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7 Questions with E.S. Follen, author of “Willa Wonkie and the College Tour”

Willa Wonkie and the College Tour (Chocolate Not Included): one-act versionWilla Wonkie and the College Tour (Chocolate Not Included) is a  scrumdiddlyumptious parody of  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie Pail wants nothing more than to go to college, but first she has to survive the extraordinarily bizarre campus tour, full of student-snatching eagles, intelligence-enhancing food, and tool-wielding mole people. We talk with playwright E.S. Follen about Roald Dahl, the writing process, and high school theater.

What was your inspiration for writing Willa Wonkie and the College Tour?

I was looking to write a comedy for schools, and I’ve always loved Roald Dahl, particularly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I mean, who doesn’t? It’s pure whimsy and magic). Somehow the idea came to me that the absurdist tour of the chocolate factory could be re-imagined as a modern-day college campus tour. The more I thought about it, the more the structures and various stops on the tours matched up, and so I got to work. Willa Wonkie and the College Tour (Chocolate Not Included) is the result.

Dahl’s original book is a funny but dark satire about rotten children and their rottener parents. I thought the same tone would work pretty well as a sendup of the college application and admissions process, which, frankly, has become so absurd that it practically parodies itself. What’s so deliciously fun about the original is that all of the characters on the tour other than Charlie and Grandpa Joe are just horrible human beings. And let’s be honest — we’ve all been around those students and parents who will stop at nothing to get into their dream school. They are just the worst. So Dahl’s characters have been updated here to be modern versions of monstrous college applicants and their vile parents. I think they’ll be a lot of fun to portray on stage.

Do you have a favorite character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the Roald Dahl universe?

Oh boy. Roald Dahl was a visionary. All of his characters and worlds were so brilliantly and imaginatively realized. He was just amazing. Did you know he worked as a British spy during World War II? He did. I want to be Roald Dahl when I grow up.

Point is, it’s pretty hard to answer this question. From Charlie, I do love the character of Veruca Salt. She’s one of my favorite portrayals of the spoiled brat archetype. You just love to hate her. In terms of other characters…of course, you have to love Matilda, both the book and the character, as well as the BFG. The Witches still terrifies me to this day, and I mean that as the highest compliment. There’s also a lesser-known book by Dahl called Danny the Champion of the World that I think is so wonderful. It’s not as fantastical as many of Dahl’s books, but it’s memorable and moving.

But why are you asking so much about Roald Dahl? I thought you were going to be asking questions about me.

How did you first get involved with theater?

Oh good, back to me. Well, I played a lot of sports when I was younger. The first few years of high school I was always headed to practice for something — soccer, basketball, etc. At some point, though, I took a theater class, and started spending more and more time in the auditorium after school, putting off going to whatever sport I was supposed to be playing until the last minute. Eventually, I realized that what I really wanted to be doing with my time was theater, and I dropped sports like they were hot. And here we are today.

The lesson here is: Don’t play sports, kids. Make theater, instead!*

*(Kidding! Do whatever makes you happy. Just don’t let schools cut all the funding to arts programs, please.)

What is your writing process like? How often do you write? Where do you like to write?

Painful, sporadically, and in a desk crammed into a corner of my apartment.

Any advice for aspiring playwrights?

I don’t know that I can say anything here that hasn’t been said before, but I also personally find revisiting writing advice encouraging, so:

Write often. Even if it’s terrible. Even if you hate what you’re writing. It’s the only way you’ll get better.

Read often. Even if it’s so much better than what you think you will ever be able to write. This is also the way you’ll get better.

Actually go see theater! Go out into the world, listen to how people really talk, pay attention to how conflicts structure and resolve themselves, where subtext buries and then reveals itself.

Write the kind of plays you’d like to see or read. Listen to what people have to say about your writing, but take non-useful criticism with a grain of salt (or just toss it out the window). Define your own measures of success.

Any memorable moments from your own campus tours?

Oh sure. Lots. One of my favorites is when I was touring a campus in New England with my mother, and about 15 minutes in, we both looked at each other and decided to ditch the rest of the tour. The campus had a very “Abandon all hope, ye who enter” vibe. I’d never left a campus tour in the middle before. I’d probably never left anything in the middle before. I didn’t realize it was allowed. It was very liberating. I think we went and got fish and chips after that.

Johnny Depp or Gene Wilder?

Are you kidding? Wilder, all the way. No offense to Mr. Depp, but Gene Wilder as Wonka was such an incredible balance of whimsy and slightly dangerous eccentricity. I still shout “Good day, sir! I said good day!” just as he did in that film whenever I want to end a conversation.So. Good day, sir. Thanks for the interview.


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