Margaret has always told her little brother Stanley it's his fault the ice is melting. She doesn't want to live in the Alaskan tundra. She wants to run away and be a normal teenager in Anchorage. Years later, the rift between the siblings has seismically grown. In a fast-melting world, will love be left behind?
Hi Tallulah, thanks for talking to TNC, how are you doing?
What does it mean to you to be bringing When The Birds Come to the Fringe?
I wrote the play years ago, so in some ways, it felt odd reworking it this year in preparation for the Fringe. Parts of it I’d never write like that now. But it sort of comes at you in a torrent, some bits quite poetic and abstract, some bits where I’m transporting you geographically (it’s set in Alaska!) What makes it particularly apt for it to be here at the Fringe right now is that it’s about a place called Newtok - who is referred to as the world’s first climate-change refugees - and the residents are due to move this Summer.
With this being your World Premiere are there any nerves ahead of the festival or are you all just taking it in your stride?
I’m always nervous. About everything. All the time. I’m from a family of worriers.
Can you tell me a little bit about When The Birds Come, what can we expect?
When the Birds Come is about siblings growing up amidst the Alaskan tundra. Margaret has always told her little brother it's his fault the ice is melting. She wants them to run away to Anchorage. From 2015 to 2025 irreversible damage will have been done to the planet. We meet the siblings 10 years later when a rift between the two of them has seismically grown.
What was the inspiration behind When The Birds Come?
I’d heard about Newtok, a town in Alaska where the Yup’ik people were asking for government funds to help them move away from a fast-approaching river. They had been trying to relocate since the mid-90s. The story struck a chord with me because I grew up right by the sea in Suffolk so how climate change is going to affect this coastline is very personal to me. Today the UK Environment Agency reiterated that houses along the coastline here in the UK will be lost to rising sea levels, communities will have to move inland. The sea levels are rising. We are an island, this play isn’t just localised to Alaska, this is about us, today, now.
There is a lot of conversations in the news about Climate Change but do you think the media is doing enough to actually show the real effects that CC is doing to the planet?
It’s in the news all the time now - daily - but Trump is still denying climate change, he is still drilling for oil. That’s why Alaska is so interesting to look at. Oil is a huge part of their economy, but they are also being hit by climate change really hard. That’s why it’s so revealing that extinction rebellion is such a young crowd - the young aren’t being dragged into the politics of the next election - they’re saying we’re facing extinction until we deal with that, the next election doesn’t matter.
"I wanted the play to feel as truthful and authentic as possible."
How important is creative collaboration when creating a show like this?
Director Alexander Lass has been incredibly helpful, encouraging me to pull the script out of a drawer, revisit it, update it. His dramaturgical work was brilliant and totally on point. The team that Debbie Hicks has pooled together is phenomenal. Very early on myself, Alexander and the composer/ sound designer Roly Witherow met to discuss the music and sound for the show. Because music is such a big part of my plays I was thrilled to be working with someone as talented as Roly. His sound cues have had me in tears at my desk (I think if I had my way the entire play would just be a 50 minute, immersive, 360 degrees, no dialogue, sound design!) Issy Van Braeckel made magic happen with a jaw-dropping, and nearly entirely recycled set, hand-embroidered costumes and intricately detailed props. Jai Morjaria has then given it this water-like blue beauty, rippling lighting. Finally, Benjamin Smith, our delightful SM has been keeping the show-up and running.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced bringing this show to the fringe?
I wanted the play to feel as truthful and authentic as possible. Whilst knowing that I myself was not Yup’ik and this wasn’t necessarily my story to tell. I contacted the Yup’ik playwright Richard Perry who very kindly looked over the script, gave me some fabulous, authentic snack suggestions! And mostly gave me the confidence to tell it.
As a playwright are you able to let a play run its course or do you find yourself tweaking it here and there?
The rehearsal time was so short I knew despite how brilliant our actors Phoebe Vigor and Zak Douglas are, I wouldn’t be able to tweak. Which I think made me ultra prepared this time. I read it over and over to myself, tried to pre-empt what I might want to tweak!
"I love the process of putting on plays, the coming together of all the group..."
Have you always had a passion for theatre?
Yes - although at first, at school I wanted to act, then I wanted to be a drama therapist, for a while I worked in schools with drama workshops. I love the process of putting on plays, the coming together of all the group - first read-throughs with the cast and crew are still my favourite.
Has your style and approach to your work changed much since your debut?
I think I drove myself a bit potty comparing myself to others, my progress next to others. When I was first putting work on I think I got too bogged down in that. You can fixate on not getting onto certain writing courses! My voice is still the same, I’m still balancing in the awkward poetic comedy-drama place. But I think the other stuff has got better: plotting, structure etc…
What has been the best piece of advice you got when you started out?
Simon Stephens said 'all you can control is the work, so write the play.'
(or words to that effect!)
Do you have any advice or tips for any emerging playwright?
Find yourself a job that you love, that will work alongside your writing, because there’s hardly any money, especially at the start, and there’s loads of rejection, especially at the start. My beloved Daunt Books kept me from going completely insane for nearly six years.
What 3 words best describe this show?
Wild beautiful alarming
And finally, what do you want your audiences to take away from When The Birds Come?
This is a climate emergency. It can feel supremely out of control, make positive change where you can. Don’t be cruel to the people you love, keep them close.