All-female folk band TRILLS have created Songlines, a coming-of-age love story that plays at the Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh throughout August. We spoke to writer and singer Tallulah Brown about the themes, influences and writing process used to create the play.
What’s your background like? Did you do theatre or just music?
The music came first – I’ve been singing with TRILLS for 12 years now. We all met at a choir and formed a band just after we left school. We toured a bit throughout university and after that we kept the band going! Then while I was at university I did a playwriting module that was run by the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I’d done three years of drama at Manchester, being pretty sure that I didn’t want to act. There were 90 girls on my course and there were often not enough roles for them or they were frustrated with the roles they were being given. So, I wrote a play that had three girls in it and we took that play to Edinburgh. Giving those girls those parts really sparked something in me in terms of putting more female roles into scripts, putting those scripts on stage and giving women more to work with.
Are the female roles the most important in your scripts?
Yes! Stuff to get their teeth into, so they’re not the stereotypical female in a plot. But that’s why theatre is so magical; because writers can be involved in the process, and you can see how your parts are going down with the actors in the room. They’re now using Sea Fret, a play I wrote last year as duologue scenes at drama schools like RADA and I think that’s because it has much richer parts for that age group and sex. It’s been such a compliment for me. There were girls coming in to audition for this (Songlines) who had done Sea Fret at drama school.
You’re also part of the Channel 4 screen writing scheme?
Yes, I did that in 2014. I had written for theatre up until that point, and then I wrote a TV script called Rosebuds which was about four girls who can’t find work whilst living in London. Through Rosebuds I got onto the scheme and wrote a script called Motherlode. There’s lots in development so fingers crossed! But I’m on the BBC TV drama programme for this year, working with Jane Featherstone at Sister Pictures which is so exciting. They’re such a fab company.
Would you say being involved in theatre sparked the TV side of your career?
I’ve sort of bounded between the two and I’ve tried to keep both going. At this stage in development, TV can be a really frustrating place to be in because you’re often just selling documents. You’re not writing dialogue and you crave finishing anything because you’re constantly writing about who the characters are, and why should it be made NOW. I’m a writer, I’m not very good at sales, and there are times when you feel a bit like a door to door salesperson because you just want people to buy your wares. So I keep coming back to theatre. You learn a lot more from seeing a project through – working with different actors and directors. And when you’re really specific about the world you writing about, you can see when and why scenes don’t work. Once I’d been specific and started this play set in Suffolk, the TV people came back to me and saw that I did have something different to say, and that I could write for teenagers!
Can you give me a brief summary of the plot of Songlines? What’s its aim?
I’m calling it an all-squirming-teenage-love-story. My idea was that at age 17 you listen to a lot of music, love songs in particular. Love songs always make love sound so easy, but when you’re that age love is so hard. I wanted to write a play about all the things you wished you had said. We seem to always be saying the wrong things and being constantly put in awkward situations. And so I wanted to try interspersing that with these love songs that tie everything up so neatly.
By that point, my band had moved into making music for trailers. We’d made music for the new Suffragette film and most recently we did the new Tomb Raider game trailer so we’d got very good at this ‘narrative’ kind of writing. We were finding it really helpful to have a story in order to write the song. So I went to my band and I gave them a situation for a scene, and then we worked out what the song would say. The director and I would first work with actors and we’d explore excruciating teenage predicaments. And then my band would arrive in the evening and we would write a song in response to what had happened during the day. We did it for a week and we were all cringing because we were reminiscing on all the awful things you go through. But what came out of it was Stevie, who has just moved to Suffolk to live with her grandma. She’s a fish out of water because she doesn’t know anyone in the village she’s moved to. She meets this guy Stan, who’s a real day dreamer and knows a lot about the myths of the land. His family work on the farm. They spark this friendship which blossoms into a love story which you see throughout the play. It’s based at a gig which is where they meet, and obviously the band playing is my band!
Was the plan always for the band to be on stage or was that added at a later time?
Myself and Seraphina are going up for the whole Edinburgh festival but our stuff always works alongside other projects so I could only take half of us. I’m very self-conscious about being on stage with the play because I feel like a mother hen. So I’ve had to get over that but the costumes and lights make it a lot easier and it means I can get into my own zone. The worlds that we create in the play pop out of the gig in a very kind of Wes Anderson 70s way.
What was the process of making the piece?
So Steven Atkinson who runs Hightide came to see Sea Fret with George Chilcott, who is now our director. They liked that I was writing about the place I grew up in and know very well. They like the anarchic teenage quality of Sea Fret. They asked me if I’d ever considered writing a play that TRILLS could be in too.. and I hadn’t. I’d always kept them separate. So I started thinking about how you could combine the two. I got permission to have this dialogue week where I could work on stuff during the day with the actors and The Trills in the evening. We used a lot of Suffolk mythology, folk and lullaby within the songs. I’ve taken the music back to the roots of how we started.
So you were trying to avoid it becoming Musical Theatre-esque?
Yes, I took a lot from watching The Girl from the North Country. They described the music as a hymm with theatrical links. It doesn’t have to be like Musical Theatre where the character comes to a conclusion and sings about it. Its working in another realm. I’m hoping it’s going to be less obvious than musical theatre can often feel.
How does music help people grow up and why is it so important to teenagers?
Stevie, the female character, stops listening to music. For her it’s linked to her emotions and so she blocks it out. She’s fed up and has had enough, and over the course of the play things won’t resolve for her and she can’t let her emotions back in until she lets music back in too.
Songs were used in Aboriginal times to bring you back to your roots, to show you directions of how to get across vast lands, and that’s the kind of sentiment I wanted these songs to have – to lead Stevie back to herself and to her roots.
What’s the future of the play?
The play is going on a two month tour. I think we’ll need a bit of a break afterwards, but it’s been published so it will have a life beyond this run. I’m intrigued to see what will happen when we add the other half of the band later on in the run. That’ll be super exciting to hear what it’ll sound when we double the parts. It’s a personal story, in a bigger space, which I really like, because you usually associate personal stories with small spaces, but it isn’t really the case this time.
Why should people come and see it?
I haven’t mentioned my amazing cast! Fanta Barrie has just left Rose Bruford, and Joe Hurst was in Casual Vacancy aged 14. They are unbelievably talented and they’re really exciting me already. It’s a really exciting rehearsal room. The play will make you laugh, it’ll attract a theatre audience who may not necessarily like Musical Theatre but also a Musical Theatre audience who may not like straight theatre. I think it’s going to pull in a wide range of people. You could even take someone there saying it’s a gig!
Songlines is produced by Hightide Theatre. Tickets are available here:https://www.hightide.org.uk/productions/songlines-aldeburgh