Making It Work

Making It Work

26 September 2019

Starting rehearsals as Nico in Femme Fatale, written by writer/performer Polly Wiseman

It’s an odd life being a writer/performer/ producer. I’m sat here at 10pm debating whether to write this blog post, practice singing in a German accent or fire off some emails about ticket codes.

Honestly, I can’t wait until next Monday, when I’ll just be an actor in a rehearsal room, attempting to turn lines on a page in to a living, breathing person. A person who just happens to have been a famous beauty and rock icon and Queen of the Bad Girls. And real. A real person who lived and died and has fans and a family. Gulp. Maybe I can wait.

Some things in my favour: I have a fabulous director in Nathan Evans. He and I go way back, to the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme. He directed me as another Warhol blond: Debbie Harry in our co-written Blondie musical for his celebrated club night Vauxhallville at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and I was principal boy in their panto. Not much could be as unnerving as performing Portishead’s Glory Box to chants of, “Prince Charming’s got a vagina.” Okay: I can identify with Nico on the ‘facing down a pissed-up crowd’ front. I can use that…

And then there’s my co-star, Sophie Olivia, who is an amazing actress and will almost certainly blow me off the stage and so that’s going to make me up my game. I absolutely love being on stage with her, and love having a drink with her almost more – which is dangerous. I mean, Nico probably went on in an altered state most nights, but her tolerance for substances was legendary. Method acting would be foolhardy: I’d better stick to adrenalin.

What else? Well, we’re backed by a great team in Sally Hardcastle, Sophie Bailey and Olivia Presto. I have no idea what a Birdie does or how to magic a stylish set out of a twelve and a half p budget or why covering the stage in aluminium foil and gothic candelabra would get us shut down by the fire marshall – but they do, and I’m very grateful.

Here’s the stupid thing: I wrote the show – which should make it easy to learn the lines. Except that all of them seemed to evaporate instantly, after I turned in the final draft. Perhaps this will lend me some immediacy in the playing of them. Or perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve developed early-onset dementia and should seek medical help. Actually, I think it’s utter terror: I’m mostly a writer these days and it’s nerve-wracking to make myself as vulnerable as an actor needs to be. You aren’t in control. You are the kid in the playground. Which is great, and fun, and an amazing thing to get paid for…but at some point when you’re hanging upside down on the monkey bars, an audience will appear. And you’d better hope they’re not pointing and mocking and yelling that they can see your pants.

It’s an odd responsibility to play a real person – which I’ve now done several times. I never met Nico. I’ve met various people who did and there is a tiny amount of interview footage - but really all I have to go on is the albums and films, and a couple of biographies. And at some point, you have to put those aside and just…well, act. Respond to the other person. The cliché that acting is reacting is actually true and the ability to listen is an underrated skill (in life too) Oh, and I also have to sing whilst playing the harmonium, which is an interesting challenge for a non-singer – although on the plus side, it does give me something to hide behind. Really, I’ll just be happy if I can give a performance that doesn’t make her spin in her grave.

Someone once told me that a scared actor need only tell themselves three things, ‘I’m beautiful, somebody loves me, and I’ve got a secret.” That’s sort of lovely, isn’t it? But actually, a more pragmatic – and Polish-accented - voice usually comes in to my head at moments of stress: that of inimitable director Andrew Visnevski, who I first met when he was one of my drama school tutors. An anxious student once approached him after a tech, “But Andrew: I’ve got to be in Victorian morning dress ten seconds after coming off as a naked angel covered in blood! What am I going to do?” Andrew thought for a moment, then said, “Make it work.” OK, Andrew: I’ll do my best. At the end of the day: what choice do I really have?