Interview with the Playwright: Joshua Mikel

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From Conyers, GA, Josh Mikel is a playwright, filmmaker, and graphic artist. His play Lillian Likes It won Essential Theatre’s 2015 Playwriting Award. He currently plays Jared on the AMC drama The Walking Dead. His new play Shelter will have an open to the public free reading at the grand opening of The Windmill Art Center in East Point on 10/06 at 8p. You can find more of his work for purchase through Playscripts, Inc.

We sat down with Josh to talk with him about his experience of adapting BeltLine & Beyond from a collection of short stories into a staged production.
What excited you about the idea of the project? 
I was drawn to the project because I’ve long wanted to write a piece that involved Atlanta in some way, and so to be offered an opportunity to adapt some already awesome short stories and work in tandem with The Wren’s Nest writing program- which is such a cool thing- and again work with Essential Theatre- there were so many reasons to love this project. I was stoked.
What were some of the things that stood out to you about the stories when you first read the book? Both as the playwright tasked with adapting them all into one play and as a person/reader?
I’m always amazed by the maturity of kids in 8th grade. I think so often you hear “middle school,” and think that’s really young, and they are, but they’re so intelligent. It’s amazing how much talent these kids have, and it’s amazing there’s a program like the scribes encouraging them to continue to write.
What approach did you end up taking to adapt the  stories into one script? Logistically, how did you go about connecting the stories, and conceptually what was your approach  in terms of honoring the original writers’  stories and work while also creating a cohesive narrative?
I was originally worried about not being able to cover the entirety of every story, and honor the writers’ original stories completely in a short theatrical piece, but then I realized the idea shouldn’t be to tell the stories, but rather feature characters from the stories in a way that hopefully will peak the interests of the audience so that they’ll want to open the book and experience these young writers’ creativity first hand.
We had to get creative, so one of the stories protagonist becomes our play’s central protagonist- Agent West,- and I created a bit of a supernatural occurrence that she’s investigating to have all of these different storylines operating in the same world at once.
What would you say was the biggest challenge in creating the script?
The source material was there, and already awesome- it was just finding that connective tissue that allowed all of these characters from eight different stories to exist together, and then of course the logistics of managing to get all of that stuff crammed into 30 pages of a piece that honored these young writers’ excellent work, that could be easily staged on the BeltLine for minimal budget with a relatively small cast, and, of course, create something that was fun for a passing by audience to watch.
What is your favorite thing about the script you ended up creating? What are you most proud of or do you enjoy the most about it? 
I really do love the character of Agent West, and I love the device of these wild characters kind of materializing in this space. I really do want to turn that idea into something more permanent.
That being said, I really love Amber’s monologue, and I think it softly touches some of mine, and I think the west side BeltLine’s fears and concerns around the new interest in that side of Atlanta.
What do you hope people take away from this performance? 
I’m excited for folks to see how truly gifted and creative these young writers are, and how cool of a program the Wren’s Nest Scribes is, and hopefully they’ll support the scribes as best they can down the line. I hope the cast and crew has had fun getting the piece up on its feet, and I hope the scribes dig what I’ve done with their work.
What do you hope it contributes to the art on the beltline experience?
I think when most folks think about art along the BeltLine they think about the installations, but there’s also such a cool opportunity for performances like this one for folks to enjoy, and it’s particularly awesome with how much Atlanta talent is being showcased here- The young scribes writers, Essential Theatre, this awesome team of actors & technicians, and I’m fortunate to be lumped in there too.
What  are you taking away from this experience? 
We’ve got some serious talent in Atlanta, and these kids at the Scribes program, and these young artists in the communities along the West Side BeltLine need our support and incubation.
Has being a part of this process changed you in any way,given you insight or perspective that you didn’t have before or  resonated with any beliefs, priorities or convictions that you hold dear?
It’s interesting being a white dude adapting a number of stories by young African American writers, many of whom have written stories reflective of problems in their west side community. While I live in Atlanta, I’ve long been largely unfamiliar with the west side neighborhoods. The irony and parallels of Joel Chandler Harris receiving credit for extant African American folktales he merely transcribed, and my adapting of this book aren’t lost on me, but it’s a conversation I’m interested in being a part of, and a conversation I think the city needs to continue to have if we want to grow beyond some of the racial horrors of our past. Why have these parts of Atlanta been for the most part overlooked for the past 50 years, and why is there a sudden interest around the area again? And does that interest hold stock in honoring the rich African American history of that community while cherishing those residents that have long lived there, or will, like we’ve seen along other parts of the BeltLine, those important families and communities be displaced? I hope for the best, but I expect the worst. I fear that the reasons why for so long the west side has been home to a largely neglected African American population will be the same reasons that drive that community from that area.

Is there anything else you would like audiences, readers or the scribe writers who created the book to know? 
These kids are a gift. It’s very challenging to grow up an artist. I think I was fortunate to have folks along the way show me that they wanted to hear what I had to say, and folks who nourished me along the way. The Scribes program is doing amazing work, and needs your support. I want to scream it- we have to continue to show these kids that their creativity matters. If you’re one of these writers’ parents or mentors, your kid has a gift that needs to be nurtured and cultivated. Be proud of them, continue to give them the tools and patience they need to create in whatever form that may be, and watch them grow into amazing human beings.
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Come see Essential Theatre’s production of 2015 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award winner Josh Mikel’s stage adaptation of the 2016-17 Brown Middle School Wren’s Nest Scribes’ collection of short stories, BeltLine & Beyond, today at 4:00 at Gordon White Park. Part of the 2017 Art on the Atlanta BeltLine thanks to support from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership.