Sunday, 28 May 2017

Dust Dramaturgy: Milly Thomas @ Edfringe 2017

Underbelly Cowgate (Big Belly), 66 Cowgate, Edinburgh, EH1 1JX Thursday 3rd – Sunday 27th August 2017 (not 15th), 16:40

A woman. A suicide. A choice. A fly on the wall. A funeral. A Bakewell tart. A life. A lie. A truth. An ending. Of sorts.
Dust by Milly Thomas (Clique, BBC3; Clickbait and A First World Problem, Theatre503) is a refreshing, caustic and comedic treatment of one woman’s depression, suicide and everything that happens afterwards. 

Alice thinks that life isn’t worth living. So she kills herself. Sort of. She is stuck, a fly on the wall. Forced to watch the aftermath of her suicide and its ripple effect on her family and friends, Alice quickly learns that death changes people. And that death is not the change she hoped for.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

It’s an idea I’d been sitting on for a while. It originally began life as a Channel 4 pilot that I wrote on the 4screenwriting course. The idea wouldn’t let me go – rather than redraft, I thought I’d try it as a monologue and it started falling into place. It gives a unique perspective on the story and has allowed us to go deeper and given us
room for far more honesty.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Absolutely. Theatre may not have the same reach as television, and there are still issues about accessibility. It’s our collective responsibility to keep the pressure on theatre’s class problem. 

But nonetheless I do believe theatre has the potential to affect those it reaches. There is much to be gained from sharing those experiences in a space with a live audience. You can’t switch it off! The problem is getting people through the doors.  

How did you become interested in making performance?

I’d always wanted to be an actor since I was annoyingly small. It hadn’t even occurred to me that there were other jobs in the profession when I was little. I’d worked as a stage technician very briefly on my year abroad in Berlin and had been opened up to just how many people it took to get a production off the ground. (BTW be nice to your stage managers everyone, without them you’re just an idiot in the dark.) 

Then as I went through drama school I started to get frustrated with the lack of roles for women and wanted to create stories I hadn’t seen. There is a certain acceptance of subservience that gets handed down to you when you’re training to be an actor. It never sat comfortably with me. 

Creating was another way of playing. I never questioned if I was any good at it or not – all I knew was I loved the job, but wouldn’t be comfortable waiting for my face to be the right fit for someone.

 Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
I’ve been working it with our director Sara Joyce at scratch nights from very early on in the process. As it’s a solo hour, audience feedback has been crucial for us. 

I’ve also been working with the astonishingly brilliant dramaturg Jules Haworth who’s got such a unique eye. It’s also been strange but useful to have grown the idea from a television script. Even though there’s huge differences it’s been brilliant to have that bank of knowledge when writing. I know Alice and her family as well as my own. 

Similarly it certainly isn’t the same, so remembering what’s changed or what works took a while but nothing that a block of post-its can’t fix.  

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

This will be the first time I’ve done a solo hour. I’ve played with monologues and direct address before in previous productions but this is a sustained hour with multiple characters and narratives. 

I’ve been excited to push the boundaries of a traditional monologue in R&D. It’s been important to keep challenging myself. It’s so much easier to take risks on the page when you know you’re not performing. It’s a constant balancing act between being truthful to yourself and not allowing yourself to get cosy. Getting cosy is death!

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope we’re going to have a laugh. Alice’s situation is kind of extraordinary and a pretty shit one at that. There’s a lot of fun to be had in amongst the pain.

That said this is a dark show and that’s very much where my sense of humour lies. And none of it should be comfortable. I don’t believe difficult subject matters should be trivialised to an easy watch. We’re not all going to hold hands, but we are going to have fun and hopefully get something deeper and more personal. And maybe call your family post show. 

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

It’s been constant batting to and fro between me and our director Sara Joyce. It’s beyond important for me to have her voice there. One person’s comedy gold is certainly not another’s and it’s important to tread carefully with the subject matter. My own experience of depression and suicide ideation make it easy for me to be glib, but I certainly cannot not speak for everyone. 

Together Sara and I are taking baby steps towards making something we hope is a laugh out loud punch to the gut.

In an unflinching examination of a suicide, this stripped-back monologue for one woman explodes the myth that death is a quiet affair, as it inspects the unavoidable practicalities, alongside the heart-wrenching decisions and pain - and the laughter.
Milly Thomas comments, I’m fascinated by the way we eulogise people once they’ve died. The way we rewrite whole lives to suit our own narratives and the use of euphemism as a masking tool of the dead never ceases to amaze me. I’m also keen to explore the way we’re looking at mental health now. It strikes me that we’re encouraged to disclose our mental health issues provided they’re past tense or we’re ‘high functioning’ as though we have to ensure that our illness conforms to social standards. 

While Dust is fiction, it’s a deeply personal story.
Dust is very much about life, about those who remain behind and how squeamish we are around death. How do you quantify a life? What if you lived as an arsehole but suddenly, in death, you’re a saint? And, if push came to shove, would your mother get your funeral right?

Deborah Frances-White of The Guilty Feminist says, Milly Thomas is an extraordinary performer, a fearless writer and one of the most relevant, vibrant, funny and insightful millennial voices working in British Theatre today. Often controversial, always daring, never disappointing-like the love child of Charlie Brooker and Diablo Cody.

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