Theatre Critic and Journalist

Everything moves: Polly Bennett

Everything moves: Polly Bennett

By her own admission, Polly Bennett does “an enigma of a job.” The 26 year-old is one of the fastest-rising movement directors in the country, but she still faces baffled looks from her friends at parties, unsure exactly what she does for a living.

“Nobody really knows what a movement director is,” she tells me when I ask exactly that. “Someone always goes, ‘Is that like dancing?’ Sometimes I’ll just go with it, but it’s so much bigger than that. It’s about a wider physical language. It’s about being responsible for the actors’ physicality and their physical well-being. It’s about conveying character, connecting people and using space.

“Movement directors are a bit like secret weapons. Some directors want to use them, some don’t – but movement directors can do anything, depending on the job or the individual. We help tell stories more efficiently onstage.”

Since finishing her Masters at Central in 2011, Bennett has smoothed stories for the Bush, the Hampstead and the National Theatre of Scotland. She spent last year in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, while simultaneously moonlighting as Toby Sedgwick’s assistant on the Olympics’ opening ceremony, a job she dubs “just the greatest thing.” Now she’s working at the National on debbie tucker green’s new play, nut, a portrayal of a single day in a lonely young Londoner’s life.

Few theatremakers working in any discipline can claim such impressive credits while still in their twenties. “I’m only just starting to be aware of how much I’ve managed to do quite young,” Bennett says modestly.

When she talks, Bennett’s hands do as much work as her mouth. They seem to punctuate her sentences: underscoring her speech patterns and illustrating images through gesture. Not once in the half-hour we spend chatting do they come to rest. It’s vaguely hypnotic. “I use my body a lot in how I speak,” she explains later. It’s a massive understatement. Her body is the way she speaks.

Bennett started dancing at two and a half, moving into acting at ten on her dance teacher’s advice. However, she “didn’t know [the job of movement director] existed” until university, when a student actor suggested she try it. “I started backtracking through everything I’d done. I’d danced, but I wasn’t the greatest – never prima material. I’d done musicals and I always ended up leading warm-ups and suggesting alternative ways of doing things. I was just finishing a History of Art degree, which is all about space, proximity and how people relate to each other.”

She spent her childhood in rehearsal rooms, too, following her musician father and her grandfather – get this – is a celidh-caller. “A lot of movement directors say they just fell into it, but I really did. It all just came together.”

During her Movement Studies MA, a similar train of thought led her to focus on large-scale work. Having done a lot with the NYT she picked the subject for her thesis: ‘What’s the difference between the South Korean army and a big scale movement piece?’ The research led her straight to Sedgwick and his vast cast of volunteers.

“When you’re dealing with dentists and lawyers and people that have come from a hard day’s work, how do you get them in that place where their bodies are ready to activate? Actors are there out of choice. They’ve had training. They’ve got a certain view of their bodies. They’ve got the inclination to perform. Some people haven’t, but by the opening ceremony they didn’t flinch. That’s when you really see the worth of your job.”

That reveals a side of movement direction that goes beyond art into therapeutic territory.  Bennett sees her “presence in the room [as] encouraging actors to feel more comfortable, because they know someone’s taking responsibility for the physical side of their work.”

It’s why she gets frustrated by short-term jobs, where she’s flown in to direct a self-contained movement sequence. By contrast, her stint in residence at the RSC was revelatory. “It was something I craved: to be part of a working theatre and to see where movement fits in on a daily basis, into the daily life of a company. It’s great to have somebody there to really help the actors day in, day out.” Her role ranged from company-wide yoga classes to choreography via core training and voice workshops.

The RSC has since dropped its movement department and, elsewhere, Bennett believes funding cuts could squeeze out roles deemed optional extras. “It makes me really sad to think about, actually. Not having that second pair of eyes can be really damaging.”

Yet at the same time, she’s adamant that movement directors are more necessary than ever. “Audiences crave bigger things now, from Frantic Assembly to Fuezabruta, aerial work like in The Light Princess or the RSC’s Wendy and Peter Pan. People want more from actors.” Giving it to them takes a secret weapon.

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