Polly Bennett. You might have heard her name being lauded by a certain Oscar winning Rami Malek. You’ve most likely seen some of her work played out at the Donmar, The National, The RSC and most recently, that little Netflix series, The Crown. The list goes on (and I’m trying to keep the word count down). Polly is one dazzlingly talented, top notch, supersonic movement director, choreographer and theatre practitioner. Everything she works on turns to gold. Quite literally. She has a remarkable Catherine wheel energy, an infectious (and reliable) wit and an unwavering focus that makes her that very person that everyone wants to work with.
This week we were gifted the opportunity to chat to her about work, life and and everything in between.
Photo by Helen Murray
Tell us about your journey to becoming a movement director? Was that always the masterplan?
'I never planned it - I didn’t really know it was a job until I was about 23 - but now more than ever I realise that everything I have done in my life has led to me becoming a movement director. My Dad was a trumpet player, so I sat in a lot of rehearsals as a child and I am told I was pretty discerning about the quality of dancers, the staging and vibe of the room. I danced and acted from a young age, was obsessed with MGM musicals and put on plays in the playground so when I became a member of the National Youth Theatre at 15 years old, I naturally became the person who led physical warm ups and started offering staging ideas to the directors. Understanding that I wasn’t made for acting I went to Edinburgh University where I directed fashion shows, choreographed musicals and just sort of “ended up” helping other students with their confidence when they had to make presentations. I studied paintings and sculptures in my History of Art degree so really analysing compositions and learning to analyse emotive bodies, as much as my parents might not think it, was a huge part of my theatrical development.
After I graduated I began working for a television production company that made adverts, I taught wedding dances and as a side hustle, I started running a non-for-profit actor training company, The Mono Box. This fusion of experiences and jobs – being on set, observing directors and working with amateur movers whilst also developing a company to empower and develop emerging actors, meant that I ended up being more valuable on the set of adverts helping the performers rather than dealing with the budgets and spreadsheets. Very naturally I swerved back into theatre-making. I love where I am at now, going between film and television, theatre and community work. It makes for a very eclectic work life!'
Are you able to tell us what you're working on at the moment?
'I am sitting at the airport waiting to fly back to UK after being Movement Coach and Choreographer on Baz Luhrmann's new Elvis Presley biopic which has been shooting in Australia. It’s been movement Everest. I feel a bit shell-shocked and not totally sure it actually happened.'
What is your favourite part of the process?
'I get to help people discover moving and understand what their body can do emotionally. I love the moment when I see actors, or anyone, I work with change in front of you from a physical stimulus I’ve given. I enjoy the unloading that happens in a physical room. Another bonus is wearing elasticated clothing all the time.'
What has been the most surreal moment of your career?
'Going to the Oscars was pretty mad as it turns out it’s not just a pretend thing on the telly. I’d worked with Rami Malek on Bohemian Rhapsody and he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal as Freddie Mercury so the natural progression of a mad night was ending up at Madonna's house where at one point we were all given slippers to wear so we didn't damage her floors. I danced with Lady Gaga's Dad, talked about pole-dancing with J-Lo and had a cheeseburger on the way home holding an Oscar and still wearing the slippers.'
Polly Bennett and Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (Photo by Alex Bailey/Fox)
What is the biggest challenge you've had to face?
'Because it’s a relatively new role, sometimes it feels like I have to explain what I need to do my job, or I have to fight to be treated similarly to other creative people on the team. Movement directors seldom are included in the royalty pool for shows for example; there are no awards or accolades for us and sometimes we aren’t even credited for our work. I guess because it’s not always immediately clear what a movement directors role has been on a project because the work is so expansive and not always an obvious song and dance (although it sometimes is that too!) it can be hard for people to understand to give space and credit to. The actors find huge value in the work, so I find the daily hurdles of getting what I need to do my job quite frustrating but hope that changes as the job comes more into focus – through interviews like this!'
Rehearsing Maydays, RSC (Photo by Richard Lakos)
Your best quality and worst habit?
'Empathy and empathy.'
What makes you laugh?
'My friends are my own personal comedy troupe. My friend Danny doing air guitar complete with pedals and Becks lip-syncing perfectly to the whole of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Celine Dion will always make me laugh.'
What scares you?
'Planet of the Apes in every single way.'
You are hosting a hall of fame dinner party with 3 invited guests. Who's on the list?
'Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner, Vivienne Westwood and I'd let Liza Minnelli have my seat.'
What would you write on a post-it note to your younger-self?
'Say how you’re feeling.'
What is the most inspiring thing you've seen, read or listened to recently?
'I find myself compelled to the sea so I just finished reading RisingTideFallingStar by Philip Hoare and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s hard to put into words but I guess it’s about human and animal relationships with the sea. He talks about people - famous, infamous, performers and heroes - enchanted or driven to despair by the water and links them altogether. I found his accounts of being in nature and linking other people to his experience incredibly moving. I am looking at life a little differently now.'
Peter Gynt, National Theatre (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
What would be the opening and closing track on a Polly Bennett mix tape?
'I have about 500 playlists which start with Sweet Disposition by Temper Trap so I guess that solves that one. Yesterday I'd have closed with Take Me Home by Phil Collins but today I choose Everywhere by Fleetwood Mac. And Forever More by Moloko would be somewhere in the middle.'
What would be your top 3 nuggets of advice to young emerging performers?
'Be curious – don’t expect people to give you the answers. If you look for stories around you rather than trying to do it all the right way, more possibilities will reveal themselves.
Passion isn’t limitless – you find your passion for your work through working with other people not delivering a finished product.
Put a song on every morning and dance to it without distraction. No phones, no brushing your teeth, no boiling the kettle. Release yourself from presentation, move for the sake of moving and get ugly. It will make your day infinitely better.'
White Teeth, Kiln Theatre (Photo by Mark Douet)
What lies ahead for you this year?
'Work wise, I'm back coaching the new recruits in The Crown Series 5, which I love. I find it so interesting working out how the Royal Family's bodies and behaviours change over the years and how in turn I get to explore that with new actors. I am also choreographing Season 2 of The Great and exploring Covid rehearsal room practices at RSC. There are some other new filming possibilities in the pipeline although life-wise I am keen to spend some time at home after being in a hotel on the other side of the world for a year. But I’m always moving so who knows…'
Production still from The Crown, Netflix
Introduction and interview by Charlotte Gascoyne