“Be the Forest Fire” Playwright Ross Willis on his debut play Wolfie

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Wolfie, the debut play by disabled playwright Ross Willis is a fantastical fairytale following two twins separated at birth, which looks at life in and after the care system. It plays Theatre503 20 March-13 April. Natasha Sutton Williams spoke to Ross Willis ahead of its premiere.

Two young women sitting on a bench

Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville in rehearsals for Wolfie. Photograph: Helen Murray

Ross Willis is an up-and-coming playwright that is taking the theatre industry by the cahonas and isn’t afraid to squeeze. He is currently one of the 503Five resident playwrights at Theatre503. During this residency, he was awarded a seed commission to develop Wolfie, his debut play about two twin girls who are separated at birth and thrown into the UK care system.

It is a surreal and poetic odyssey following these two orphans from the womb through to their teenage years. So what inspired Willis to write it?

“I had never seen a play which explores how life in and after the care system truly feels. How the lack of a constant parental figure crawls under your skin, gets into your bones and affects every part of your adult life. I wanted to write a play which was inherently theatrical, magical, visceral and anarchic.”

Writing Wolfie hasn’t been without emotional cost. It has been a two-year process, beginning with the seed commission to tease out Willis’ initial idea, then a series of drafts and ‘various freak outs’ says Willis. The play really took flight during the first research and development workshops with director Nadia Latif and the students from ALRA who “helped me discover the play’s raggedy, wild makeshift nature,” says Willis.

Being a part of the supportive and close-knit community of writers at Theatre503 has been a boon for Willis and his craft:

“Bearing witness to four other play’s journeys from pitches to drafts was brilliant. We got to hang out with the Avengers of playwriting: debbie tucker green, Alice Birch, Roy Williams, David Eldridge and several Literary Managers.”

Portrait of man with cap and glasses

Ross Willis

Having the time, space and some financial support to focus on developing Wolfie has been a game-changer for Willis, “It’s certainly the longest time I’ve spent working on one play. It’s also one of the few times a theatre have actively said they want something ambitious but with a tangible approach to actually getting the work produced.” The results are that Theatre503 have programmed Willis’ debut play for a three-week run, it is receiving the theatre’s full backing, and is being directed by the formidable Lisa Spirling, Artistic Director of Theatre503.

However, being a part of the 503Five is just one of Willis’ many writing residencies in the UK. He is a member of the Writers’ Access Group set up by the BBC Writersroom, a member of the Orange Tree Theatre’s Writers’ Collective and is currently on attachment at the Bristol Old Vic. The Bristol Old Vic is particularly close to Willis’ heart as he spent several years growing up in Bristol.

“The Bristol Old Vic run a yearly call out called The Open Session for playwrights based in the South West. I sent a play in and got invited to be a playwright for their theatre. I’ve recently been given a small seed commission by BOV for my next play, so I’ll be writing that after Wolfie. It will probably be something choral and mythical.”

Willis was writer-in-residence at Theatr Clwyd. He is now an alumnus of Tamasha Playwrights and Soho Theatre Writers’ Lab. At Soho, he developed his play Wonder Boy about stammering, schooling systems and superheroes. The play was a special recommendation finalist for the Soho Theatre’s Tony Craze Award.

Two young women pose against yellow bricks

Sophie Melville and
Erin Doherty star in Wolfie. Photograph: Helen Murray

This February, Willis was one of three writers (including Rabiah Hussain and Lettie Precious) to be awarded the inaugural Royal Court and Kudos TV writing fellowships. Each writer will receive £10,000 to allow them to focus on honing their writing skills for the next six months. Lucy Morrison, Royal Court Associate Director, stated that “We need to ensure that the right people are given the opportunities to tell their stories and this fellowship enables that. These three extraordinary writers can make change happen. Together with Kudos, we will support, challenge them and celebrate them to make art and tell the stories everyone needs to hear.”

So what does that mean in practical terms for Willis?

“I’ll be having regular meetings with the Royal Court and Kudos’ senior artistic team as well as sitting in on literary and development meetings. As a playwright who doesn’t write naturalism, being at the Royal Court feels particularly special, because as a space it’s always trying to push what theatre can be. I’m looking forward to being able to get some TV ideas off the ground, and I’m getting closer to deciding what my next play will be. It takes me a really long time to write a play so it needs to be something I care about with all my being.”

With all these accolades and opportunities, it doesn’t mean that Willis doesn’t face challenges every day as a disabled writer:

“I feel like I never get the right to fail; like everything I write has to propel me forward somehow. I have to remind theatres that the things other writers find so easy aren’t accessible for me. The industry is not always listening. They presume, become defensive and make excuses about their behaviour.”

What practical actions does Willis think the theatre sector could take to welcome disabled artists and make their spaces more accessible? His answer is simple “Listen to what disabled artists are telling you, but don’t just use disabled artists as consultants, actually make the work with us. Write access into the budget. It’s not an afterthought. And if your venue is not accessible, then make the rehearsal room accessible.”

With his mountain of theatre commitments and myriad drafts to write, he still has time to give some sage advice to emerging disabled playwrights, “Don’t be the polite willow tree in the forest, be the forest fire.”

Wolfie is premiering at Theatre503 from 20 March – 13 April 2019.

Accessibility

Theatre503 is not currently wheelchair accessible. Relaxed Performance on 27 March at 7.30pm. Parent & Baby Performance on 3rd April at 12pm. Captioned Performance on 5th April at 7.30pm.

Extras

Post-show talk with Ross Willis 10 April at 7.30pm. Pay What You Can Saturday Matinees: 30th, 6th, 13th at 3pm. SW11 Discount for residents in the area – x £2 Tickets the first time you visit Theatre503.