We caught up with Polly Bennett (Bohemian Rhapsody, The Crown) - Movement Director on Peter Gynt.
What’s been your career highlight to date?
There are so many. I am deeply proud that I worked on London 2012 – the dress rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life and atmosphere created by the volunteer cast is something I wish I could have bottled. Working on the play Pomona was a definitive experience – it was a process that taught me about true collaboration – as was People, Places and Things, where the challenges of the script pushed me out of my comfort zone as a maker and it was one of the first productions I worked on where people noticed my input. I also feel like I have done my best work with a London based trans-inclusive women’s choir called Lips and in Saudi Arabia working with women; a personal mission to empower women always reaps personal awards.
Another recent highlight was being Movement Coach to Rami Malek on the film Bohemian Rhapsody.
Getting the job was a coup – I was the underdog in the interview process, but Rami and I immediately got along and spoke each other’s language. It could have been intimidating as my first major film project, but it actually felt like the perfect culmination of all the things I had done before and a huge, much appreciated challenge that I am delighted to have been given. When I met Rami he struggled to hear the beats in music so I had a huge challenge on my hands and I worked hard to create exercises and systems to help his transformation into Freddie Mercury both onstage and off. I was on set every day which meant that I was with Rami every step of the way. I got to go to the Oscars which was utterly mind-blowing but not the highlight.
When Rami first performed the whole of Queen’s Live Aid set all the way through, beat for beat, with every head turn, sky punch and tricky foot skip intact, my heart burst into pieces. It was a moment that showed what perseverance, hard work and dedication can do – and of course the power of movement.
Polly Bennett in rehearsals for Peter Gynt. Photo taken by Manuel Harlan.
How did you get into movement direction and when did you first realise the role of a movement director existed?
I have always been active: I spent my childhood in dance lessons, jumping fires and wrestling with my big brother. My mum was a school-teacher, famed for her storytelling and performances at the PTA pantomimes, and my dad was a much-admired trumpet player, so I had little chance of avoiding the theatre growing up! I’ve always been interested in people’s movement and what moves them. I love watching people and imagining why they move as they do. From watching Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and MGM movies as a kid I did impressions, trying to replicate those movies, and generally got inspired by people knowing their own bodies. I still obsess over Tina Turner’s energetic stage performances, Stevie Nicks’ fluidity when she sings, Grace Jones’ use of fashion and Celine Dion’s combination of power and funny bones; I’ve learned a lot by just watching and absorbing ideas through osmosis.
As I had a natural energy, my mum asked me if I wanted to try dance lessons. I tried and I adored it, taking up ballet, tap and jazz.
I was a good dancer – I picked things up quickly and had stamina – but I was never prima ballerina material. In an audition when I was 8 years old or so I got asked to skip across the diagonal of the room. The floor was sprung, and I’d never experienced that before, so I soared through the air. Out of breath and giddy from flying, the feedback was that I skipped with 'too much character.' That confused me: I had felt amazing, but my experience had somehow been deemed wrong. I think that was a turning point - my brain switched from the idea of performing myself to enabling other people to do it, or at least help them feel like they could fly too. So when I became a member of the National Youth Theatre I naturally became the person who led physical warm ups and at Edinburgh University, where I studied History of Art, I directed fashion shows, choreographed musicals and helped people with their public speaking to make them feel better about presenting. In my course I was studying paintings and sculptures - analysing compositions and learning to analyse emotive bodies so really (as much as my parents might not think it) that course was a huge part of my theatrical development!
After graduating I did a variety of jobs trying to figure out how to afford living in London and therefore resisted working in theatre for a while. I worked as a personal assistant and in PR. I even helped older ladies with their online dating profiles and moonlighted as celebrities doing their social media (long story!) I felt a bit lost trying to work it all out but it was when I was working in television production that movement took over. My colleagues realised I was more valuable working with the performers than I was sitting behind the spreadsheets, and before I knew it I was coaching actors and models on their 'movement' in adverts.
I knew then that there was a job in movement and got funding to do a Movement MA at Central School of Speech and Drama, which gave me the space to piece together what I knew and think physically about plays and making work.
My first proper movement job was working on the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, which then took me to work in Sochi on the Winter Olympic Ceremonies. I was very much taken a chance on by the Olympics – I was the youngest member of the choreography team but I learned how to hold my own. Large ceremonies were where I cut my teeth in terms of dealing with pressure and working with a whole range of people from A-lister performers to volunteer cast. I got to work in teams and see how different people explained movement and broke down choreography and ultimately I got to see what makes people tick.
After London 2012 I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year in Stratford-upon-Avon assisting Struan Leslie, the Head of Movement there. My tasks were to support the physical work of the company: taking that literally, I started doing pilates classes for the office staff and the teams who built the sets. I delivered yoga and release classes for the actors, as well as shadowed other professionals in the rehearsal rooms, making the plays fly off the page and exploding Shakespeare’s text. I developed a process and it’s been all go from there!
Isabelle Joss and company members in rehearsal for Peter Gynt. Photo taken by Manuel Harlan.
What is a movement director?
A Movement Director is someone who brings the physical aspect of a play to the fore by being close to the body.
It’s a physical job that enables actors’ creativity to help them create the world of the play and build connection with their colleagues. Whilst a Choreographer typically works with dancers rather than actors, creates material and brings it into a rehearsal room for people to learn, a Movement Director’s work expands across a greater range of possibilities which may include choreography, but is more reliant on the actor’s individuality.
So when you see a play, a piece of 'movement' could be anything from a party scene, a stylised scene change where furniture and bodies move energetically on stage, or a section where actors are playing characters who are not human. A little harder to see is movement that is woven into the fabric of the play and is buried in an actors’ performance. Examples of this type of physical work could be developing exercises, physical relationships between characters, making interpersonal behaviour onstage vivid and realistic, or working with actors to authentically play being pregnant or old age.
I would say that I work both as a Movement Director and a Choreographer, but my title is very much dependent on the job. Unlike for Choreographers, there are (currently) no public accolades or awards for Movement Directors, probably because of the breadth of work we can do. A good start for those interested in making the distinction though is to think about the body for narrative when next watching a play with a Movement Director on the Creative Team list.
What would your advice be to someone looking to get into a similar career?
The field is now growing and there is an increased understanding of what a Movement Director can bring to a production. The visibility of movement directors is great for the future of movement as a craft, theatre and of actors. Now I am not trying to martyr myself, but I am keen to point out that getting to where I have got in a new industry has taken a lot of graft. Not all theatres have the means to pay and support movement direction and there is still a way to go in terms of acknowledging the realities of a movement director’s responsibilities in a rehearsal room. I am thrilled that the industry is shifting to give space to movement practice but to keep it alive it needs people that are keen to develop it further: you won’t be able to follow my route exactly so explore your own because what you bring to the movement world will be your own version of brilliance. So really my advice would be to look at everything that leads you to movement.
Be curious about it and even more curious about stories – make up exercises to make things move. Oh, and always have a tennis ball in your bag – you’ll need it!
What’s the best thing about your job?
The variety of opportunities that movement enables is undoubtedly the best thing. I love that my job enables me to meet and connect with so many different people. I love that one day I can be with a group of elderly dancers running a tea-dance and the next I can be on a Hollywood film set. I relish doing as many different things as possible, as every experience nourishes the next. As well as production work I have staged waiters in Michelin star restaurants to deliver food with an edge of performance, coached businessmen and politicians to deliver speeches, taught football coaches how to build teams, run Hip Hop classes to inmates, developed shows with homeless people and choreographed everything from equestrian shows to first dances. With all these opportunities my intention is to work out the next best way to communicate movement and take physical work away from judgement or criticism, self-consciousness and shame for whoever I work with. I never want people to think that what they do is wrong. In a world where we are becoming more and more disconnected with our bodies – phones, laptop, politics…. I truly believe moving could bring us back together. I get to help people discover moving. Plus, I get to wear elasticated clothing, throw my hair in a bun and dance.
And finally... can you tell us a bit about Peter Gynt and what we might expect?
The show is massive! I wasn’t totally clued up on the story of Peer Gynt before now, but I have totally fallen in love with its magic.
It is a funny, grotesque, moving and poignant story with loads of scope for movement so audiences can expect an embodied cast working hard to show you an imaginative, fantastical yet totally human story on an epic scale.
Peter Gynt will play in the Olivier Theatre from 27 June.
Find out more about Polly's work: