When James Willstrop underwent hip surgery back in September 2014, the former World No.1 had a lot of time on his hands.
Forced to endure a five-month hiatus from professional competition, Willstrop headed to his local theatre group to get involved in something he’d loved ever since his school days.
Now aged 39, Willstrop is no stranger to treading the boards and often balances fine-tuning his squash game with learning lines. The crowd favourite will now be hoping to perform on stage at The Rep in his day job when he competes at the British Open this week.
We caught up with the two-time Commonwealth Games gold medalist to discuss his passion for the arts.
Q: James, this year’s British Open will be taking place at The Rep theatre. You’re no stranger to that environment, can you explain what kick-started your passion for acting?
James: “I was introduced to it by my parents and I loved being in school plays. I’ve always been a bit of a show off and I loved all aspects of performing.
“When I had my hip surgery back in 2014, I went to the local theatre group near where I live, not with the intention to act but to get involved in something I loved. I ended up getting put in a play, I found out the schedule worked around the squash and I was hooked.
“I’ve never really stopped and I absolutely love it.”
Q: Talk us through what the experience was like to appear on stage as an actor for the first time?
James: “It was in front of 20 people in a little village hall and I got an absolute buzz out of it. When you do something so intensely like this [squash] for so many years there is so much repetition every day. I love squash so much, but you need something else and this [acting] is what I love doing.
“Some people would think it was the worst thing in the world, but I’ve always enjoyed getting up in front of people to speak or play, whatever it is.”
Q: You teamed up with a number of school children in Birmingham for a special performance of ‘Outside the Box’ which brought the story of squash to life – talk us through that experience.
James: “It was through Jake Oldershaw, who runs Untied Artists. He’s a massive squash fan, he got to know about my love of the theatre and action and he got in touch through Zena Wooldridge [WSF President].
“We then struck up a relationship and he had an idea for a play about the history of the game. It was talking about the likes of Jahangir [Khan], Jonah [Barrington] and we got school kids around Birmingham involved.
“It was ahead of the Commonwealth Games, he got the funding, we got the go ahead and it was absolutely fantastic. It was a very special opportunity, I played myself which was funny and I did a little rap about the history of squash.
“We had a great time and the kids were fantastic to work with. It got a lot of schools talking about the Commonwealth Games and squash for the first time. Sport, theatre and the arts are just so good for kids.”
Q: In squash you’re often putting on a show for spectators much like a theatre performance – has your squash career helped prepare you for acting at all?
James: “It definitely does. A lot of people find it quite unusual that I do this other thing. I guess it is, but I think that there are a lot of similarities really.
“I have to learn new lines and rehearse, and there are a lot of similar disciplines to working on squash every day in terms of practising your shots. There is also the buzz behind the scenes before you first go on for a match or on stage. The difference there is that on stage you enjoy it with other actors, whereas with squash you’re on your own.”
Q: It won’t be your first time playing squash in a theatre given you’ve also competed in Dubai Opera and Theatre Graslin – what is it about a theatre that makes is a great venue for squash?
James: “You’ve got the history that is there with a lot of theatres and there is an ornateness in the buildings themselves. It gives them a certain atmosphere which lends itself to squash. In Nantes [Theatre Graslin], it was an incredible venue and so beautiful as well.
“There was also Dubai Opera, which was maybe more modern as well, but these places have so much history. When I go to the theatre it’s about the sharing of the situation with people. Film and art and all these things don’t quite do it the way theatre does, you share the experience for two hours.
“The squash court is a bit of a stage with the lights shining on the glass box.”
Q: This will be your 19th British Open – just what does this tournament mean to you?
James: “The days of me winning it are probably over [laughs]. Everyone knows the prestige of this tournament, you go back to the days of Jonah, for example, and I also grew up watching Jahangir, Jansher and the great legends of the 80s and 90s.
“It’s a wonderful showcase for the game and everyone wants to win it. I’ve had some tough times in the past, I’ve played in three finals and not quite managed to get it, but that’s the way sport goes and I’ve had some great memories down the years playing the British Open.”