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The Collation

Come Hither, Actors / Temporality

Part two of the blog post written by the members of the “What Acting Is” seminar.

Part one (Textuality) is here.


Theatre, we agreed at the outset, is the art of now. Asking the actors about the way they work with time as a medium, however, allowed us to fill in a number of useful details. For example, we learned that a role, like the play of which it is a part, is a linearly pre-arranged series of “now-moments,” each building on the previous ones and enacted in serial coordination with the other actors in the ensemble. As Lisa Harrow told us, the actor can’t play a role all at once. Every character’s journey begins with steps that can be as small as one metrical foot at a time. Experienced as a sequence of impacts by an audience, performance from the stage actors’ perspective involves the discovery and further elucidation of these measured sequences. Such carefully crafted units of time are variously called “actions,” “tasks” or “beats.” They contain discoveries, reversals, and transitions between emotions. They might “build” to crescendos or morph in face of contingent events. They embody decision, change, and sometimes growth. In any event, they all have outcomes, large or small.

Each of these discrete units is ultimately gathered into what British actor Harriet Walter calls a “playable path” along which she is able to “motor” through a part.1 Also known as “arcs,” “journeys,” and “super-tasks,” these overarching character-paths are what actors create individually and interactively.2 They transform their parts into persons by embodying four things that belong uniquely to the given circumstances of their characters: 1) the intentions that drive them; 2) the actions that define them; 3) the complications that impede them; and 4) the reactions that ensue.

What actors thereby make of the text by organizing events in time becomes not merely poetry in the theatre but poetry of the theatre.

Scene from Folger Theatre’s King John: Kate Eastwood Norris as the Bastard, Philip Faulconbridge (left, rear); Akeem Davis as Louis the Dauphin (center); Holly Twyford as Constance (kneeling, right)

Folger Theatre’s King John: Kate Eastwood Norris as the Bastard, Philip Faulconbridge (left, rear); Akeem Davis as Louis, the Dauphin (center); Holly Twyford as Constance (kneeling, right)

Walter’s idea of a “playable path” proved to be a fertile basis for further discussion with the actors. Akeem Davis observed that constructing a performance is like designing a roller coaster, building it, and then riding it down the track, having to trust that the rider is safe because the design and building were up to par. His analogy certainly well describes the ups and downs of the Dauphin’s role in King John and the meticulous craftsmanship with which he shaped them. But a roller coaster suggests a wholly fixed trajectory. Fine-tuning Davis’s suggestive metaphor of a thrilling ride downhill, Kate Eastwood Norris analogized the “playable path” to a slalom run down an Alpine ski slope, unstoppable once begun but requiring constant adjustment (or “adaptation”) along the way, changing direction to traverse the preset gates until reaching the bottom of the hill (curtain call). Her schuss-boomer Faulconbridge fully lived up to her image, boldly leaning out over his skis, blowing past the Papal Legate (Sasha Olnick), for instance, and cutting him off at the starting gate:

PANDOLPH               Give me leave to speak.

BASTARD   No, let me speak.

(King John 5.2.164-5)

But character-paths include obstacles as well as conduits. Conflicts arise to trouble even the most resolute intentions. Responding to our notes on his performance, for example, Brian Dykstra detailed for us the sequencing of a repetitive movement that he employed at select moments to enact King John’s troubled journey through his reign: each time he mounted the platform on which the throne sat, he caught the toe of his boot ever so slightly, but still noticeably, on the step up. The repeated stumbles, which the text does not specify in the stage directions, enabled him to represent the accumulating psychological effects of spurious sovereignty, a quest for legitimacy that the text does explicitly dramatize, thus affording the actor many opportunities to build them consequentially into a sequence of expressive effects. Toward the end, capping the build with a well-earned now-moment of political and moral exhaustion, Dykstra’s King John slumped on the throne as if he had fallen into it.

Folger Theatre’s King John: Brian Dykstra as King John

Understood as a playable path, therefore, the actor’s role begins with the spoken text but it does not end with it. Every moment offers the actor choices of intention, attitude, intonation, volume, pace, posture, movement, gesture, and countenance. Of course the text limits those choices in a number of ways, but choosing among the myriad options that remain, the actor takes a character on a journey for which Shakespeare has provided the essential but incomplete map. We made use of this idea—the “character-path” as a linked sequence of now-moments created by the actor in collaboration with the playwright—not only in our field-work at the Folger Theatre but also in the historical performances we documented from our findings in the vault.

In John Hayter’s Sketches of Miss Fanny Kemble in the character of Juliet: comprising twenty of the most interesting scenes of the tragedy (1830), for instance, we found a collation of the artist’s preliminary drawings and finished engravings of the actress in her sensational debut role. Consistent with the star-system from which it emerges, the sketchbook reorients the tragedy around the character of Juliet, producing a multimedia representation of Kemble’s acting practice. The elegant prints capitalize on her celebrity glamour, epitomized by her appearance on the balcony (Romeo and Juliet 2.2).

John Hayter, Sketches of Miss Fanny Kemble In the Character of Juliet; “balcony scene”

The rough sketches, by contrast, record her work on the role in serial detail. Clearly drawn from life or immediate memory, they suggest an attempt to represent the highlights of the character-path that Kemble created for Juliet. They zero in on single now-moment details or poses, not necessarily foregrounding the points of interest we might expect, such a Kemble’s facial expressions. Hayter gravitates more towards the physical embodiment of iconic moments that galvanized contemporary spectators: Juliet at her nurse’s knee; Juliet sobbing to her nurse while her father rails at her; Juliet plotting with the friar about how to proceed; Juliet drinking the potion that will render her apparently lifeless; Juliet prostrate over dead Romeo. At the same time, the drawings are numerous enough to suggest kinesthetic animation. The artist’s close attention to stage action is evident in his depiction of a sequence of gestures performed by Kemble at the climactic moment of Act 3 Scene 2, when news of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment anguishes Juliet.

John Hayter, Fanny Kemble as Juliet in Act 3, Scene 2

Under the rapidly sketched figures, the artist has penciled in Juliet’s (heavily cut) speech, which shows that passion for her banished lover means more to her than grief for her slain cousin:

But, oh, it presses to my memory
Like damned guilty deeds in sinners’ minds
Tybalt is dead, & Romeo banished
That banished, that one word banished
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts.
Romeo is banished!
There is no end, no limit, measure, bound
In that word’s death, no words can that woe sound.

Tracking the figures from left to right, Hayter first shows Kemble wringing her hands at her waist before bending over to bury her face in them, probably on the line “Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts.” On the climatic exclamation “Romeo is banished!” she raises her arms above her head in the classic woe-is-me gesture of desperation. Hayter labels his sketch of this artfully prepared now-moment, which would have lasted as long as Kemble held her arms in the air, with the word “Banished.”

The double action of love and death in Juliet’s star-crossed character-path rises to a climax in the tomb scene. Hayter renders the moment when she consumes the sleeping potion (Act 4 Scene 3), and his rapidly drawn sketch captures the pulse of dramatic action.

John Hayter, Fanny Kemble as Juliet drinking the potion in Act 4, Scene 3

In contrast to the image of the white-gloved mannequin with bee-stung lips posed statically in the engraving of the balcony scene, here Kemble’s head is flung back, propping herself on one arm, while she drinks deeply from the bottle. The sketch produces a sense of immediacy through the line of the body rather than the face, the tension of the arms suggesting that Juliet is caught mid-act, with resolve, haste, and even pleasure as she consumes the fateful potion.

In Chapter 3 of Playing Shakespeare, which records the session at which Lisa Harrow, Sinead Cusack, Ben Kingsley, Michael Pennington, Roger Rees, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, and Michael Williams work on “Language and Character,” John Barton asks the ensemble, “What would you say, if any, is the most important word in Shakespeare?” Lisa Harrow mercifully breaks the ensuing silence by answering Barton’s question with another, “What about ‘Time?’”3 After a two-page throat-clearing that maddeningly defers a yes or no, Barton agrees that Shakespeare himself was haunted by the word. Now more than ever, after listening to actors talk about temporality, we believe that he was—so much so that he even named a character “Time.” What haunts him (and us) is the gap between the surface meaning of the word as the time of day and the profundity of its poetic meaning as the totality of what happens to human beings in the course of their lives. The former brings audiences to the theatre by 8:00pm; the latter, if the actors do their parts, keeps them there.

  1. Harriet Walter, Actors on Shakespeare: Macbeth (London: Faber & Faber, 2002), 27.
  2. Jean Benedetti, Stanislavsky & the Actor (London: Methuen, 1998), 150-54.
  3. John Barton, Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide (1984; New York: Anchor Books, 2001), 57.

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