An Interview With Actor and Creator Isabelle Woolley 

Image Credit: Isabelle Woolley

“Sensitive, bold and courageous” the 28 year old replies when I ask for three words she’d use to describe herself. I’d agree. I once observed Woolley in a Meisner acting class; when the tutor requested that she step into an exercise and “make some trouble”; within a minute she was stood brazenly kissing her fellow actor.

An actor and creator, Woolley previously spent two years performing with Polly Clamorous, “a female comedy cabaret troupe driven to spark controversy” who captured audiences at both Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe. 

Now, several years on, she’s taken the creative reins and written her first one woman show, Persephone, which debuts in London this month and at Edinburgh Fringe in August. 

The audacious young performer describes the inspiration behind her new show, what she’s learnt so far and the advice she’d give to anyone thinking of pursuing acting. 

Angela: Tell me about Persephone:

Isabelle: It’s a fictional, non-autobiographical reimagining of the Greek myth of Persephone. We follow a contemporary woman’s journey of pregnancy and watch as her identity and relationships unravel. We witness a grief-filled transformation into a more whole version of herself. There’s a dialogue between the myth of Persephone and this contemporary story. 

It’s ultimately about becoming a woman, understanding the dark parts of our minds and integrating the shadow sides of our self with the bits that we see on the surface. I think a big part of the show is about the stories we create in times of crisis in order to manage, especially when we experience pain, are we reliable narrators? 

The themes are womanhood, the fragility of the mind, mental health and asking what love is. 

Where did the idea for Persephone come from? What inspired you to write this story? 

So the first time I had the idea was in 2021, I’d just directed Harriet Gandy’s one person show, Horsepower, at Camden Fringe. 

I had this idea of tracking the journey of a pregnant woman over four seasons. I knew there were going to be songs and spoken word. Then I thought that’s way too f****** hard, so I ignored it. Then after a very big year for me, 2022, one day I was just like “I’m going to write a play”. 

I wrote the first draft in three weeks. (The first draft was shit!) As I was writing I realised that it was linked to the myth of Persephone. 

Why do you think you were drawn to the myth of Persephone?

I’m very interested in Feminist Jungian psychology, I read a lot of that in my spare time. I’m fascinated by archetypes, I read Goddesses in Everywoman by Jean Shinoda Bolen, which I still read all the time now, I thought “Why did I go to Persephone?” and it was because I’d read so much about it. 

I was very interested in the Persephone journey because I realised it’s basically every woman’s journey from being an obedient daughter of the patriarchy to becoming a fully actualised woman.

What is the show’s message?

In order to fully live and to fully love, you need to experience grief and loss, it’s part of the process. I’m asking the audience “what is love?”.

Why now in your career, have you decided to write your own show?

I discovered I wanted to be a writer. I felt like I had enough experience that I could lead a creative team. Obviously it’s an ensemble, but I wanted to step out into the community and say “this is my artistic voice” and I wanted to share that with people and show that I can be trusted to lead and have a vision. And to show that I can hopefully make bold work that is different from what we have on the scene so far, which is hard cos there’s a lot on the scene.

You’re taking the show to Edinburgh Fringe this year, what has the process been like?

It’s my third time going to the Fringe, I did Lady and the Cramp and HERSTORY with Polly Clamorous (2018 and 2019), so I’ve come in with more foresight. If you’ve done Fringe before you know there are always going to be problems, you can’t escape that. Now when the problems do come up I’m like “it’s okay I can handle it”. 

This time is different for me as I’ve got a team; we have a director, a producer, someone in charge of marketing, many designers. I think as actors, as devisers of work, you always think “Oh I can do everything..”  but you can’t. I used to pretend that I could produce but I really can’t, it’s not my skillset. I think actors can be very self-reliant which is great but actually those roles exist for a reason, those people do the job properly, they’re so valuable. 

This process has been exciting for me as the person who had the original vision and then gets to share it with people, that’s really thrilling. 

What have you learnt about creating a piece of theatre?

This is my first time writing, apart from writing songs. I’ve been in a lot of shows, I’ve discovered that one of the most important things is knowing your vision inside out, knowing what you want to give to your audience and what you want them to go away with. 

You can have as many talented people as you want, you can re-write it so many times, but if the vision/structure and what you’re trying to give to the audience isn’t watertight from the beginning, then it just flip-flops everywhere.

What was the process of writing Persephone like? 

All I can say is I now know why Hemingway was an alcoholic!

Writing is a very lonely experience; even if you’ve got a team on board giving you feedback, you’re sat there alone trying to bring something into existence on a blank page, you just have to sit there and do it. That is terrifying, but also absolutely fulfilling. You emerge from your room with a script to share.

What makes a great show? 

A show that’s honest. 

Do you get nervous performing?

I don’t get stage fright, but two weeks before the show I get really bad rehearsal fright. I’ll just be like “I’m shit I can’t do this!”. I’ll be in tears, then everyone has to talk me down from the ledge. 

But then once I get into that space, I’m just like “whatever happens happens”. 

What do you love most about acting? 

I think creating theatre is a very compassionate thing where you want to change the world and people.

The writer creates a story and puts themselves in someone else’s shoes because they want to share something with an audience. 

Then you have the moment in the theatre and the actor gives a bit of themselves and it’s an act of compassion. They’re saying “I want to change you” and the audience is like “Yes and I’m here to be changed..”. 

I had a moment where I thought it doesn’t matter if I’m successful, I just want to be part of that process. If that means I’m in the audience then I’m in the audience, but hopefully I won’t be, hopefully I’ll be an actor. 

Do you have any favourite writers or actors? 

All my favourite actors are writers. Bryony Kimmings, Brit Marling, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Emma Corrin is also a new love of mine.

My favourite playwrights are Cordelia Lynn and Ella Hickson.

Favourite plays?

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is powerful and Lela & Co is stored in the back of me somewhere. 

What would you say to anyone thinking of writing and producing their own solo show?  

Don’t rush it. Take your time. Don’t give in to the capitalist need of thinking you need to go and get spotted and get the agent. Know that it will come when it’s ready; the story you want to tell. Be brave, be honest. Make sure the thing you want to tell is so sound and from the heart. If it feels a little scary to go up there and do it, it means it’s the right story. And get a team on board, don’t do it all yourself.

Words by Angela Garwood

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