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Performing Gesture: The Transformation of Gesture to Sign in Theatre

John Lutterbie (SUNY, Stony Brook)

Saturday, May 19th
Buchanan B213

This paper explores the dynamic relationship between speech and gesture in text-based, theatre performances. Using the work of David McNeill as a foundation, the reciprocal interaction between gesture and language in the emergence of thought in speech is related to the actor’s process of transforming the written word into a repeatable, stage performance. The paper begins with a discussion of the improvisational process that actors undergo in developing an understanding of the character’s relationship to the action implicit and explicit in the play. Recognizing the difference between the emergence of gesture and language in everyday life and work in the theatre, two anecdotes (the author’s experience in playing Granpa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Anna Deveare Smith’s performance of people she has interviewed but never met) are used to argue a parallel exists between the process of creating a performance and the language/thought/gesture connection argued by McNeill. The paper concludes with a discussion of the transformation of the emergent gesture into a repeatable act that communicates to the audience the thought process of the character and gives insight into her psychological state. This discussion opens the door to interesting questions about the role of gesture in other forms of literature, and the relationship between a mirroring system and embodied cognition in the act of reading.

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