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The Tab Masterclass: Playwriting

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away from our urban metropolis, there was a girl…


That land was the north, and that girl is Billie Collins.

Billie is one of the most exciting and respected writing voices in the Cambridge theatre scene. Her work, including Spiders, Stormface, and most recently, Bastard, is always incredibly popular in Cambridge. I can still remember seeing the queue to audition for Stormface last year, which snaked all the way from the Larkum Studio, through the ADC Bar and all the way down the stairs (in non-twat/thesp terms, a long old way).

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Credit: Ed Bankes

But it wasn't always this way. Her first play, Spiders, just started off with Billie and her friend, looking to get more involved in the ever confusing Camdram scene, pitching it to the committee with "no idea what they were doing:".

I sat down with Billie this week to get her top tips for playwrighting.

1. Write what you would like to see on stage

Here Billie quoted playwright Alistair McDowall, saying "I wouldn't be a writer if the stories I wanted already existed". You've got to think about what you would like to see. For Billie, this is work that's "funny, sharp and moving".

2. Use the resources around you

If you have friends who act, get them all together to test out your work. Billie tends to get together a group of friends for a rehearsed reading of her first draft, allowing her to see what works and what doesn't.

But Cambridge isn't the end of the world: there are so many other resources available. Royal Court Podcasts, BBC Writersroom, the internet, career guides. Billie herself wrote Spiders as part of a programme with the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester.

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Credit: Laura Cameron

3. Cambridge is the time to experiment

Cambridge has the most amazing resources, and this is some of the best time to really enjoy and experiment with your writing. Billie explained how a couple of years ago, the theatre scene seemed to mostly be for actors and directors. If you wanted to write, you went into comedy. This term, nearly half of the work pitched as shows was new writing. Now, we’ve got so many amazing writers doing the coolest experimental work, such as Victor Rees' ‘Let’s Start a Fire’ and Alannah Lewis’ BirthdA.

4. Appreciate your peers' successes, but don't worry too much

It often seems like everyone around you in the theatre scene is constantly winning prizes, putting on their own plays or getting every role you've applied for. And yes, people are putting on amazing work. But it's okay; be excited by what they are doing, exchange tips with them, but be confident in yourself. Jealousy won't get you anywhere. You should write for yourself, not for others.

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Credit: Billie Collins

5. Don't worry about writing an original story

Rather than focusing on a unique and original plot, concentrate on why you are the person who should be writing it. It's your viewpoint that will make the story unique, deep and meaningful. And don't start out with the intention of making a particular point; rather, posing and exploring a question is much more effective and dramatic. The effect is, as Billie said, getting to ask that question in one room at the same time, all together, the actor and the audience.

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Credit: Billie Collins

6. Absorb everything around you

Carry around notebooks. Listen to the news, take pictures, record the funny conversations you hear on buses. As Billie leafed through her current notebook, she read out snippets of conversations she overheard: "it's dark in here Jerry", a couple of friends planning the argument they wanted to have with another friend that day.

At the end of the interview, I asked Billie what's the weirdest thing about writing a play. She said that she's always surprised by how many people turn up and how many people give up their valuable time to bring her words to life. There's always a point in rehearsal when she realises that the words she wrote in a room by herself are now being said: she made up this person, and now they're standing before her.

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Credit: Billie Collins

'Bastard', Billie's latest play, is on at the Corpus Playroom this week, 7pm Tuesday to Saturday.