Federation University Arts Academy Acting graduate, Mitchel Edwards discusses his involvement in Baker’s Dozen Theatre Company and their upcoming May show, DRAFT.

What is DRAFT. about?

Mitchel: DRAFT. follows closely four best friends: Tom, Charlie, Stevie and Alex. Like most young men in their twenties their lives are fairly simple–going to the pub, chasing girls, moving out, dealing with their parents. The four friends stand by each other through thick and thin, however when Australia enters a war and initiates a national draft things begin to intensify. As Tom, the alpha male of the group, brings forward a pact that whatever happens he will stand by those who get drafted. Through peer pressure and genuine love for one another, each friend makes the same pact that if one of the group gets drafted, they will all volunteer together. Following the boys are their counterparts: mothers and fathers, girlfriends etc. Through these relationships I explore what it is to be a man, and how at one point in our lives we outgrow our parents.

Where did the idea come from? Were the characters at all originally modeled on people that you knew?

Mitchel: In 2010, after moving out of home for the first time and finding my own independence in a share house in Ballarat, I was surrounded with artistic expression and a lot of the big questions in life began to approach me. Being the younger brother I tried to model myself after my brother. I had grown fond of the his life style and friendship group, which was something that I had yet to find one of my own. I began to create a verbatim piece revolving around my brother and his core group of friends. Then like most plays there needed to be a central drive for the audience to become interested and invested in. So I came up with the idea of Australia entering a war. What would these young men do in that situation? What happens to the every day when our inevitable departure from this world becomes more apparent than ever before? Playing with these ideas, I began to move in the direction of friendship under duress, and how far you can bend friendships before they are broken. Running themes of mateship, love, respect and the individual image, are all a part of this play.

Tell me about the process of writing the script, initially—when you began; how long it took to build characters, explore narrative, and to construct believable tension.

Mitchel: The verbatim piece was just a bunch of young men having drink talking about their lives. This then evolved to the same boys in a war scenario. From there I brought in the draft scene where one of the boys gets drafted to go to war. Research, character development, plot and overall arch and journeys of the boys and their counterparts, took originally about twelve months. I then began to show some of the material to the director of the show, Robin Thomas, who helped to create a more theatre-based script. Through these discussions, which lasted most of second year, we had gone through several versions of the play, and some big changes were made in this period of time. I really began to put more of myself inside these characters, as well as traits of the people around me. Then, in my third year at the Arts Academy, we made our own pact that we would be putting this show on. Robin enlisted the much-needed guidance and help of Eliza Wood, who became the assistant director of the original workshop production. They met once or twice a week to trade notes and to make offers to change the script, and to correct terrible spelling and grammar. They then relayed this information back to me and I would make the necessary changes. DRAFT. is its own entity now, in that it is flexible and ever-changing. I couldn’t tell you how many hours have been put into writing this beast.

How did this change during the original rehearsal process?

Mitchel: The best thing about working on a workshop production is the actors usually are given a sense of freedom in helping find and develop these new characters. They are now tailor-fit for the cast. In the rehearsal room, Robin and I needed these boys to become the strong group that my brother and his friends were. So we moulded the two together to give these characters a real voice and a real relationship which each actor found together. I am very fortunate because I was in the rehearsal room watching this and taking notes, so new ideas would spring up and I could hear what sounded good and what sounded like nails on a chalk board.

Has this at all changed since you have re-drafted the play? And if so, why did this change?

Mitchel: Absolutely, re-drafting the play again after seeing my characters live on stage, I could put a larger focus of the actors unique voices into my characters, and I used the relationships discovered by the actors and put them into the new script. I also got a lot of feedback from students and teachers. Some of which I made notes on, and some I ignored all together.

Were you interested in exploring different character dynamics after talking with the actors about their own feelings/relationships with the characters—both during the rehearsal process, and after the play was seen by an audience?

Mitchel: This is a tricky one, because the four boys in particular–Tom, Charlie, Alex and Stevie–are so very close to my heart. I love them as I love my brother, and I admire them as I do his friends. But DRAFT. isn’t just my play it’s all of ours, so I do have the responsibility to honour the great work given to my by the actors whilst also trying to keep my original piece.

Did research at all inspire content/subject matter that ended up in the original script?

Mitchel: In many ways yes it did. Ideals behind propaganda correlate with what is heard throughout the media interruptions and radio snippets throughout the show, as well as what the boys say to each other to feed this lie that it’s all going to be OK. The way the government used friendship and mateship as a seed to get young men to sign up together is also present as some of these characters are using this idea of sticking together as a way to make the others feel OK about heading to war.

How has Baker’s Dozen Theatre Company aided you in fulfilling the opportunity to have DRAFT. produced?

Mitchel: Well the Baker’s crew I would say began with DRAFT. putting up as the workshop production at uni a few years back so we all know and love the script. Robin calls it a passion project, back to our roots. Only two years ago, I might add. So within our core group we have the writer, the director, the stage manager and the actor. So ideas flow fairly quickly within this group when it comes to putting on a show, even more so when the show is coming from inside the camp. It’s great to have this team to lean on as a writer, knowing there is an outlet for my work. If its good enough to been seen, then we can put it on. I would encourage all aspiring writers to contact independent theatre companies and send over some scripts. There is no pain or loss in that. If they like it, they put it on and people see your work. Contact the Bakers first though.

Tell me about the process of re-drafting the script—what did you learn from the process of writing the original script that added/hindered re-writing; and how did the previous experience of having the play performed in front of an audience challenge you to add /change things?

Mitchel: As I’ve mentioned the script is an ever-changing body of work, so I’ve become quite good at re-drafting or trying new Ideas out and making them work within the script. The main difference between the original set of drafts and this new set is that at first it was me, writing in the middle of the night by myself, keeping it all to myself. Post workshop it’s so inclusive. Not only am I thinking about my actors and their unique voices, but I’m also thinking and being influenced by my creative team. It’s a stronger script now but I think it still has its innocence that you get from a writer’s first work.

What did you learn about the re-drafting process? Are there many changes to the original script that were influenced by this? What kinds of changes were made?

Mitchel: I think what I’ve found myself getting better at is finding different voices for characters on the page. On stage it will come out because an actor will place his or her own spin on the line, but on paper it can just sound like this one-hundred-and-twenty page monologue where there is no gender division, and every character is the same age. I think I’ve gotten better at that. Changes? Yeah, quite a few. We speak about a few more things in larger detail, and the youth of the boys is highlighted a bit more, and then there are some secret gems that you’ll have to see it for.

How much creative control do you have over this new production in Melbourne—as the playwright, will you have a say in how things are handled on stage, or is that completely in the director’s hands?

Mitchel: Hmmm, I guess I had better ask Robin that. I have a say in changes to dialogue or character, I’m pretty sure, but then again, that’s just a courtesy. We’re all really good friends, so I think nothing drastic will change. But from day one I’ll hand over the script, and we will see what happens.

What do you hope that audiences will gain from seeing this play—both in relation to the script, and as a piece of theatre?

Mitchel: It’s original audience was a very young university crowd. As the show centers around the young men I think it gave a lot for the audience to look at themselves on stage and put themselves in this position. My new audience? I think I can offer them a similar experience, young or old. If you can sit back and say, “Hey that was us in the 60’s!” or,  “What if that was us now?”, I think I would be pretty happy. … Come and just enjoy yourself, and watch these exceptionally talented actors coming out of Ballarat, and beyond then I’ve done my job.

How are you feeling about the way that the play will be received by a new audience?

Mitchel: Nervous, excited, elated. [PAUSE] Wow, don’t ask that again. I think as an actor, and now as a writer, of course you need to think about the audience, as there wouldn’t be a show without one. That’s why a lot of us who do what we do go into this industry to entertain, to enlighten, to help. But thinking of their critical response? That’s a scary thought. I’d be up all night sweating if I did. … We’re all human and live theatre should enjoyable and enlightening to all because we are just watching people be real on stage. When you place gifted actors on stage that’s what you are watching. The Baker’s team are doing this.

When DRAFT. was originally performed at the Arts Academy in 2012, the audience’s reaction to those final few moments were definitely something for you to feel very proud of having achieved. Are there any other moments in your professional career where you have felt inspired to continue pursuing your intended career path?

Mitchel: It was humbling to witness that night after night, and uncomfortable. Part of me felt bad for making people feel that way, but then after speaking at length with some of the audience there was a certain pride in what we had done. Credit to the actors and the production team for taking something off the page and giving it to the audience. To sit in the seating bank and witness genuine emotion … it was beautiful to see the power of good theatre. That’s what we have here, good theatre. In regards to feeling inspired? I have a drive to create and to change. Both as an actor and a writer, I get that drive from seeing or reading other pieces. I was on the train and I was finishing off Steinbeck’s play version of “The Grapes of Wrath’ and the final scene is the most brilliant piece of writing I’ve ever read for a play. I burst into tears and it took me ten minutes to finish this scene because it just hit me so hard. That’s where you get drive from, when someone or something affects you deep down.

Have there been moments when you have doubted your endeavours?

Mitchel: Absolutely! Doubt is an actor’s worst enemy and a writer’s death note. Doubt comes and goes, and sometimes it’s an easy fix of getting away from the computer, and stopping writing for a night … and the next day you can get back to work, and sometimes you go through a month where you can’t even get a word down. Doubt fuels writer’s block and it’s hard not to get doubt in your mindset when you’re starting out because you haven’t done anything. Sure I’m up all night writing and thinking about characters or researching, but what’s on the page? What’s in a theatre being performed? Whats being read by critics and reviewers? Nothing. So when you’re young and you haven’t done much, what’s driving you to keep going? Because it feels like most of the time, and this is similar to my experience for acting, is you just feel like you’re drowning and then something comes along and lifts you back up. I try my best to ignore doubt because nothing good comes from acknowledging it.

How has being “out in the industry” since graduating altered your perception and endeavours as a performer?

Mitchel: Well, I grew up in rural Victoria, so I never really knew what was out there. I still don’t, I guess. When deciding to pursue a career in the arts industry it was because I liked the craft. My endeavours where never Hollywood, or television, or Broadway. Of course all of those things would be great, but just to do it. But then I was never sure of what “it” is? We are all going out and trying to forge these careers, and working hard, but we are still trying to grow up, and dealing with everything that life throws at us. My aspirations have changed in a sense of doing these crafts, to being known for these crafts, if I were to give you an answer.

Have you a more realistic expectation of yourself — your strengths and ( weaknesses?

Mitchel: Well I know all of my weaknesses. [LAUGHS] I’m beginning to find some strengths buried around. I don’t like the feeling when there is expectation from others onto me, so why would I put that on myself? I’ve said it for a while, my five-year and ten-year life plans are simply: being happy! If I’m happy at the end of the day then I’ve had a good day. That can come from seeing friends, doing something constructive, having a good audition, getting a gig or just having a yummy dinner,. As long as I’m happy, I’m content.

Do you think that the Australian Government contributes enough money towards the Arts Industry (in particular, live theatre) in order for it to achieve a more sustainable future?

Mitchel: Time to show my colours and make some slanderous remark about the Abbott government. I’m not going to, for two reasons, the first reason is why do they owe me or my company money? ‘course I would love some money right about now but there’s bigger things to deal with than a writer in Richmond who can support himself and live a fairly decent life on a part-time job whilst still funding his passion.

Secondly there’s a big argument about whether or not live theatre is necessary or if it’s a luxury and a government does need to think about that. Regardless of that the government do put a lot of funding out there we just don’t see it all the time.

The Australian Arts industry won’t die, it’s thriving! come see the shows, come audition and be a part of it all, apply for those government grants and put one on. Think of fringe, comedy, short film festivals, all internationally acclaimed. This idea that we have a weak industry or that it’s dying is self-deprecating, just because we don’t have auditions on every corner or 50 theatres in one street doesn’t mean our industry isn’t strong, means it’s different due to a smaller population that’s all.

How can theatre manage to stay relevant and interesting to younger audiences?

Mitchel: Nudity and guns… not really. I guess the generational gap is fast approaching and we should make sure we have our ears to the ground to keep up to date with what’s happening. As I’ve said before good theatre is just human begin humans on stage, so I don’t think you’ll ever lose those who are interested in the arts. Getting youth that has no interest in the arts to come see shows? Give them something to come for. Make it a scene thing. In twenty years hybrid hipsters will hang out at the theatre drinking coffee and wearing beanies in summer… oh, wait that’s already happening! [LAUGHS] I think if we just keep talking to each other as people the generational gap won’t ever be to far away to reach out to each other.

Would you like to pursue playwriting again in the future?

Mitchel: Already have, I’m finishing a final draft of a new show of mine and I have several others on the go at the moment. I write quite a bit, I just never finish a piece.

As an artist (actor, director, playwright) what inspires you most about the Melbourne theatre scene?

Mitchel: Good actors! When I see a good performance, as an actor I get the challenge to do better, and as a writer I get the freedom to go as far as I want with the character because I know there’s at least one person out there who can do it.

Do you feel more inspired being a part of an independent theatre company? If you were not a part of Baker’s Dozen, would you have pursued the option for DRAFT to be performed again?

Mitchel: I know anything is possible now, and I believe we are capable of anything our only limitation is what we can afford, but what kind of limitation is that? … Inspired, always! With DRAFT., if I were by myself I’d put it back on by myself, same with all my other shows I’ve written or am in the process of writing.

Do you have any advice for individuals wanting to pursue a similar path as yours? Actors, directors, playwrights, or those interested in starting up their own theatre company?

Mitchel: OK first piece of advice: cut the loose ends! If someone anywhere makes you feel bad about yourself, get rid of them. Be friendly because your first few years out is all going to be based on favours. So that guy you didn’t talk to in first year, well you’ll want him to buy a ticket to your show, or he might be a great lighting designer in a few years and he won’t do it now because you were rude. Read, a lot it goes for everything but a smart actor’s a good actor. Have a good running conversation with your teachers. Be healthy and happy. And that doesn’t mean go to the gym and diet, I mean sure go do that if you want, but by healthy I mean inside, which leads to happiness. Finally, just be aware that it’s a long road. Don’t give up because you went to ten auditions and never heard back because your friend probably went to twenty and their friends might not have had any. So just be yourself and get working.

What are your plans for the rest of this year?

Mitchel: Well we have a few shows lined about that will be announced in time. They’re all very exciting. Now that I’m living in Richmond I have a lot more time to write, so I want to get three of my shows that I’m writing finished and start cold reads etc.

Interview by Kayla Elizabeth Stone