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The Collation

Come Hither, Actors / Physicality

The fourth and final part of the blog post written by the members of the “What Acting Is” seminar.

Part one (Textuality) is here. Part two (Temporality) is here. Part three (Mentality) is here.


One exquisite object we came across during our research in the Folger collections is an eighteenth-century glass scent bottle and English enamel case showing David Garrick on one side and Ann Barry on the other. Barry is depicted as Constance in King John, grabbing her hair in her despair or madness.

Glass scent bottle with image of Ann Barry as Constance, ca. 1780-90. Image from Luna.

The extremity of her gesture in the conventions of the period is proven by the size and complexity of her hairdo. Such a “tête” required hours of skilled labor to construct, with the actress’s real and false hair piled up around a poof or “cushion” and festooned with feathers and other decorative objects. To pull it apart constitutes wanton vandalism. We paused momentarily to appreciate the labor of the artists and craftspeople who work backstage to send the actors out on it well-prepared and looking right. Then we returned to the object itself. In its inscription of self-injuring psychophysical violence on the most delicately fragile of vessels, we felt the poignancy of the flacon as representing the blunt-force materiality of bodies and objects in the theatre. We categorized the theatrical meeting of sentient beings and ostensibly inert matter under the portmanteau “physicality.”

In his richly documented first volume of a career-long, multi-volume excursus on what acting is, Year of the King (1985), Antony Sher describes the Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsal hall as a room “full of old things from old productions: a goblet, a scepter, a throne” and observes that theater props “age faster than their real counterparts. The cardboard shows, the plaster shows, they look crude and childish, reminding you of school productions.”1 These stage objects, with their propensity for decay and destruction, seem wholly unlike the carefully preserved artifacts in libraries like the Folger. Here, regulated temperatures and strict protocols for the storage and handling of materials attempt to forestall the aging process and extend the life of the collection’s physical resources.

Sher’s comparison of the “things” in the rehearsal room to other (less artfully crafted) theatre objects shows how the very performance context that wears them down before their time—the realities of quick production and hard use—also gives them a different kind of life. Theatre turns ordinary objects into props. Theatre scholars have recognized the importance of props and costumes onstage as semiotic vehicles of meaning for the audience that take on narratives of their own. These scholars don’t necessarily consider, however, what a prop or a costume piece might do for an actor, how objects can work for as well as with actors to create character, strengthen intention, and enhance storytelling for them, even in moments that the audience might not see.

Our conversations with Akeem Davis, Brian Dykstra, Kate Eastwood Norris, and Holly Twyford have illuminated this process and thereby offered a new perspective on what it means to work in the archive.

Norris implicitly pointed out the difference between object and prop when she asserted that putting on a sword to play Phillip the Bastard in King John “is instant man”: the original function of the sword (to slaughter) has been suspended and replaced with a communicative one (to convey masculinity). The prop certainly retains traces of its original use: the sword’s heft and shape are part of what makes it so effective a tool for the actor’s exploration. But more, to Norris, the sword does a share of the performative labor for her—it means “work I don’t have to do,” she says. It helps her find the character’s physicality and attitude, which in turn facilitates her movement towards a “playable path” through the work.

“Instant man.” Kate Eastwood Norris as Faulconbridge in the Folger’s production of King John

Holly Twyford drew further attention in our conversation to costuming as an integral part of her character-building process. She told us that she didn’t know who Constance was until she “put her boots on.” This remark was made all the more poignant when we saw her perform the scene where she is grieving, barefoot, for her lost son Arthur. The boots, which helped Twyford discover her character’s identity, became, in their absence, a marker of that character’s unraveling identity. Knowing how her footwear shaped her character, just as Norris’ sword shaped hers, shines light on the contributions of material things to the actor’s art, and labor, onstage.

Props can be just as good at breaking or disappearing. Akeem Davis told us a particularly chilling but hilarious anecdote about playing Romeo and forgetting his dagger in the final scene. His slip-up left Juliet in a bit of a bind that was only fixed when Friar Laurence (who was finally good for solving something!) entered and handed it off to her surreptitiously. Material things’ occasional misbehavior only emphasizes the degree to which theatrical props and costumes labor onstage in service of the actor: they not only assist in the development of a character but also provide crucial support for the actor’s craft.

A production, then, ideally creates circumstances in which a performer might reasonably approximate the props’ offstage function when called upon to do so, especially under the regime of realism. Here we found an instance where the Stanislavski-derived emphasis on physical truth might take American actors a step beyond their Barton-inflected British colleagues. If an actor has to pour a glass of lemonade from a pitcher, Brian Dykstra argued, there must be enough lemonade onstage that the tumbler can be filled to the brim. The prop provides a useful opportunity to lessen the creative load for an actor who is already juggling emotion, intention, blocking, projection—everything that goes into creating a successful performance. Having the right amount of lemonade prevents Dykstra from being confronted with an additional fiction to maintain (that his character might believably only make enough lemonade for half a glass) in the face of the hundred other things he has to think about in order to preserve the world of the play. It helps him stay in the moment. Citing Sanford Meisner, he explained that “I have to do the doing, not pretend to do the doing while I’m also trying to ‘behave truthfully under imaginary circumstances.’”2

Only when an actor can really “do the doing” does the prop become, in Dykstra’s formulation, “endowable” for both performer and audience. In order to “speak”—to fully participate in the world of the play—the prop has to remember that it is still an object: the glass has to be used as though its primary function is not to uphold the fictional world of the performance but, rather, to hold lemonade. The actor exploits the object’s “real” characteristics in order to bring out its expressive abilities. The prop’s dual life in the actor’s experience enables its communicative effects.

In Norris’s hands, the sword’s heft becomes, as we noted in her blocking in King John, an indication of the Bastard’s emotional state. After discovering young Arthur’s corpse on the ground, Norris lifted her sword up from the stage floor and let its point drag briefly across the wooden surface. It seemed too heavy, for a moment, to wield. A gesture like this resonates beyond the particular character that the actor has built; in King John it expresses the exhaustion that permeates the end of the play more generally. As King John realizes his limitations as a king, the characters must all come to terms with a world gone bad. The object’s function and characteristics have been drafted into the service of the production’s larger conceptual narrative; the object as a prop exists to facilitate such insights. But this only occurs because of the actors’ awareness of the prop as simultaneously a “real” object and a communicative tool; the object, through the actors’ moment-to-moment exploration in both the rehearsal room and the performance, has become a resource.

Scholars behave very similarly towards the artifacts we study; they are resources that we use to think through the questions and problems that preoccupy us. Like props, the physical traces of times past have become eloquent because they have been repurposed: in the library, the sixteenth-century quarto and the eighteenth-century perfume bottle both help us interpret the past more fully. We found in James Hackett’s moment-by-moment record of Edmund Kean’s Richard III on his second American tour (1830), for instance, evidence of how the great Romantic actor used his sword as multi-purpose prosthesis. That it changes from a toy (in the scene with Lady Anne), to a crutch, to a stylus (in the battle-map scene) to an accessory (when it is replaced by a foil for the actual sword fight with Richmond) shows its extraordinary versatility as an extension of the actor’s expressive body.3 Since the sword that Hackett saw on the American tour was not likely to have been the one belonging to Kean with a documentable English provenance that is buried with Laurence Olivier in Westminster Abbey, we speculated but cannot prove for certain that it might be the one that the Folger identifies as having “been carried by Edmund Kean” as Richard III and that resides in the collection.

“Gloucester’s sword . . . carried by Edmund Kean.”

Artifacts are “endowable,” drafted into the service of our narratives, because they are preserved in this space, apart from their original use. We recontextualize them, drawing them into a larger conversation with other objects and new audiences. Further, they speak because scholars have the skills and training to acknowledge their dual life: as researchers, we attempt to reconstruct the original circumstances of an artifact’s production, circulation, and use even as we recognize both the artificiality of the circumstances in which we now encounter it and the new, primarily communicative function that it serves as part of the Folger’s collection. The artifact too remembers that it is both object and prop. This connection between the study of historical materials and the art of acting helps explain why the Folger Theatre and the Folger Shakespeare Library belong in the same space. What happens onstage—where the literal heaviness of a sword becomes a mark of something more—is akin to what happens next door in the Reading Room.

By way of valediction we beseeched the actors to keep together the scripts they have used and marked up in past productions. Someday we hope that they will offer them to the Folger. In the marginal notes made during study and ensemble rehearsals, actors record valuable data relevant to investigations of textuality, temporality, mentality, physicality and much more. In return we asked the actors what they would like to see from scholars in the future. Kate Eastwood Norris answered without hesitation: “playable analysis.” That struck us as a reasonable expectation on the part of artists who night after night provide us with such an extraordinary and as yet relatively under-utilized resource for our research: analyzable play.

  1. Antony Sher, Year of the King: An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook (1985; London: Nick Hern, 2004), 158.
  2. Sanford Meisner & Dennis Longwell, On Acting (New York: Vintage, 1987), 24-25.
  3. Alan S. Downer, ed. Oxberry’s 1822 Edition of Richard III with Descriptive Notes Recording Edmund Kean’s Performance Made by James H. Hackett (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1959), 26, 76, 83, 88.

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