Writer and actor Milly Thomas is best known in the theatre world for her 2016 play Clickbait and for writing an episode of Clique on BBC Three. This Fringe she is presenting two plays of her own penning: Dust at Underbelly – which she also stars in – and Brutal Cessation at Assembly. James T. Harding met her to talk about the process behind the two plays, her duty of care to the audience, and how best to support emerging, diverse writers.
All of the sex in the play is a moment of discovery
‘My first Fringe was in 2007,’ says Thomas, ‘and I've been coming up every year as a performer but I've never had my own writing up here before. Everyone always assumed I had. I said, "It would be nice to finally take something to the Fringe." And everyone said, "OMG really have you not yet?”
‘It’s such a right of passage but also, as my dad loves to remind me, it's the single largest trade fair for our profession in the whole world – and I'd not taken my wares, as it were.’
‘It never occurred to me that I was taking two until about April. I was developing them both separately. I do feel like I'm jumping in the deep end.’
Thomas’s two shows are on at conflicting times so, when I met her, she hadn’t had a chance to see Brutal Cessation since previews. ‘People are wanting to have a conversation about the play but I have no idea what it looks like now.’
Dust is a play about Alice, whose body is lying on a mortuary slab. We learn she committed suicide, we learn why, and we see how the consequences of this are beyond her control - and not really what she expected.
Thomas wrote and performs in Dust, but the two roles are quite separate in her mind. ‘I know when I'm an actor and the writer's in the room I never relax, ever. No matter how lovely they are, you're always thinking is this what they want?
Thomas has to play multiple characters in the show, quickly switching back and forward between them. ‘When we meet Alice first, she's not a reliable narrator and it's only when you see the experiences of the others that you're able to put Alice's experiences in context.’ When rehearsals began, ‘I was suddenly very aware that I'd not done any acting in forever.’
Thomas didn’t have the headspace to think about changing the script at the same time as developing her performance. ‘I feel like I'm driving a car and someone asks you to get something from the back seat. Absolutely not! I need to keep my eyes on the road or I'll crash.’
Instead, Sara Joyce (Dust director) and Jules Haworth (Soho Theatre) acted as dramaturges during the week’s rehearsals. ‘Both of them have such a brilliant eye,’ said Thomas with enthusiasm. ‘We were cutting; we added nothing. (It was running at an hour and twenty…) I wasn't generating anything in the room other than performance. That was important just for my own sanity.’
Dust features quite a lot of sex, post pre- and post- humous. ‘There's something about Alice being able to see these people who she thought she knew inside out, and who thought they knew her, in this position. All of the sex in the play is a moment of discovery. It's when we're at our rawest and most vulnerable.’
‘I am very unapologetic for the sex in it, because it's important to me to present Alice as high functioning. Myself and so many other people exist on this plane where we're able to get up and do things every day – it doesn't effect our jobs. That's a blessing and a curse. Who's going to say Stop when you're presenting as fine? I was keen to show someone who was flawed, isn't easy to eulogise, a human being; but also someone who has wants and desires like anyone else.
‘There's the sex you enjoy because it's enjoyable, and then there's the sex that, as a young woman you feel… not that you have to endure, but there's something that's expected of you.’
Despite its ghostly premise, Dust is a fairly traditionally told story. Brutal Cessation is more of a concept play: a couple teeter on the verge of breaking up, violence lurks in the background, and then the scenes are repeated in reverse but with the roles reversed.
‘I've wanted to do something swapping gender for a long time. In 2015 I took a case of assault to trial. What happens when you press charges is you're entered into a system – there are hundreds of you. I was referred to for the entirety of the trial and the built up to it as “the victim”. I accepted it immediately, because there's something about authority, and internalised it. But months later I thought That was scary. If I'd been a man would I have internalised that so easily?’
The experience of watching Brutal can be challenging at times, because it confronts the audience with its own internalised sexism. ‘In rehearsals, something rears it's head and I think Oh my god, I thought I'd banished that from myself!’
Thomas and director Bethany Pitts were keen to develop the two characters in the play as distinct individuals, rather than gender stereotypes. ‘When they swap they're playing the same characteristics,’ almost like characters without gender. ‘I wrote the play with really specific people in mind, two friends of mine who are not actors. They're not a couple. They don't even know each other. So I know who those people are.’ Then in rehearsal ‘we spent a long time in rehearsal workshopping who each of them were,’ a process which involved mood boards and much discussion of what would be on the character’s iPods. ‘Those characters have an arc and a keel. You think you can predict what they're going to do. And then it's when a character does something different that you're surprised, rather than it being haphazard.’
‘The very point of the play is that it's your bodies which are talking, the body provides the context; which is terrifying really.’
One of the clearest examples of this involves one of the characters trying to get the other to lick an open wound. When the woman does this to the man, it is unnerving; when the man does it to the woman, it’s horrific. ‘We've worked very hard to make sure those moments are strategic and not gratuitous.’
‘In the original read-through we did a coin toss to see who played which part first. Alan [Mahon] went first playing the more aggressive character. It was hugely unbearable to the point where me and Beth nearly asked him to stop – bless Alan, he did exactly what we wanted him to do. We finished the read-through and we all felt so drained. But Beth was energised because we found something interesting to play around with.’
‘To put that first read-through on a stage would have been irresponsible, boring, and utterly careless. I'm very aware that there's a huge duty of care to audiences with both shows, but I also don't want to shy away from reality.’
Supporting New Writers
Although Thomas has only been writing since 2013, she has completed an unusually large number of writing courses, mentoring schemes, and development initiatives. ‘I was in a unique position because I had my first play produced before I'd done any courses. I realised, Oh I know jack-shit about structure.’
She is full of praise for her various tutors but ‘just the idea that someone is taking you seriously is all you need sometimes – your work and your voice are legitimate. It's someone who owes you nothing saying You're good and I believe in you.’
For example, ‘I didn't own a copy of Final Draft when I got the Clique job. I remember freaking out thinking, I don't know how to use this software how am I meant to write?’
Dave Evans and Bryan Elsley of Balloon Entertainment ‘were like, Chill out. We think you've got something and can bring your voice to this. They were so, so kind. I adore people who work in development – they're all as hungry and angry as me.’
I asked what barriers still exist for writers like Thomas. ‘I remember seeing a woman reading the news when I was about six. I remember it like a lightening bolt – Oh! A woman can read the news! I was only little but I'd assumed men in suits ran the world. Unless you see’ other people like you doing it, where does that spark that makes you want to be a news reader in the first place come from?’
‘The only reason I was able to do Dust this year is other people have spoken so candidly about their mental health and made work about it in years gone by. People have paved the way before me and gone though enormous amounts of shit so that I've gone though less.’
‘It's a pass-it-on type deal.’
You can see Milly Thomas in Dust at the Underbelly. Our review and the listings information are here: http://broadwaybaby.com/shows/dust/719872
Brutal Cessation is running at Assembly. Our review and listings: http://broadwaybaby.com/shows/brutal-cessation/719799