Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Polly Wiseman: Femme Fatale

By | Published on Friday 4 October 2019

Opening at the Omnibus Theatre this week is ‘Femme Fatale’, a two hander focusing on a fictional meeting between Nico of Velvet Underground fame and the radical feminist Valerie Solanas, a duo brought together by their very different connections to Andy Warhol.

Polly Wiseman of the brilliant Fireraisers Theatre is the writer of the play and also plays the character of Nico. I spoke to her, to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us what happens in the play? What story does it tell?
PW: Set in 1967, ‘Femme Fatale’ is an imagined meeting between Andy Warhol’s muse, Nico and his would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas. Nico, singer with The Velvet Underground and Warhol Superstar, waits to shoot his latest movie when her room is invaded by radical feminist Valerie Solanas. She wants the celebrity’s help to spread her message of female revolution, but Nico only craves drugs to insulate her from her pain. A battle to the death begins… But perhaps these two iron-willed opponents could change their futures, if only they would become allies. A darkly comic drama about fame, failure and feminism, ‘Femme Fatale’ features original writing, live music, super eight footage and stand-up in an intimate cabaret setting. And it’s a cabaret-play, because I wanted the characters to be able to interact directly with the audience.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PW: Both characters tackle the loneliness of being a pioneer. Valerie was a one-woman political movement; the founder and only member of SCUM – the Society for Cutting Up Men. Nico was at the forefront of the goth movement, paving the way for women like Siouxsie Sioux, Bjork and Bat For Lashes, amongst others. The show travels in time, between 1967 and 2019, drawing parallels between 1960s feminism and now, throwing in to relief how much still needs to change.

As a writer, my obsession is telling the stories of outsider women – which both Valerie and Nico were, coping with mental illness, poverty, addiction, abuse and in Valerie’s case, homelessness, begging and sex work. This probably makes the show sound a bit grim, but these women used gallows humour as a survival tactic, so my play is a dark comedy.

It’s great to be headlining Nasty Women, this year’s Perception Festival at Omnibus Theatre. It celebrates women ‘unapologetically doing their thing’ – which describes Valerie and Nico perfectly.

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about the real life characters it’s focused on?
PW: Nico was a German model and actress and as singer with The Velvet Underground, exuded Ice Maiden cool. But she grew to hate her glamorous blond image and in her solo career, dyed her hair brown, became a heroin addict and pioneered a whole new genre of music as the ‘Godmother Of Goth’. Clearly, there were dark roots beneath the shiny blond surface.

American radical Valerie Solanas is remembered – when she ever is – as the angry psycho who shot Andy Warhol, but she was an influential second wave feminist. When I read her 1968 SCUM Manifesto, I found it both hilarious and utterly relevant to my experiences as a woman now. Realising Valerie and Nico had been in the same Warhol movie – ‘I, A Man’ – an idea started to form: what would happen if I put these two uncompromising characters in a room together?

CM: How did you go about writing characters based on real people? Did you try to make them as close to the reality as possible, or did you use a bit of artistic licence…?
PW: Legally, you can’t defame the dead – but I wanted to do Nico and Valerie justice. I started with direct quotes to get a sense of their characters and voices, watching videos of Nico’s interviews and performances and listening to her albums. I read Valerie’s play, ‘Up Your Ass’, and her SCUM Manifesto. I then moved on to secondary sources – what people who’d known the women said about them. Two independent reports of an event or character trait meant I felt okay to use it. Ultimately, Nico and Valerie had to stop being real people and become the characters I needed to tell my story, so I’m careful to say that the play is an imagined meeting – written out of authentic love and respect for them both.

CM: Did you do a lot of research to inform the play?
PW: There’s only one biography of Valerie Solanas – by Breanne Fahs – and as she was someone living on the fringes of society, many of the details of her life are unknown. So I pieced together accounts of her from books and articles about Warhol and about Second Wave Feminism. The only footage of her that exists is of her arrest after she shot Warhol.

It’s a recurring problem when writing women from history: their lives are much less well documented than their male peers. You tend to rely on books and documentaries about men, where the woman in question is briefly mentioned! Nico is a case in point: there are tons of books about The Velvet Underground, but only one really comprehensive biography of her – by Richard Witts.

There’s a 1994 documentary – ‘Nico: Icon’ – and, of course, there are all her albums and a couple of TV interviews. Those really helped to get a sense of her voice, her personality, the kind of things she said.

I also looked in to the world of Andy Warhol, watched his movie ‘I, A Man’- which, as I said, Nico and Valerie were in – and footage of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable club night, where the Velvet Underground and Nico played. To my mind, his studio, The Factory, was an exciting and glamorous place to be – but a misogynist place too. For instance, only the men were ever given keys: none of the women were!

CM: What made you want to create a show based on this idea, and these themes?
PW: Likeable female characters bore me to death. Valerie and Nico were outrageous and often unlikeable: basically, they gave zero fucks. That, and the fact that they had such different accents – American/German – tempos and speech patterns, made them a lot of fun to write.

As the 2017/18 revelations of abuse in Hollywood came to light, I started to consider Valerie’s shooting of Andy Warhol as an early #TimesUp moment. The time seemed ripe for a re-imagining of two female pop culture icons, battling for control of their own destinies.

As two contrasting versions of womanhood – the blond, conventionally beautiful 60s chick and the angry, androgynous activist – they embody different ways of negotiating a man’s world as a woman. Valerie urges Nico to fight for what she wants. Nico makes Valerie understand the price she might pay for expressing her anger.

Andy Warhol is deliberately absent from the play: both women tend to be defined in terms of their relationship to him, whereas I think they’re compelling and worth celebrating in their own rights.

Male appropriation of the work of female creatives is also a theme of the play. Female artists not getting their due – being ripped off and then forgotten – is an obsession of mine. As Nico tries to move from muse to artist and Valerie from sex worker to activist, I hope the audience will be reminded how much hasn’t changed. Recent world events remind us we’re still fighting for control of our stories and our bodies.

CM: You’re performing in the show, as well as having written it. How does it feel to perform your own work, and what effect does it have on the performer-director dynamic?
PW: It’s hard not to judge the script as we rehearse, thinking, “I wish I’d written that line better!” Currently, I’m cursing myself for writing a part where I have to sing in a German accent whilst playing the harmonium with an insanely fast 80s synth backing. Why did I do that to myself?

I actually found it much easier to write Valerie: she’s very direct and outspoken. Sophie Olivia, who plays her, has natural warmth and likeability, which makes the audience listen to and respect a character who could otherwise be off-puttingly didactic. Nico’s reserved and secretive and lies about everything. She’s more unknowable to me, both as a writer and actor. But it’s fascinating to try to get under her skin…

I’ve known our director, Nathan Evans, for years and worked with him on several shows, and he’s also a writer-performer, so we’re both used to wearing different hats. In rehearsal, I try to be the actor only. On a break, we might discuss cuts or changes to the script as writer and director. It’s a balancing act and one that can be a bit delicate: who has final say? You have to be willing to negotiate and to trust that ultimately, you both want the best for the show.

I feel the idea of being a writer-performer, especially a female one, has only quite recently become acceptable. When I left drama school, and started a theatre company and wrote plays and acted, people said, “Yes – but what ARE you?’, like I had to fit in to a box. Now, there’s more of an acceptance that a person can be a writer-performer or writer-director or whatever. And why not?

CM: Can you tell us about Fireraisers? When was the company formed, and what was the motivation for creating it?
PW: I founded Fireraisers when I was at drama school, having realised that most parts for women were rubbish: also that eighty percent of the population would never willingly set foot in a building called a theatre. So the aim was to produce ‘extraordinary theatre in unexpected places’, whilst employing at least as many women as men.

Based in Lewes, East Sussex, our shows put women centre stage: ‘Bright’ – at Soho Theatre – featured a central female character with bipolar disorder; ‘Phoebe 1999’ – performed in a night club – was about a Brighton woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Napoleonic wars; and ‘Loaded’ – which toured the South East – was about an ex porn star – I’m currently turning this in to a screenplay for Danfilms.

We’ve done several large scale outdoor shows too: we produced site-generic interactive murder mystery ‘X’, in woodlands across the South East; developed ‘Manchester Sound: The Massacre’ for Home Mcr, which collided rave culture with the Peterloo Massacre in a recreated Hacienda in a warehouse in the Northern Quarter; and produced ‘Andy & Edie’, which played everywhere from The Criterion in the West End, to art galleries, to Selfridges window on Oxford Street, and ‘This Rough Magic’ – a version of Shakespeare’s Tempest – on an oil rig moored off Brighton Beach. ‘Femme Fatale’ is playing cinemas and bars in the South East and at Omnibus, we’re turning the space in to something resembling a cabaret-bar.

CM: What have been the highlights for the company, since its creation? What aims and ambitions do you have for it in the future?
PW: I’d say that Fireraisers highlights include ‘This Rough Magic’, ‘Andy & Edie’ and our International Writer’s Festival, co-produced with Birmingham Rep, NT Studio and Hampstead Theatre, which featured work by Tena Stivicic – Susan Smith-Blackburn Prize Winner – and Anna Ziegler – ‘Photo 51’, starring Nicole Kidman, in the West End.

I want us to keep working with exciting artists, originating work in East Sussex, and then exporting it elsewhere – in Britain and beyond! And to keep finding extraordinary places from which to generate site specific/ site generic work. We’ll continue to employ at least as many womxn as men and always put womxn’s stories centre stage.

CM: The play has been on tour prior to this run in London, do you have plans to tour it further at any point?
PW: We’d love to take the show beyond the South East, touring to other parts of the country. Venue managers: please come and see us at Omnibus! I think it could work well in cities with an arty, edgy nightlife, like Manchester and Glasgow. Since the show is set in New York, that would be our dream place to take ‘Femme Fatale’…but it would require some serious planning and fundraising!

CM: You have been gathering suggestions for a feminist manifesto for today alongside the tour – how can people contribute and what will you do with the final piece?
PW: The battle for sex and gender equality still hasn’t been won, so alongside the show, we’re making a new feminist manifesto that audiences and the online community can contribute to. That’s our way of honouring Valerie Solanas’s legacy: her original 1967 SCUM Manifesto. At the end of the tour, we’ll show it to policy makers and start a conversation about the things that still need to change for womxn.

The way to contribute is: come to the show, write down your demand and pin it on the manifesto in person, or you can write your demand down, take a photo, share it to Instagram/Twitter tagging us @SCUM_2019_ and using #SCUM2019.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PW: Next up, I’ll be working on a fantastic movement-led show called ‘Hawk’, for Company Gabrielle Moleta, and developing my RADA Festival play ‘Warlords & Tyrants’, in which villainous Victorians collide with death threats on Twitter and a sculpture of a ten storey man-eating vagina…

I also hope to remount my immersive audio installation, ‘Damage Control’, with Playground Theatre – which uses verbatim dialogue to explore the language of emergency, from the Great Fire to Grenfell, set amongst Josie Spencer’s incredible life-sized sculptures.

Fireraisers will also develop an immersive, site-specific show drawing on Daphne DuMaurier’s short story ‘The Breakthrough’, about a team of scientists trying to capture the soul at the moment of death. We hope to work with scientists and psychologists and are on the look-out for spooky abandoned labs on cliff tops…with reasonable transport links!

We also have plans for an original touring show featuring film and live music: a cinematic tale of passion, possession and poison, which will initially tour to cinemas and bars in the South East.

‘Femme Fatale’ is on at the Omnibus Theatre from 8-28 Oct. See the venue website here for more information and to book.

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