Interview with Milly Thomas on Dust, Mental Health and the Theatre’s Role in Voicing Personal Narratives

Exchanging questions with Milly Thomas, writer of the award-winning Dust, which opens at the Trafalgar Studios next month, Anthony Walker-Cook asks about displaying personal stories on the stage and what more needs to be done to help those with mental health issues. 

AWC: This play is based on your own experiences with depression – why have you decided to dramatize such a personal part of your life?
MT: While I’ve said in interviews that it’s based around my own experiences with depression the play isn’t and cannot be autobiographical. For a start, I’m very much alive! It’s something I was keen to write about because it felt like something I hadn’t seen discussed or portrayed in theatre. Where we do see suicide ideation it is so often irresponsibly portrayed and I felt very strongly that I didn’t see myself in those and I figured that I can’t be the only one feeling this way.

Your show traces the impact of suicide on the lives of loved ones close to the victim – how did you go about writing these difficult characters and scenarios?
A lot of writing is really putting yourself in your character’s shoes. Thinking about how you might feel if that were you. That, married with personal experience helped to give those characters a real and valid voice. Also, Sara Joyce, our director/dramaturg, was absolutely crucial in interrogating the play in development. She always made me ask why and explain what I meant, which I believe leads to greater clarity in the script.

What more needs to be done for those suffering with mental health issues?
Oh God, where to start? A lot is the short answer. We have a long way to go. Especially in terms of the NHS.

Milly Thomas. Photograph: Faye Thomas

Universities across the UK are struggling to cope with the increased demand to aide those students with mental health issues – what might you say to those friends who recognise a fellow student is struggling but feel they cannot offer any help?
If you feel you’re not in a position to offer help but feel the student is a danger to themselves or others it is absolutely imperative you alert local health authorities. If you feel they’re struggling and need to offload but feel you can’t be the one to listen charities like the Samaritans are open 24/7. Please point them in the direction of local services. A quick google about what’s available in your area and sharing that information could make all the difference.

The show has had successful and award-winning runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and Soho Theatre, but do you conceive of any challenges in bringing it to the Trafalgar Studios?

I’m quite excited about it reaching a new audience. The audience have changed ever so slightly from Edinburgh to Soho but Trafalgar brings in a whole new demographic and, I think, might push the play forward in terms of reaching people who might not be as familiar with the subject matter. It will be a challenge for sure, but one I’m relishing.

If you had to describe the tone of Dust in one word what would it be?
Brash. I think?! Ooh gosh, not sure…!

Milly Thomas in Dust. Photograph: The Other Richard

If Dust is trying to pose one question to the audience, what is it? And what is the answer?

What can we be doing for ourselves and those around us suffering? And that answer is going to be unique to everyone…

What was the best thing you saw in the past year on the stage?

Jellyfish by Ben Weatherill at The Bush. It was beautifully crafted with cracking dialogue and Sarah Gordy led that phenomenally.

Is there anything you wish you had seen ever? (The ‘who would you invite from history to a dinner party’ question for theatre).
Ooh. God. There are TOO many. Actually, I’d love to have seen a lot of the ones people bang on about just to check if they were actually worth their salt or if they stand up now. Like Pravda with Anthony Hopkins, you know? I also missed Girl From The North Country, which will haunt me forever.

What do you consider as the main recent positive developments to support those with mental health issues and what is the role of the theatre industry in influencing (and maybe for the positive changing) public attitudes towards mental health issues?
In all honesty, I feel there is a still a long way to go. Recent theatre festivals such as IAM (It Affects Me) and the outpouring of shows at the Edinburgh Fringe concerning mental health are hugely helping to lessen the stigma. The wave of voices in the wake of #metoo are also helping bring conditions like PTSD to the fore and making them commonplace in workplace discussion. But them being openly talked about isn’t the same with them being dealt with. We’ve got further to go.

Thanks to Milly for taking the time to answer our questions and to Tilly Wilson from Chloe Nelkin Consulting PR for organising. Dust will be at the Trafalgar Studios from the 4th September until the 13th October, 2018. 

Feature photograph: The Other Richard

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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