Today’s Staging Session is led by Beth Burns from Hidden Room Theatre and Farrah Karim-Cooper from Shakespeare’s Globe titled, Theatrical Gesture: Re-forging a Lost Tool for OP and the Modern Actor. Before the session begins, hand-outs are provided for the audience with a visual aid of the allegories of the seven Capital Vices (Stupidity, Inconstancy, Anger, Injustice, Idolatry, Jealousy, and Despair leading to eternal damnation) and the seven Capital Virtues (Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Charity, and Hope leading to eternal salvation).
Beth Burns kicks off the session with an introduction to her work. Burns comments that often when actors think of. gesture they consider it as one of the worst actions onstage. There is an idea amongst modern actors that they have to keep their hands down at their sides using only their voice and face to convey meaning. If that is the case, or if actors are afraid of using gesture onstage, why do we still pay so much attention to it? This session will introduce the audience to and examine the time continuum of Renaissance, Restoration, and Reconstruction gesture, highlighting the difference of gesture between these aesthetic movements.
After Burns’ introduction, Karim-Cooper speaks of on her book, Hand on the Shakespearean Stage. Her book seeks to answer the following questions: What gestures appeared on the early modern stage? Were these gestures stylized? Did actors in Shakespeare’s theatre have a heightened awareness of the use of their hands onstage, and how did the audience perceive these gestures? Some scholars challenge these questions with ideas that the Globe was too large of a space for actors to use their hands for gestures. Others believe that the gestures used would have had to use the whole body and highly stylized gestures to communicate these movements to the entire audience in a large space. The reconstruction of The Globe in London enables scholars and practitioners to imagine and explore the Early Modern practice of gestural score.
Karim-Cooper then leads us into questions to consider when creating gestures to include: What is the genre of the play? Who is this character? At what level of the gallery is the actor addressing? What is the emotional content of the speech or line? She articulates that, of course, we can never know what these gestures would have looked like exactly, but the implication is that gesticulation can present passionate emotions onstage. Karim-Cooper’s overall argument is that due to the nature of speedy rehearsal processes, Early Modern actors had no time to choreograph gestures, so their score was created using movements and known content directly related to the culture surrounding the production. There was a co-expression of speech and gesture used to transmit thoughts and emotions, hence “passionating” was another word for acting in the Early Modern context. Gestures were iconic or recognizable, everyday gestures that would have been well-known by the audience.
In creating gesture, actors should consider the performance space, lighting structure, genre, costumes that could restrict movement, and the passion beneath the gesture. All of these variables suggest more than one way to perform and interpret gesture. Karim-Cooper poses the idea that actors can develop a set of techniques for reading gesture and meaning that convey to translate their gestures to modern acting. This session demonstrates ways to perform gestures in an environment in which there is no definitive system for what gesture is but a system for creating it. She further details the three types of gestures: iconic or allegorical that are ageless, timeless, and highly recognizable; instinctive that are relevant to the culture or time period and often unconsciously performed or mimicked by audience; and hybrid, a mix of iconic and instinctive gestures. Cues for gestures are indicated through implicit or explicit stage directions or lines delivered by characters that describe a gesture that is or is about to take place. Focusing first on the style of Early Modern gestures, she gives two examples. The first is of 1.1 in Romeo and Juliet when Sampson says to Gregory, “I will bite my thumb at them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it.” Karim-Cooper further details that Abram annotates this gesture while it is happening or immediately after indicated by his line immediately following Sampson, “Do you bite your thumb at us sir?” Sampson’s line illustrates that he will bite his thumb, a familiar gesture in Early Modern culture, and Abram advances this action in his combative response. Gestures can also be eluded to in dialogue. Karim-Cooper cites I Henry IV to Poins’ line in 1.2, “…if you and I do not rob them, cut this head off from my shoulders.” This provides an opportunity for the actor to use this gesture in a storytelling or joking context with Prince Hal. She asks the audience to consider how the function of gesture sequence shifts in different contexts.
Actors from the Hidden Room Theatre take the stage to show how the function of the same gesture can vary depending on the context of the play. They begin their demonstration with 3.2 of Romeo and Juliet. Hang wringing is an iconic gesture that represents fear, anger, anxiety, or despair. Seneca refers to it when he describes the outward expression of anger or fear. The actor playing the Nurse wrings his hands in despair mourning Tybalt’s death. This gesture is recognizable as iconic, but it can be instinctual. The actors then demonstrate their use of that same gesture in 3.4 of Hamlet. Hamlet wrings his hands after killing Polonius as a sign of anxiety. Gertrude wrings her hands in distress. This gesture is embedded in the text of Hamlet’s line, “Leave wringing of your hands. …let me wring your heart…” Gertrude’s gesture conveys grief and fear dictated by the embedded stage direction. In both scenes, the wringing hands gesture has the same function, but one is an emotional, recognizable choice for the character and the other is embedded in the text indicating that it has to happen.
Karim-Cooper moves on to how gesture is used in dumb shows. Dumb shows contain cues for actions of the body that were much more exaggerated. This suggests the artificial nature of plays, for example, John Lyly’s Endymion. Karim-Cooper uses the actors to stage the Folio version of the dumb show in Hamlet. Iconic examples of hand wringing engage whole body. In this demonstration, the actor playing Gertrude kept their knees bent with their body moving up in down in time with their hands as one twists the other. In the Folio, the language of what is happening during the dumb show is gesturally ambiguous. Karim-Cooper argues that it uses exaggerated gestures, all large and repetitive, to tell a story without words. In this demonstration, the actor playing the fellow who mirrors Claudius wrings his hands in an villainous manner to convey that he is the antagonist in the story. The King and Queen enter lovingly holding hands to create a tactile gesture. “Passionate action” is generated when the Queen enters grieving, indicated by a vague stage direction that she is “loathe and unwilling” to allow the fellow (who the audience knows murdered the King) to comfort her.
Karim-Cooper moves on to display a scene of Richard III to showcase a gestural score that is taking place under the dialogue between Richard and Anne in 1.2. Richard says, “Why does thou spit at me?” clearly indicating the use of this gesture. In the physical embodiment of Richard, the actor keeps his right foot inverted and leans on the outside of his sole, has his left foot pronated, and hunches down in a way that starts in his lower abdomen and moves around the back, settling in the shoulders. By contrast, Anne is poised, her hands held up patiently and modestly at center of chest where she holds the sword. Anne says, “I will not be thy executioner” indicating her to drop the sword and annotated by Richard’s next line, “Then bid me kill myself and I will do it.” On Richard’s line, “Look how my ring encompasses my finger”, Richard gives Anne a ring by placing it in her hand. Anne brings her hand up to her chest close to her neck to hold it close to her heart. The gestures used in this scene previously appeared in the Hamlet demonstration and prove how gestures can be used differently based on context. The gestures are not identical, but some may have been incorporated to tell this story. Anne’s gestural response reflects her emotional state, whereas the dumbshow in Hamlet focuses on the theatrical.
Karim-Cooper switches gears from Early Modern gestures to stylized Restoration gestures. The style and choreography are different for each of these aesthetics. Beth Burns takes the stage again and shares with the audience that Hidden Room Theatre performed a production of Tate’s Lear. Three actors from Hidden room show what Restoration gestures might have looked like using this text. The first actor uses more codified gestures from research to find, choose, and act specific gestures. The second employs gesture as part of character and the additional mask of Goneril. She has a fluid motion with quick, specific, feminine, and tantalizing gestures. The third actor uses gesture to reference the elements of his body and surroundings that he is speaking on and tries to use the techniques of Farrah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern’s research. The technique that developed was through script: identify passions, find the gesture associated with it, start to practice, and finally link gestures from one move to the next. In this performance of Lear with the use of Restoration gestures, the Hidden Room ensemble found that beautiful passions led to an audience applause, and ugly ones caused an audible “boo” response. Beth Burns says that Restoration gesture is more beautiful and balletic. It is less natural or theatrical like Early Modern gesture. Burns encourages the audience not to “hold their hunks of meat to their sides,” but to use them as a tool to tell the story.
For their next project at Hidden Room Theatre, they are planning on using the original John Wilkes Booth prompt book of Richard III that was recently recovered. The audience makes an audible, wowed response to this new information! Their aim is to recreate that particular production. The session only allowed a brief amount of time to examine the Reconstruction gesture which is guided by an acting book in different times. An actor gives an example that has a conjuring feel to the gestures as Richard says, “undertake death of all the world.”
Finally, this session ends with a conversation with the actors of Hidden Room Theatre on their process of creating gesture, moderated by Karim-Cooper and Burns. They ask how research has had a practical effect on the Hidden Room Theatre and how it unlocked ideas in or about the play. The first response was an elated reply of the freedom to use their hands alongside a codified list of gestures that supplied them with new tools to employ in the creation of specific moments and character choices. Another actor now uses Restoration gestures as a warm up to get into character. He says it, “puts the gestural tip of the tongue in the teeth” and functions to inform all work, the dispensed and retained. Framing gesture is the first tool that applied to the work. This tool has been used to foster deeper meaning within the details of each line. They related the specificity and fluidity of gestures as a preset of Laban study to use the whole body (such as a sustained gesture or clipped movement). Another actor commented on how they used their hands in Lear with the left hand as the “positive side” and the right hand as the “negative side”. For example, playing Goneril, she used a thinking gesture tapping the right side of head, but behind her lower back with her left hand was a money-grabbing gesture indicating that she was thinking about money. The actors agree that gestures are designed to unlock emotions and serve as a rubric for textual analysis through kinesthetic experience. Eventually, using gestures did not feel like something that the actors were “putting on”, but something that they existed in. The co-expressive nature of this work felt like an extension of the work that allowed for more character details and relationships to develop.
With thanks to the Hidden Room Theatre, Karim-Cooper concludes the staging session. Modern actors incorporate gesture in tonight’s late night performance of I Henry IV at 11pm at the American Shakespeare Center. Hope to see you all there!