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Songlines opens HighTide festival and puts romance into gig-theatre

PUBLISHED: 16:58 07 September 2018 | UPDATED: 11:59 10 September 2018

Fanta Barrie as Stevie in Songlines     Photo: Helen Maybanks

Fanta Barrie as Stevie in Songlines Photo: Helen Maybanks

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HighTide opens next week and Suffolk writer and musician Tallulah Brown is unveiling her new play Songlines, which combines the joys of theatre with that of a live gig. She talks to arts editor Andrew Clarke

Fanta Barrie as Stevie and Joe Hurst as Stan in Songlines       Photo: Helen MaybanksFanta Barrie as Stevie and Joe Hurst as Stan in Songlines Photo: Helen Maybanks

For musician, singer and writer Tallulah Brown, growing up in Suffolk has provided her with a rich tapestry of influences and subject matter. Last year she staged her first play, Sea Fret, which told the story of rural friendship and coastal erosion. She continues to perform with her band TRILLS, zipping back and forth across the Atlantic to record music for the film industry in LA. Now, at this year’s HighTide festival, she is unveiling her latest play, Songlines, which looks at young love on the Suffolk coast.

Two school friends, who have drifted apart after having had a relationship, re-connect at a gig in Norwich. Their eyes meet across a crowded mosh pit and suddenly there’s a second chance for love.

For Tallulah Brown, who spent her childhood growing up in Aldeburgh, the rural setting, the difficulty of getting about and memories of lengthy bus journeys all play a major role in the story and can be viewed as extra characters in the drama.

Aldeburgh resident, musician and playwright Tallulah Brown Photo: Tallulah BrownAldeburgh resident, musician and playwright Tallulah Brown Photo: Tallulah Brown

The play is funny, tender, emotional, dramatic and is full of music which has been written and performed by Tallulah’s band TRILLS. Songlines, which is one of the headline new works, opening this year’s HighTide festival in Aldeburgh, is a new form of theatre which Tallulah has dubbed gig-theatre and she hopes it will introduce a new audience to the joys of live performance.

How does it feel opening your new play in Aldeburgh, which could be considered its spiritual home?

Tallulah Brown and her band TRILLS, which is providing the soundtrack to Tallulah's play Songlines          Photo: TRILLSTallulah Brown and her band TRILLS, which is providing the soundtrack to Tallulah's play Songlines Photo: TRILLS

“Opening a new play is exciting and scary in equal measure. I don’t feel proprietorial at all. I think HighTide have put together a very good team; they are such pros that I can trust them absolutely with my play. I think as a writer I have stared at this page for so long that it is time for me to hand it over to somebody else and they can approach it with fresh eyes.

“But I am about, so if they have questions to ask, which usually relate to specific lines, then I am on-hand to answer them. I am trying not to get too involved in the sound, lighting and all the extra bits. I want to be surprised and delighted by what they come up with.

“The only thing I have been protective over is being truthful to the area. Truthful to Suffolk, truthful to that age group living in Suffolk. Being authentic is quite important to me. For example: yesterday I recorded bird sounds from my bedroom window in Aldeburgh because I wanted that particular bird song used in the show, because that’s my experience. I have lived here, so I know what will ring true and what won’t.

Joe Hurst as Stan in Songlines           Photo: Helen MaybanksJoe Hurst as Stan in Songlines Photo: Helen Maybanks

What is Songlines?

“I am calling it an all-squirming teenage love story. It’s about a couple who meet again at a gig in Norwich. They see each other watching this band, their eyes meet across a packed venue and they tell you the story of how they first met waiting for the school bus. You are whisked back to Reydon near Southwold, where they first got together, and you are taken through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations of that all-consuming first love. You are always saying the wrong thing, you are trying to be independent from your parents and the things that they can’t say to each other – and the things they wished they had said – are addressed to the audience. Then we are back at the gig again and they have the opportunity to try and make it work again.

“It’s a bittersweet teenage love story. I hope it is both funny and sad in equal measure. I have soundtracked it with my band TRILLS and we have been working very closely with the text and with Suffolk folklore because we have a bit of Black Shuck in there, as well as The Green Children of Woolpit.

“One of the scenes is set in Kessingland. Stan is a bit of a daydreamer. He’s been brought up on a farm. He’s lived in Suffolk his whole life – he knows all the stories, he has a clear sense of heritage – whereas Stevie has just moved there from London and is unattached to a particular place; and the importance of what Stan teaches her is the importance of being part of a community and knowing where you are from. We reveal that Kessingland used to be the scene of a big Viking settlement and there is a running joke between them about ‘being a Viking’. Stevie encourages Stan to live his life rather than dream it. She says he has to stand up and live his Viking dream. She gives him permission to live.”

Is this a companion piece to your previous play Sea Fret, which was also set in Suffolk?

“Yeah, there was a bus stop in Sea Fret as well, and I view this story as being about different kids at the same bus stop. When I finished Sea Fret, I felt there was more I wanted to write about growing up in Suffolk. I knew I wanted to write a love story, so this was very much a tale of town mouse and country mouse love story; and I was clear from the start that I wanted it set in Suffolk and I wanted Stan’s family to be farmers and feel that sense of responsibility for having to take over running a farm – having a sense of lineage.

How much of you is there in the play?

“Probably less than there was in Sea Fret. The more I write, the better I get at hiding myself or, rather, the more you write, the more you see the importance of creating characters that are their own selves. I did grow up with a lot of music, and music plays a bit part in the play. Stevie moves to Suffolk swearing that she will never listen to music again because she finds it too emotional and she doesn’t want to connect to the world in that way.

“I grew up with a lot of music in the house. My parents have very different music tastes and then you find your own music. The whole Songlines theme is that you can have songs that take you to a specific place or lead you in a certain direction; they form tent-poles in your life that either remind you of times past or appear at just the right time to show you what is to come next – I think that is the most personal part of it.

“Teenagers listen to so much music and love songs make love sound so simple, so I thought what if you can show the complications of teenage love and how communication can go so wrong. Then put in bookmark porch songs, between each scene, which suggest everything can be so simple and neat but life is shown to be otherwise.

Were TRILLS always going to be involved?

“HighTide approached me after the staged reading of Sea Fret last year and asked if I could do something which used my band TRILLS and we had been working so much on soundtracking trailers that it was a natural progression. TRILLS has been so busy over the past two years writing music which could be used for movie trailers that I realized we could do that live. There is something very evocative about us singing together in harmony and so this became our first commission and I made it plain when we applied for funding that I wanted to develop the script alongside the music so they were two halves of the same project, rather than just an after-thought or an add-on.

“So I would work with actors during the day, examining that awkwardness that teenagers feel, and then the TRILLS would arrive at 6pm and we would spend the evening writing songs. I would just give them a basic premise and we would see where it would lead us. For example, I said: ‘In this scene she tries to take his top off and he panics’ and we went from there.

“We took a lot from Suffolk myths and a porch style of songwriting – all the TRILLS have helped me so much with the writing of the music.

How do you see your career developing? Is it developing new theatre or do you see your music career with TRILLS working in tandem with your theatre career?

“I don’t know; time will tell. It’s a very exciting opportunity for us to be playing live again. When you go to this show, it will be very much like the gigs we used to do where everything was very pared back. I am also very curious to see how the audience will react to such personal work and it being played out in different spaces. I hope it will feel very truthful. I hope that it will be accepted as gig theatre: that it will feel like you are at a TRILLS gig and then feel as if you are being whisked away to these different places in Suffolk and Norwich. I hope there will be more to come, but only time will tell.

Is gig theatre the future?

“I think audiences can now watch so much on their phones and computers that theatre has to step up and provide something special, and gig theatre is part of that. It should be offering something that you cannot stream on your laptop. I love gig theatre because it is so different. It’s not musical theatre because music is used in a different way.

“For some people traditional theatre can feel very formal, very stuffy. Gigs are never like that; you can get lost at a gig and so I am really interested in exploring that area between the two worlds. I hope that I do get people coming to see this who go to gigs more than they go to theatre – that would be great.

Songlines, by Tallulah Brown, is at HighTide Festival, Pumphouse, Aldeburgh, from September 11-16. Box Office: 01728 687110 and Hightide.org.uk

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