PlayBox Takeover 2020: Billie Collins 16/12/2019


Too Much World At Once – Billie Collins

Following a workshop day at HOME in September, PlayBox playwright Billie Collins reflects on the first stages of developing her play, ‘Too Much World At Once’…

The first stage of PlayBox is the treatment – an outline of your play idea. When I’ve written plays in the past, I’ve sort of wandered into an idea at my own pace. I’ve never had someone say ‘here’s a deadline – I need an idea’ before. Initially, my brain was scrambling around, hoping that a really good play idea would slap me in the face. I was trying too hard – everything sounded a bit forced or cliché. Eventually, deadline approaching, I tried to strip it back and focus on a question – ‘what if a boy turned into a bird?’

Things were better when I stopped trying to police myself and come up with a great big brilliant original play idea. It was like skimming stones, when one thought or image leads to the next. I got very into birds. (A bit too into birds. Don’t go to a party and talk solely about birds.) The more research I did, the more resonances started to emerge. The description of what happens to starlings when they migrate on the RSPB website is basically a description of a bunch of feathery fourteen-year-old boys: hormonal, noisy, horny, ravenous and knocking about in big groups. I got thinking about that restless adolescent energy and needing to get out and see the world.

So, researching birds led to migration, which ripples out into ideas of home, and once you’re looking at migration it’s not long until you get to the climate emergency. Studies have shown that migrating birds are arriving at breeding grounds too early, meaning many miss out on food and numbers decline. Chris Jordan’s fantastic and crushing documentary Albatross led me to Bird Island, and in turn the work of the British Antarctic Survey. Suddenly, for the first time, I’m writing a play set in two different countries. From this big mess of images, places, themes (and really good bird facts), a story developed about a family struggling to communicate and live up to each other’s expectations. With each draft, some things get more streamlined, some get more complicated. A day of R&D with some brilliantly clever actors guided by Adam [Quayle, Joint Artistic Director of Box of Tricks Theatre Company] helped me work out what needed to make sense, and what was better off staying fizzy and ambiguous.

I think one of the most exciting things I’ve got from PlayBox is the freedom to follow threads and see where they take me. I’ve never had sustained support for this length of time to develop a single project before, and it’s been ace to have someone to pull you up on things and get to know your characters as you do. I’ve learnt that there is immense value in being open, switching off your inner editor before she can shoot down your ideas as too ridiculous. Adam has encouraged me to not be afraid of thinking big. Consequently, I’ve ended up writing a play I never set out to write, nor one I thought I could write. Usually, I box myself off as a small writer who writes small plays about small things, but now I’ve written one that zooms out to see the whole of planet Earth, with a sort-of Greek chorus, about the sort-of end of the world. It’s been a fantastic learning curve, and I’m dead excited (read: really nervous) to share it.

~ Billie Collins

PlayBox is a year-long writer-on-attachment programme with Box of Tricks offering bespoke residencies and support to three early career North West playwrights. 

On Saturday 18 January 2020, Box of Tricks launches a day-long takeover of HOME’s PUSH Festival 2020 to showcase new plays from our current PlayBox playwrights and connect with local writers and theatremakers. Come join us!

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