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Ross Dunsmore - Milk

There is a pre-fab house close to where to Ross Dunsmore lives that is boarded up from the inside.

“It looks like no-one's living there,” says the Glasgow-born actor and writer, “but there's this beautiful ornamental garden outside. You take an imaginative leap, and you wonder what it was that made people hide from the world in this way. Is the world moving so fast and so noisily that this is what some people feel that they have to do? That made me start to think about what people need to feel fulfilled.”

The result of such close to home influences is Milk, Dunsmore's debut full length play that looks at three seemingly different couples from across the generations who are all trying to survive in an increasingly scary world.

“There's a craving there,” says Dunsmore. “These people are always seeking nourishment. There's a desire to feed others and to be fed. These people all live in the same community, where they brush up against each other on a journey to this kind of fulfilment, bumping into each other as they go.”

Little slices of life like this are what feeds his work.

“The thing I find as a writer,” he says, “is that you don't sit down and think that you want to write a play about nourishment or sustenance, but there are some things – a picture, a word – that sticks in your mind and intrigues you, and it won't go away because you can't leave it alone.”

Dunsmore discovered theatre at a young age when his parents would drag him along to the amateur dramatics group they were involved in.

“It was noisy and funny and busy,” Dunsmore remembers. “I loved it.”

Aged seventeen, and wondering what to do with his life, he considered a career in civil engineering.

“I wanted to build dams in Latin America,” he says.

By that time he was reading plays in the library, and watched a video of Bill Bryden's promenade production of The Mysteries at the National Theatre.

“I wanted to be there,” Dunsmore says. “It seemed like the most vibrant, alive place to be. Whether I was in the audience or onstage, socially or artistically, I didn't care, I just wanted to be there.”

Dunsmore studied drama at Kirkcaldy College of Technology.

“I fell in love with the idea of theatre,” he says, “with the fun and excitement and the newness of it all.”

He also decided to take theatre and acting seriously enough to apply for RADA. It was during that time, with classmates who included Adrian Lester and Rufus Norris, that Dunsmore began to understand theatre as an artform.

“I saw how it could reflect society,” he says, “and my senses were honed. I came out of RADA fully engaged with how important theatre and acting can be, and I've retained that.”

Over more than twenty years working as an actor, Dunsmore has worked extensively on new plays. His very first job after leaving RADA was in 1989 at Leicester Haymarket Theatre on a production of Jackets, a play by Edward Bond set in a riot torn city in the near future. This was an increasingly rare sighting of a new work in a major British theatre by the mould-breaking writer of Saved, and the experience of working on a play shot through with Bond's humanist rage seems to have left its mark on Dunsmore.

“Jackets was a great play,” he says, “but I'm baffled that it's never been done again. There's an economy and an elegance to Edward Bond's writing. He was around quite a lot during rehearsals, and he brought this intellect to things that I learnt a lot from.”

Since Jackets, Dunsmore has worked with companies including the National Theatre of Scotland, the Young Vic and Chichester Festival Theatre. Appearances on home turf have included the Tron Theatre's production of David Greig's play, The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union.

“I've done a lot of workshops and readings of plays that maybe didn't see the light of day,” Dunsmore says, “helping the writer find out what works and what doesn't.”

This led to his own move into writing.

“I started writing little short stories for fun,” he says, “and the more of them I did the more I realised how filmic they were.”

Dunsmore took an MA in screenwriting at Royal Holloway University of London. This led to a year studying playwriting with John Burgess, former head of new writing at the National Theatre.

“As soon as I started studying film my writing became more theatrical,” he says.

Dunsmore entered a competition for writers to pen ten-minute long plays. He wrote a piece called Twenty-One Breaths, about a couple coming home from hospital after having a baby. There are connections here with Milk, which features a heavily pregnant female half of the play's central couple.

“I've got three kids,” says Dunsmore, “so I know that world. It's a very potent idea to explore theatrically, even just visually onstage, but I'm comfortable if this idea is something that keeps pulling me back if I don't quite get it right and want to explore it.”

Other short plays by Dunsmore include Cold Call, about two people working in a call centre whose relationship is falling apart, The Move, which follows two different families moving into the same house a century apart, and one called The Postman. The latter was developed with Playwrights Studio Scotland, where he was mentored by writer Lynda Radley. In 2015 was one of four winners of the Scotland Short Play Award with a piece called Romance.

Although his writing career is on a roll just now, Dunsmore will continue to act.

“Being an actor helps me write,” he says, “and being a writer helps me act. They're one and the same thing in many ways.”

With Milk, however, you get the impression that the play is a labour of love that comes from a very personal place.

“When I read Milk now,” says Dunsmore, “the thing that strikes me more and more is how great the need is in all of us to be loved and wanted. The key to that is how you reach out to people and nourish them. We find ourselves where we are politically in the world right now, and to take that risk and reach out to someone who you might not otherwise reach out to, that balance isn't easy to reach, but it's so important we try and reach it, both for us as individuals and for society as a whole.”

Milk, Traverse Theatre, August 5-28, various times.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, August 22nd 2016

ends

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