​Milk Playwright Ross Dunsmore on Bravery in New Writing

What do we need to nourish ourselves? Is love enough? Can we definitively say that Nandos are the kings of fast food? Such questions and more are explored in the invigorating new play Milk, on at the Traverse Theatre this festival. Alexander Gillespie sat down with first-time playwright Ross Dunsmore to learn more about his journey from open submissions to the Traverse One stage.

I would encourage writers, I’d encourage myself, to be a little bit braver.

How has your Fringe been so far?

We lost an actor with a week to go, so another actor had to step in and do some very quick, very last-minute rehearsing, but he’s been fantastic. Once the previews and the first couple of performances were done and the show had really settled, its been really enjoyable. I’ve gradually started seeing other things myself. Its hectic, its crazy, but in a good way – it’s been good.

Where did the inspiration for Milk come from?

A conversation that I overheard on a bus – a group of girls had been talking about a party that they had been to. They looked about thirteen, fourteen years old. One girl said to this other girl – “Did you hear that Scott ripped off Tracey’s top” – and this other girl said “Yeah, I think he really really likes her”.

It was a strange exchange that got me thinking about how affection is articulated in strange ways, and how our cravings and desires can become quite confused and quite damaging. So that opened up the theme of nourishment and sustenance.

Then the idea of the three stages of life – teenagers, a couple who had just had a baby and an elderly couple – and examining the idea of craving, sustenance, nourishment, what it meant to each of them.

Why did you choose to look at three ages spectrum rather than just focus on one?

I suppose because I think we are one, and at the same time all ages, in a sense. My early formative years are always with me, I often think about the future and what that will be like, so I guess you’re experiencing the entire age range at once in many ways. Also, it wasn’t really that thought through, I tend to find that the characters sort of arrive to you on the page and if they are interesting you stick with them and they become scenes and they become stories, rather than chasing them away. So I didn’t actually particularly sit thinking, I’ve got to write these three ages – they were just the characters that presented themselves and maintained my interest, and in a way they happened to represent three parts of a life. That seemed to work rather well. Yeah, I think I’d say that characters arrived rather than I went pursuing them.

So how much did the script change from the first draft to the final one?

Bizarrely, I would say that 60% of the script remained entirely intact, didn’t change one word. I guess once you’ve found something that works and you’re happy with, its best to leave it alone and not continue to tinker with it forever. So maybe 30% or 40% developed over the past year or so.

Both myself and Orla [O’Loughlin, artistic director of the Traverse and director of Milk] would just examine the script, see what was working, what wasn’t working. It was really only one couple, the central couple, that changed over time. The young couple and the older couple, pretty much from that first draft, most of it was exactly the same. It seemed to work, so we left it alone. It seemed the smartest thing to do.

How did you find working with Orla?

Fantastic, absolutely fantastic – she’s very inclusive, completely involved me in all the decisions about developing the script and the casting, welcomed me into rehearsals, so I think she’s fantastic – and a great champion of new writing. She took a big risk, a big risk on me and she’s brave to do that. She didn’t have to do that, so it was a brave choice and she made me feel very much part of the team, so I think she’s been great.

You worked previously as an actor, how was it being on the other side of the team?

Scarier, I think, or more scary in a different way. Certainly in performance, when you are an actor, you’re on stage, you can affect things in a way. If the energy is flagging, you can pick the energy up. If its maybe a little bit slow, you can push it along. You can do something with it. As a writer, once it’s up and running you watch it, you experience it with an audience, and it’s a performance, so there’s nothing you can do. I miss acting, but I am also quite relieved that other people have taken that responsibility.

How do you find the experience of watching it, with everyone else seeing it for the first time?

Great – the first couple of times quite scary, because your not sure how they are going to take it, but now the show’s settled and the show’s really tight, it’s really enjoyable to see their pleasure and to see them embrace the show, to lean into the show, to listen and catch the ideas. If there’s a funny idea or if its more playful, or intense or sadder ideas – when you see the audience connect with something you’ve put on the page its very rewarding, and you feel just part of the audience, part of the group that are enjoying something on stage.

Is there anything you wish you had known before you started writing the script?

No, No – I think I approached the work with honesty and integrity and I committed to it. It’s quite an intense experience, putting on your first play – Milk is my first play, not only the first play that I’ve had produced, but the first play that I’ve ever written. It’s not as though there are another four or five plays in a drawer somewhere, it’s my first ever – so to go from that to Traverse One, middle of the festival, is quite intense. I probably wasn’t quite prepared for how sharp or how bright the spotlight was on that. Having said that, its been very rewarding, the reaction has been incredibly positive. I wouldn’t say I would do anything different, but I’m slightly wiser now about what it’s like.

Before the show I was chatting downstairs with a lady selling playscripts – and she mentioned that your script got accepted here around the same time you got accepted into a development program…

The script was accepted here the same time I was accepted into Playwright Studio Scotland, who do a mentoring program for new playwrights. The two things were running at the same time.

So how have you find that mentoring program?

Great, Great! My attention was obviously split, and as the play shifted more into full production I had to shift my focus here, but I was working with Lynda Radley who wrote The Interference and she was great, working on another piece of work that is not finished yet, but her input was fantastic. She’s a playwright and she’s done this many times before, and It’s all new to me, so her insight and generosity was fantastic. It was sometimes quite refreshing to step away from here, and just think about something else entirely, and come back and reinvest here. Having two things on the go wasn’t such a bad thing really. There’s a danger of getting overly obsessed I guess, just spending every minute of every day thinking about one particular piece of work, which ultimately might not be helpful or good for that piece of work. So having the two things was great.

Is it scary to give your script to a director, to someone else, and let it go?

Yeah, but more and more I think you have to, writers have to be a bit braver. There’s a temptation to hide yourself away and write something perfect and present it to the world and that’s never going to happen. I’ve always found that when I have taken the risk and given the work to people to read they have always been very generous and supportive in their feedback, not nasty or mean about the work, but trying to figure out what it is and what you’re trying to do to support you. I would encourage writers, I’d encourage myself, to be a little bit braver. If you write something and you like it then show it to people. It’s not as though you can’t then change it.

Milk plays at the Traverse this Fringe. Full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/milk/716138

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