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The Cripple of Inishmaan

"The work challenges me and I love it."

William Rees hasn't had a long life. But he's spent all of it preparing for the title role in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan.

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Category: Theatre
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The Cripple of Inishmaan: Gig of a lifetime

Date: 2 Jul 2019

When I was young – well, younger than I am now – I never dreamed of becoming an actor.

From a very young age, I was encouraged to become an athlete, and to even represent Australia in the Paralympics. But I now realise that I’ve been acting my entire life, and always observing.

I suffered a severe brachial plexus injury at birth.

My left arm is withered, stunted and paralysed. I spent the first few years of my life going back and forth between my home city of Canberra and the medical world of Sydney. Sydney became entirely associated with specialists, surgeries and hospitals.

When you have a disability, you have to build up resilience – you have to try and act like certain things don’t affect you.

For me, this eventually meant most things actually stopped affecting me. The stares stopped affecting me, the backhanded comments stopped affecting me.

From a young age, I observed reactions to my disability. I am a naturally quiet and observant person and now, as an actor, I’m able to tap into the emotions and reactions that I have observed, and channel them back into my own work.

I consider myself lucky, to be honest. I’ve always been thankful that I’ve been disabled from birth, as opposed to being affected by disability later in life and having to adjust.

My disability is all I’ve ever known and, honestly, I’m not that bitter about it.

I mean, I was. Of course I was. There’s only so many times you can put up with watching your friends playing or watching them live medication-free lives. Lives free of surgery and chronic pain. Lives free of stares and backhanded comments.

But I’ve come to realise it’s a part of who I am, and given the choice, I wouldn’t change it.

Why would I?

I spent three years in the Philippines, from 2011 to 2014. Mum is a diplomat. Those years opened up my eyes to the world of big cities and over-population, the constant hustle and bustle. Very different to Canberra’s small, quiet living. I matured while living in Manila and I was so, so very lucky to have had that opportunity.

When I was 16, I was cast as the lead in a dance-theatre production called Frank Enstein, by Co3 Australia and THE FARM.

In a short few months, I went from sitting in drama class with my overactive imagination to suddenly being on a stage performing in front of hundreds of keen audience members every night.

I owe my first job to actor Daniel Monks, who I consider a fantastic mentor and friend. Daniel portrayed Frank the year before I did and recommended me to Gavin and Grayson, the creators and directors of the production.

I knew nothing of the industry. Like, at all. Frank Enstein was my introduction to this industry and it did a bloody good job as far as introductions go! Frank was also my introduction to dance-theatre. Hell, even to just dancing itself. I was leading this colossal dance production without any dance training. I can’t say it didn’t scare me, because it did. But the cast and crew were terrific and supportive and I was very lucky to work with them.

So, there I was. May 2018. I had just had the experience of a lifetime and suddenly I was back in Canberra, returning to Year 11 at Narrabundah College.

By November of 2018, 11 other students and I were selected out of hundreds of applicants from around Australia for the Bell Shakespeare Work Experience program.

On my second last day of the program, at 6pm, after a full day of work experience, I did a read-through for The Cripple of Inishmaan with Claudia Barrie and Josh Anderson. I had so much fun during that hour. I couldn’t have imagined that days before wrapping up my work experience at Bell, a new adventure would come my way.

Several weeks later, Claudia called to offer me a role in her production.

I spent the first few months of 2019 just waiting to get to work. I was itching to start rehearsals but I still put everything I had into my schoolwork.

When rehearsals started, I was overwhelmed. This was my first dialogue-driven professional production – it was daunting. I was also working with phenomenal co-stars, some of whom were icons to my parents.

I was intimidated, but the atmosphere was immediately welcoming. Everybody is so incredibly loving and open with me; I really feel like I’m an equal, even though I’m years younger.

The work challenges me and I love it. I’m tapping into deeper areas of my skillset and my worldview.

This show is an actor’s dream. The Irish dialect requires you to always be thinking on your feet. Martin McDonagh’s play is complex, hard hitting and hilarious. It was also so far ahead of its time, especially given the lead is disabled. Billy is sassy, dignified and intelligent.

I hope I can do him justice.

I’m living my best life giving the role everything I have.

The Cripple of Inishmaan plays the Old Fitzroy Theatre, July 11-August 10.

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