Interview With Writers of The Mill

Damien Atkins' The Mill Part 4: Ash is the final installment in Theatrefront's award-winning play cycle set in the fictional frontier town of Brody.  We asked some of the writers for their thoughts on The Mill, and the nature of collaborating with other playwrights on a multi-part series.

PGC: How did The Mill originate, and what was the inspiration for your contribution?

Damien Atkins: The Mill started with Matt MacFadzean and Daryl Cloran, who wanted to create a piece of serialized theatre, something audiences would get hooked on and come back to over and over. They conceived of a four part epic, and asked Tara and Hannah and I to work with them. It took us a while to figure out how to collaborate on a project on this - how to achieve a cohesiveness in the story but also give us all room to contribute something to the project. Finally, Matt decided to write a four part poem that addressed some of the thematic/tonal elements he wanted to see in the story. We took the poem away, spent some time with it, and we were all asked to pick one part of the poem. In what I can only describe as a fantastic piece of good luck, we all chose different parts of the poem. I gravitated to the final segment, which was called Ash.

Matthew MacFadzean: The Mill originated when I sat down with Daryl Cloran (producer, director of Now We Are Brody) about 6 years ago.  I wanted to do an episodic for the stage - similar to a TV model - where we introduce the audience to a set of characters and a situation and then get each 'episode' to be written by a different writer and directed by a different director - so that each episode is stylistically different from the last, yet at the same time tells a long story that carries over four pieces.

We discussed the idea of "Canada as a haunted house" and "our past is a ghost" and these ideas really resonated with each of the writers.  For my piece, I decided to do something that's never done in the theatre - a horror story.  I always find myself compelled to push the envelope and to try things out that are difficult and to find theatrical solutions to these very filmic problems - i.e. let's have this lyca creature crawl down a wall, let's send Goody Jessup into a sawmill - how do we do this in theatre?  I love these problems.  And I love horror movies.  I also realized that creating a buzz was important for the first chapter of this saga, so i wanted my show to have a big splash - so a horror story it was.

Hannah Moscovitch: The Mill concept was Matt’s MacFazdean’s and Daryl Cloran’s. They invited me to be a part of the project. My episode was inspired by Matt’s and by reading I did of and about Victorian Gothic Literature.

PGC: What was it like to create a piece that you knew was part of a larger whole?  To what degree did you collaborate with the other writers?

DA: It was difficult! Everyone had their own challenges, I think, but for me the challenge was to find a way to end the story. I felt a real responsibility to "answer" for the other three parts, to find some way to honour the other playwrights' work and bring the story to a close. At the same time, I wanted to write something that would interest me, and something that would challenge me. We knew a few basic things: the story was all going to be set at a mill, we were all going to use the same basic set, and the same company of eight actors. We knew what the types were for those actors, too. We knew we had our young lady heroine, and our big burly guy, and a weird little girl, etc. Other than that, though, we were pretty free. I think the smartest thing we did was decide to write our first drafts independently of each other, and then try to find the unconscious links between the plays afterwards. There were so many interesting links! We were all trying so hard to write our own stand-alone plays, but there already seemed to be a group-mind at work, and that was cool. I think this approach made the overall tetralogy more surprising and subtle. The series has a rich underpinning now, because of all of that work.

MF: We collaborated a huge deal, going back and forth with drafts and emails to make sure our pieces were being incorporated into the others but also that the other pieces were being respected by our own.  It was a very difficult and extremely rewarding experience.  In some ways I had the easiest job as I created a template that the others then had to work with.  And then in other ways i had just as hard a job as i then had to go back to my piece and change things so that the other plays still made sense.

HM: It was a strange relief. It’s nice not to always be solely responsible for the vision of a play. I like to work with directors who will participate in the creation of the play with me so this was just a more extreme version of that, of working with other people to make something that can communicate with an audience.

PGC: Has seeing your work in the context of the other three provided you with any new insights on your writing?

DA: It's always interesting to talk to other playwrights, and be involved in their work in some way, because playwriting is usually such a solitary art. I learned a great deal about playwriting in general from working with (and observing) Hannah, Tara and Matt. It was a humbling and inspiring experience. And a lot of those lessons found their way into Ash.

MF: I learned a great deal about what to give up and also what not to give up.  There are a few shifts I made in my play that I think were to the detriment of my piece but helped the series as a whole - I learned a lot from this, both professionally and personally.  Seeing my piece in the context of the three others certainly gave me an appreciation for how other writers approach similar material and I learned a lot about writing from working with writers whom I hold in high esteem.  I'd like to think I grew as a writer from working with great writers.

HM: I’ve learned a lot about how other writers arrive at a final draft from an initial idea. I’ve also learned about what my preoccupations are and what my style is as a writer by being around other writers who think and create differently than I do.

PGC: What advice would you offer writers embarking on a similar process?

DA: The rewards that come with trying something like this out are tremendous. Kind of unbelievably tremendous, actually. But you will need patience. You will need to learn when to be flexible. You will need to learn when to be humble and when to be confident. You will also need an amazing and committed cast (like ours) and some open-minded directors. But don't be afraid! It's fun not to have to work alone all the time!

HM: I think so much depends on the collaborators. The collaborators determine the process. But if I had to say one thing that worked for us I would go with: stick with a common location and connections between the plays will emerge.

MF: I doubt there will be too many other writers embarking on a similar process to this, but if there are, I say go for it.  It is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but the most difficult things are what we learn the most from.

Get ready for the piece to be nothing that you first imagined - it has it's own system of how it's going to work and you aren't in control of it:  allow evolution - it's the natural way of the world and also of the writing process.  Fighting growth is pointless and ultimately, a diservice to what the series wants to do.  Let it have a mind of it's own.

In fact, please do more of this.  There aren't enough plays that break structure rules and there needs to be more of this kind of thing to keep the form evolving and changing.  Theatre doesn't need to belong to some "way" - it can and should change with the times, so that it reflects the audience that is watching, rather than requiring an audience to go back in time to understand the piece.

All four parts of The Mill continue to run in rep until January 29 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.