Ella Woods: Wing Defence
by Rose Collard
Ella Woods: Brighton-based comedian, period-podcast host and Best Cricket Bowler in Sussex (Girls, Under-12s, 2000). Harpy was lucky enough to snatch half an hour with the BBC New Comedy Award nominee to talk about her second solo show, Wing Defence. Fresh from its sell out run at the Brighton Fringe in May, Wing Defence will be heading north to spend two weeks at that most hallowed hall of comedy: the Edinburgh Fringe.
In Ella’s own words, Wing Defence is ‘a comedy show about sport by someone who hated it’. Covering a myriad topics from netball, periods, cricket, the world cup, curry, being a 90s kid, exercising, not-exercising, Wham!, America and flared trousers, Wing Defence is a joyful conglomerate of comedic brilliance.
Part-autobiographical, Wing Defence chronicles Ella’s own relationship with sport. Ranging from the good (scoring a spine-tingling last minute wicket during a school under-12’s cricket tournament), the bad (being told she needed to exercise for health reasons) and the ugly (the hellishly competitive bitch-fest that is secondary school netball), the show uses these personal anecdotes as a way to open up a wider conversation about women (or the lack of women) in sport. A crucial conversation to be having, Ella pitches it perfectly; eliciting both laughter and musings from her audience.
Wing Defence is one of those exquisitely rare comedic concoctions. Smart quips, told by an engaging and instantly likeable comic, moments of sheer delightful silliness, and an overarching informative-ness that is quietly thought-provoking. Ella has a refreshing authenticity to her stand-up style that is unpretentious and a joy to experience: she is rip-roaringly funny without being crass; smart without being condescending; informative without being didactic. Praising her mum for being the ‘coolest person’ for giving birth to her - within the first five minutes of being on stage - it is clear Ella’s brand of comedy doesn’t conform to the stereotypical brashness of male comics the circuit has become accustomed to.
As well as comedy, Ella hosts a podcast called First Blood, where she interviews a variety of very cool women about their relationship with periods. (She recently interviewed Gabby Edlin, founder of charity Bloody Good Period.) Catching up with Ella before she sets off to Edinburgh, it is safe to say Harpy has found a new girl crush.
H: How long have you been in comedy? / When did you decide you wanted to pursue it?
E: I've been doing stand-up properly since 2013, but always wanted to try and make people laugh. I entered the BBC New Comedy Awards when I was 7 with a weird cassette recording about an old Eric from 'A Little Mermaid' doll I had, and my friend Sam and I tried to make a sketch duo called 'Sam-oln-Ella' when we were at Guides, though sadly neither of these paid off. I also remember writing a very surreal joke when I was younger - "What do you have if you add 87 sheep, 23 cows, and 47 horses?" "A lot of animals." Is that funny? No. Hopefully I've got better since then. I decided I wanted to give it a go properly after working in comedy for a bit and being really desperate to just get up there and try it out. When it didn't go horribly wrong, I kept on going. And have kept on going since.
H: What was your first show?
E: My first ever stand up gig was at an open mic night at a venue I was working at during the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. I was almost sick when I signed up for it, and practiced my set every day for weeks before. When people laughed I immediately signed up for another one the next week, which didn't go as well. I then waited another six months before getting on stage again. I think I started off with a huge amount of confidence, then after getting knocked back needed quite a lot of building up again. When you're doing it you can almost trick yourself that it's quite normal to stand in front of loads of people just on your own and make them listen to you, but once it's gone wrong it's harder to get yourself up there. Now I just try to think - what's more terrifying? Doing this gig and accepting there's a risk it might go wrong, or not doing stand-up again? Doing the gig nearly always wins, and the more you do it the less those not so good ones knock you back.
H: How long have you been making this show for? / Where did the inspiration for it come from?
E: I've been making this show for just over a year. It started from a writing exercise in a class with comedian Beth Vyse, who got us to share stories from our past with a missed opportunity. I shared the story of my fledgling cricket career, and how abruptly it had ended when my secondary school had no team for girls. I hadn't ever really thought about how crap that was, and it got me thinking about why I - or anyone else - didn't question that at the time, and overall why sport seemed to be so much less important to my female friends, both when we were growing up and now as adults. I started talking to friends about it to see if it rang true with any of them, and was really relieved to hear a lot of us had experienced similar things. A lot of my male friends too didn't really realise how different learning about and engaging with sport was for a lot of women, so I wanted to try and tackle that a bit too.
H: Why do you think it is so important women feel like they can be in sport?
E: So many reasons. First and foremost, because we are half of the population! Sport is as much for women as it is for men, and yet because so much of what we see is still so male-dominated it doesn't always feel like that. I think the way we are taught about sport doesn't help too - so much of our education was dominated by a game you see little outside of school (Netball), and when puberty kicked in and maybe running around in front of everyone wasn't an ideal loads of people just stopped, rather than be encouraged to try something else. Hopefully the show will help people realise that women can like sport too, there are loads of different things you can try, and it's okay to be crap at it. Just because you're not the best, doesn't mean it's not for you.
H: How have you found it being a woman navigating what is historically a man’s world?
E: I think things are definitely improving, though when I started out it was really, really tough. The open mic circuit in London is still very much dominated by white, straight, young men, and if you're anything other it can be a really depressing environment. However, there are loads of great alternative nights around, and I was lucky enough to be part of Soho Theatre's Comedy Lab which meant meeting a lot of people trying to do the same thing, so we could tackle it together and make opportunities for ourselves. The more I've gone on the better it's been, and while it still has it's challenges there are so many brilliant people in comedy trying to make it a much more level playing field for everyone. And the more of us who do it, the better it'll be!
H: Tell us about your podcast?
E: I'm the host of First Blood - a comedy podcast about periods and puberty. When I was writing Wing Defence, I remembered that I had got my first period during a netball tournament in Year 7 (as if it could have got worse). I then realised I had NO IDEA how any of my friends got their first period, and how weird it is that we never talk about this massive milestone in our lives. I'd also been thinking about trying to do something talking about periods a bit more generally after having a few experiences with lovely feminist male friends of mine who still were really clueless about what happened during periods and the cycle overall - they knew they should care, but were really worried about saying or doing the wrong thing and didn't really know where to look to find out. I had a quick Google and couldn't really find anything either, and realised there must be loads of people in the same boat - people who have periods, people who will get them, people who don't but want to know. So I decided to see whether any of my brilliant pals would be up for talking about their first period, their periods in general, and how they learned about them, and very luckily for me they did! It's had an amazing (and pretty overwhelming!) reaction so far, and I'm really proud of it. I recently got invited to guest on BBC Radio 1's Life Hacks podcast to chat about periods too which was completely surreal but incredible, and hopefully means a few more people will feel a bit less scared about them too!
If you’re heading to Edinburgh, make sure you check out Wing Defence, 14-26 August, at Just the Tonic Caves, 14:10: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/ella-woods-wing-defence
You can also follow Ella on Twitter @raphaellawoods