Q&A with Playwright Billie Collins – Too Much World At Once

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Tell us a bit about Too Much World at Once

Too Much World at Once is a play about a teenage boy called Noble who turns into a bird on his fifteenth birthday. He plans to use this power to reach his sister Cleo – a Zoological Field Assistant stationed on a remote island in the South Atlantic. Then the world sort of ends. It’s a play about family, home, climate crisis, queerness and growing up. It’s my first professional production and my first tour and I’m beyond excited about the whole thing.

What inspired you to write it?

Initially, I was obsessed with the question: what if a boy turned into a bird? It was an image I found really striking, and it didn’t feel like a fluid, beautiful image – more like a painful one, like a great tear from the earth to the sky. As a teenager I had a lot of pent-up energy, and a sense that something was really wrong, but I couldn’t say what it was. I wanted to try and capture that. I started researching birds and migratory patterns, which you can’t really do without running into climate crisis. I came across a brilliant documentary called ‘Albatross’ by Chris Jordan – which led me to Bird Island and the British Antarctic Survey. So, I had these two elements – a coming of age story and an end-of-the-world story – and bringing them together felt really exciting. I love plays that blend the everyday and the extraordinary; plays that let you find your feet in something that feels familiar before you realise that you’re stood on the ceiling.

Has it changed the way you think about the world?

Hugely. I didn’t set out to write a play about climate crisis; I started out researching birds, and it sprung up quite naturally out of that. Until then, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t thought much about the scale of the emergency, the concept of climate justice, nor the effect climate change has on my own environment. I grew up on the coast; every time I return home, I can see how that coastline has eroded. By 2050, the town I went to school in will be below the annual flood level. Climate crisis affects all of us – it’s just affecting some parts of the world (those which are least responsible for the damage) sooner, and more dramatically. Through writing Too Much World, I became interested in the role theatre and storytelling can play in encouraging people to engage with nature and climate. It’s a theme that has cropped up in every story I’ve written since – whether subtly or not-so-subtly.

What do you hope audiences take away from it?

I’d be chuffed if people were entertained, and a bit moved. I’d be mega chuffed if people saw something of themselves in it. But I think the main thing I’d like people to take away is that we can all notice our environment a little more. Noticing something is one step closer to caring about it. Sounds naff, but there’s power in taking a minute to notice the birds out your window, or the trees in your local park. If you pay attention to something, you’ll miss it when it’s gone. Learn the names for things. If you learn the difference between a great tit and a blue tit, suddenly you’re a bit more invested in the feathery little guys than you were before.

What three words would you use to describe the play?

Creaturely, epic, tender.

Who else is working on the production with you?

I’m very lucky to be working with an incredibly kind and talented bunch of people who saw the stage direction “he turns into a bird” and thought “right then, let’s be having it.” The director Adam Quayle has been on board from the very start and has been the most patient and nurturing presence throughout the writing process. He has put up with all of my random bird facts. We have an incredible cast in Alex Mathie, Evie Hargreaves, Paddy Stafford, and Ewan Grant – and I’d also like to acknowledge all the actors who contributed to the play in R&D. We have the wizards that are Katie Scott, Lee Affen, and Richard Owen designing set/costume, sound, and lighting respectively. As movement director, Aiden Crawford is responsible for staging all and any
murmurations, and the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant team of Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder and Justina Aina are producing. This is my first professional production and I’m dead nervous – but I feel like the play is in the safest of hands.

Did you always want to be a writer? How did you get into it?

I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little, until I realised “archaeologist” isn’t the same as “keeper at Jurassic Park.” Once that dream was crushed, writing followed suit. I was a pretty geeky teenager; I watched loads of TV and spent my free time writing stories. Writing has always been an escape for me; it’s a safe way to explore different ideas, scenarios, and personas. If you feel like a bit of an outsider, for whatever reason, that can be a lifeline. I started writing for stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Young Writers group. I’m not sure how I ended up there. They probably shouldn’t have let me in, given I lived closer to Liverpool, but I’m glad they did. I learned lots on that course, met real-life playwrights and wrote a whole play. I was encouraged to be creative and taken seriously as a writer from a young age – by the Exchange, by fantastic organisations like The Writing Squad, by my parents and teachers. Not everyone has access to that kind of support, and without proper investment in arts education, we risk losing a generation of writers, especially those from marginalised communities. That’s a lot of amazing plays we won’t get to see.

What is next for you?

I’ve got a few projects lined up that I’m really looking forward to. I’m currently working on my first TV credit; it’s an episode of a children’s series and I’m having lots of fun. I’m also writing a play called PEAK STUFF for ThickSkin Theatre, it’s about consumer culture and why we hold onto ‘stuff’ even as we’re overwhelmed by it. It’s very different to anything I’ve written before and collaborating with a physical theatre company is a new and exciting challenge. Finally, I’m
working on a radio play about an archaeologist excavating a Viking longship on the Wirral; writing it has made me see the place I grew up in a new light.

Don’t miss Billie’s play Too Much World at Once in our Studio on Tue 18 Apr

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