In May 2016, I traveled with my Research Assistants Molly Thomas and Anthony Sansonetti to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a research workshop at Dalhousie University co-convened by my Dalhousie colleague Dr. Roberta Barker and myself.
This workshop was designed to explore the gestural vocabulary of early nineteenth-century theatre through the analysis and performance of specific scenes from select plays. Since Roberta is also undertaking a research project with a focus on the politics, aesthetics, and practice of nineteenth-century performance, we decided to work together to explore points of connection and departure. We were grateful to have four Halifax actors, GaRRy Williams, Kim Parkhill, Peter Sarty, and Ivy Charles, join us. Click here for the workshop schedule.
We began the workshop by exploring a range of emotional gestures drawn from two nineteenth-century texts, Henry Siddons’ Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action and Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia. We asked the actors to first interpret a number of the gestures and then to build out a sequence of these gestures, focusing on the transitions between each.
Later in the day, we did a table read of scenes from The Actress of All Work (c. 1819), a protean farce designed to showcase a female performer’s range and virtuosity. In our read, I was impressed with Kim’s embrace of the role and her facility with accents.
On Day 2, we staged several scenes from nineteenth-century plays. In the morning, we worked on several scenes from The Manager’s Daughter, a protean farce modelled after The Actress of All Work but written especially for a young girl, Jean Margaret Davenport. I was especially interested in the opening scene where the audience meets the fictional Davenports and their beloved daughter, Jean Margaret.
For me, this scene highlighted the importance of the young actress’s appearance with a doll, which serves to mark her girlishness and her privilege. It’s important for the audience to see Jean Margaret as a girl before she embarks on a series of clever character impersonations of varying genders, ages, and nationalities, in keeping with the genre of the protean farce.
After this scene, we looked at Jean Margaret’s first transition into the boastful American actor Hector Earsplitter. I was interested in some of the practicalities of quick-changing and the usefulness of specific props and costumes. With Hector Earsplitter, we realized that the bundle he carried (called for in the script) held excellent theatrical potential. As an extension of the actress’s body, we imagined that it could lead to some amusing “near misses” with Thomas Davenport… The bundle calls for a kind of physicality that is distinctly different from the physicality “scripted” by the doll in the opening scene.
In the past I’ve been skeptical of the value of using performance to explore historical subject matter but this workshop reinforced for me the value of such experimentation. Until the workshop, I had underestimated the dramaturgical importance of the opening scene but after seeing it in performance, I’ve reassessed my thinking about the play and its larger ideological intent. I’m now working through some of these ideas through some other writing… stay tuned.