could write, and the nurses were very curious about what was going to happen on the show! I love that story because that episode won an AFI award, not for writing, but an overall award. I wouldn’t have been able to work during the two other admissions I had, but that time my brain actually could compartmentalise.’

Dunphy says that talking about her own experience so openly has allowed many others in the cast and crew to open up to her about their own struggles or those of close family members. She hopes that by talking about it more openly as a society, people will feel better about seeking treatment (the whole issue of public funding for mental health is another kettle of fish) and learning how to support each other through the long haul.

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Are there psychological threats that come with being a drama writer? Dunphy says mining your own experiences can make you vulnerable, but for an experienced writer it’s second nature to use your own griefs, childhood traumas and relationship breakups. ‘I was worried about this question, coming from the production company, about whether writing this material might be triggering for me. I did find it confronting and difficult at times, but not as confronting and difficult as the fight to get the show made!’

As for what’s next, as showrunner, she’s still very active in the social impact campaign that’s going to run alongside the broadcast of Wakefield. ‘I feel like there’s a real responsibility to run this around mental health and the issues that might come up. But after that, I need a bit of a rest after working harder than I ever have in my life. I need to look after my own mental health!’

Wakefield is available on ABC iView now and will have its linear broadcast on ABC from Sunday 18 April at 8.30pm.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram