BWW Interview: Milly Thomas's DUST Tackles Suicide With Wit
DUST is a morbidly funny one-woman play about suicide.
Playwright Milly Thomas' s one-woman show focuses on the life and death of Alice, a young woman weary of battling depression, eating disorders and self-harm. When the play opens, she's been dead for three days and awaiting an autopsy. But it's not depressing. In a state between Here and There, Alice can take it all in, and she's got a lot to say.
The subject couldn't be more relevant or topical than now, Thomas said. "We're living in a time where we're starting to confront stuff that's always been there, but the way we live has changed," she said, citing the sway of social media on teenagers and young adults. Thomas thinks going back to high school now would be a nightmare.
"My sister is 10 years younger than me and the pressures are enormous." Thomas said. "Cyber-bullying adds up to a lot of pressure on young people."
Alice, in her post-life state, is witness to events but can't alter her present or interact with the many other characters she inhabits.
Laced with one-liners and wisecracks, DUST has resonated with audiences in the UK, and Thomas hopes her New York debut will encourage conversations about mental health. Thomas has battled many of the issues explored in this production.
"One person's depression looks nothing like the others," Thomas said. "We're all affected by these issues, whether we talk about them or not. I wanted to write something that would be entertaining without the typical clichés or tropes."
DUST is not a ghost story. "People romanticize ghosts, but this has never been about a ghost.
Alice has a weird fascination with her own autopsy," Thomas said. "Alice wants to know what it would look like to go behind the curtain and see."She has a golden opportunity to see what would have been had she been alive."
Alice is British, grumpy and mundane. "She swears a lot like everyone else, but she's dead," said Thomas. She purposely didn't replace British references with Americanized versions."Audiences know Downton Abbey, they know Shakespeare, they'll understand the references," Thomas said with a laugh.
The play has been germinating for the past seven years, and Thomas drew on personal experience."I put myself into therapy a while ago even when I didn't feel well," she said. "I half wanted to wait until I felt better but realized I had to make it now. Sometimes you do have to be the change."
Thomas decided early on to write a play she would want to see. That's when her inspiration took flight. "I realized I wasn't so special, even though everyone's experience is unique," she said.
"I wish I could have told myself two years ago that I'd be bringing the play to New York. I wouldn't have believed it," she laughed. She was so stunned by the news that she didn't speak for three days.
The play, while sad, is not depressing, critics say. Its broad humor allows the dark sentiment about a young person's death to germinate.
"I never tried to make this funny. It just always was," Thomas said. "I always had a gallows sense of humor; it's my coping mechanism. I didn't want to sand the edges off.
"Sometimes while writing, I would realize this is very dark now and I need to lighten up," she added.
Thomas feels there should be more societal safeguards for those suffering with mental issues. "There are not enough recognized systems in place," she said, "the stigma is just beginning to lift. There should be more emergency services available."
The UK run of DUST benefited The Samaritans, a UK-founded charity that offers anonymous phone, text and email counseling.
Thomas remembers calling the Samaritans when she was 11.
"I couldn't do my math and I called," she laughed. A Samaritan representative had visited her school and made quite an impression when she suggested students could call on them anytime and it would be confidential.
"She told us a problem shared is a problem halved. They just listen, give up their time for free. People unpack enormous problems," Thomas said. "The work they do is amazing."
Thomas originally planned to be an actor and dabbled in short story and poetry writing before being inspired to write a play she would want to see. When she was trying to nurture her thespian aspirations, she grew frustrated. "It never occurred to me that playwriting would be something I should take seriously.
"I thought, 'This is rubbish. No one's eating or getting any work.'" She began to write prodigiously, entering as many competitions as she could find. "How do I stay in this industry that I love and have autonomy?" she asked herself. She never asked herself if she was running away from depression.
Thomas graduated in 2014 from the BA Acting at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
Her first full-length play, A FIRST WORLD PROBLEM, opened in July 2014 to critical acclaim. Her plays BRUTAL CESSATION and DUST ran at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, with Thomas receiving the Stage Edinburgh Award for her performance in DUST. The play transferred to Soho Theatre in 2017 and then to the West End at Trafalgar Studios in 2018. She has taken part in the Royal Court Writers' Group in 2016 and is developing DUST for television with Merman Productions.
"I cut my teeth on the Soho. It really nurtured me and it was an honor to play there," Thomas said. "It was transformative."Audience responses have run the gamut from shocked laughter to stunned silence. "It's a rollercoaster ride for the audience. Life is funny, "she mused.
"Laugh or cry, it's a tightrope we walk. I remember I dropped a cup of tea on one of my worst days and it smashed in my face.
"I chose to laugh. That's what I love about Brits," Thomas said. "We get squeamish about anything that really matters."
DUST will run at the New York Theatre Workshop's Fourth Street Theatre, 79 East 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue from Aug. 29 to Sept. 29.
Photo Credit: Richard Southgate