The Bulwer Project

Chirologia (1644)

In 2010 I was invited by Professor Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Research at Shakespeare’s Globe, to lead a practice-as-research investigation into the gestural codifications of John Bulwer in his 1644 works Chirologia and Chironomia. The project was based at the Globe and supported by the Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre at Central.

John Bulwer

John Bulwer (1606-56) is best known as the inventor of sign language. A radical humanistic philosopher, Bulwer attempted to categorise human gesture in terms of the ‘natural language of the hand’ (innate gestures which he believed to be interculturally comprehensible) and ‘the art of manual rhetoric’ (gestures which communicated complex or abstract ideas through the hands, the ‘chiefest instrument of eloquence’). It’s long been theorised that Bulwer’s major practical source for his codification was the gestural language used by actors on stage prior to 1642; as such his work, as well as being the route by which deaf people at last began to be integrated into hearing society, is probably the only detailed visual record of the physical life of Early Modern actors.

Working with a group of professional actors and with the then-current cohort of the new MA Acting (Classical) course at Central, RSC movement director Anna Morrissey and I conducted several weeks of workshops into Bulwer’s gestures, looking at the different stylistic opportunities the gestures offer in performance, as well as at how they can be incorporated into classical theatre training.

We began by translating the Latin verbs associated with each of Bulwer’s drawings and using them as a list of available psycho-physical ‘actions’. Drawing on post-Stanislavskyan methods of ‘actioning’ text (associating textual units with transitive verbs), we gave the action list to the actors and asked them, without reference to the drawings, to ‘action’ two texts: one monologue (the Rumour speech from Henry IV.ii) and a scene (Hamlet/Ophelia). The actors then learned as a physical score the gestures associated with the ‘actions’ they’d chosen, as part of their text-learning process; this approach was designed to address the ‘inside-out/outside-in’ dualism of contemporary acting systems, while fundamentally eliding the mind/body dichotomy.

We presented the work in the Inigo Jones Studio (now the exquisite Sam Wanamaker Theatre) at the Globe in front of a large audience of academics and practitioners. After describing our process, the actors performed both heightened and ‘naturalised’ versions of the texts, examining how an ‘artificial’, highly stylised approach might also provide a physical shape for a more realistic performance style. Finally, we taught the audience the sequence of gestures from the Rumour speech; since copying gesture seems to have been one of the primary modes of training Early Modern actors, we were thus inducting the audience into a communal version of the EM actor’s process.

The work has subsequently been followed up by academics at the Globe in further laboratory experiments, as well as influencing the practice of actors, theatre-makers and scholars from both our team and the audience. It has also informed philosophically the actor training on the MA Acting (Classical) course at Central, and I used elements of the work in my productions at Pop-up Globe. Given the right opportunity, I’d love one day to incorporate the approach into ‘Original Practices’ rehearsal techniques: the aim of the work was to find a practical way of working with an early modern movement and training system in a theatrical context. But more importantly, rather than simply trying to imagine what early modern acting might have looked like physically, or selecting isolated examples (such as the external ritualised gestures of insult or submission, for instance), we examined through the lens of a great early modern thinker the whole psycho-physical life of the texts we performed.

The Bulwer Project was my first extended practical research into the psychology of early modern rhetoric and performance, and as such has been a major influence on my work since; as well as establishing a clear methodology which, by incorporating early modern and post-Stanislavskyan acting approaches, enables contemporary actors to work creatively and in detail with early modern performance practice.