In the 1890s the Strand’s Gaiety theatre became famous as the home of a new genre: the musical comedy. The brainchild of Irish impressario George Edwardes, musical comedies like A Gaiety Girl, The Shop Girl, The Quaker Girl, A Runaway Girl and The Circus Girl beguiled audiences with a mixture of songs, spectacle, romance, daring costumes and racy topical humour. As their titles suggest, these shows also traded on the appeal of the theatre’s glamorous chorus of ‘Gaiety Girls’. With their meticulously crafted public personae and canny merchandising ventures, these ‘girls’ helped to draw up the blueprint for modern celebrity, parlaying their stage careers into aristocratic marriages, Hollywood stardom and, in one case, parliamentary office.
For the 2016 Arts and Humanities festival Strandlines and Ego-Media invited artist Janina Lange to create a piece about Gaiety stars Constance Collier and Ellaline Terriss, both of whom wrote memoirs detailing their memories of the fin de siècle Strand and their subsequent careers in theatre and film. During a time of rapid social, cultural and technological change, Collier and Terriss worked to give a face and form to emerging ideas of femininity, modernity and national identity, adapting themselves to a range of new media forms (from cigarette cards and records to radio, film and television) and collaborating with figures like Herbert Beerbohm Tree, D. W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg and Katharine Hepburn. This, we felt, made them ideal avatars for an exploration of the Strand’s history and of how understandings of identity, technology, work and performance have developed from the 1890s into the era of ego-media.
In particular, we were interested in how these performers developed distinctive gestures, mannerisms, expressions that have come down to us through their film performances, and in how new technological formats—from the halftone print, the praxinoscope and the cinema camera to GIFs, Vines and gestural videogame interfaces—mediate the moving body. Is the movement vocabulary extracted from early films specific to its time? How might these gestures translate from cinematic via physical into the virtual space? How, through effects like flickering and glitching, do technologies inscribe themselves in the very movements they are looking to reproduce? What would a ‘life-writing’ that focused on capturing movements rather than recording memories or events look like? These questions led Janina to develop a performance that used 3D modeling and gesture tracking technologies to ‘reanimate’ Collier and Terriss as digital avatars.
This performance was realised with the assistance of performer Meghan Treadway and the technical support of animation programmer and motion capture engineer Moses Attah. Working from archival footage, Meghan reproduced fragments of performances by Terriss and Collier, while her gestures were in turn mirrored by digital doubles projected onto the screen behind her. Recorded per Kinect infra-red motion capture camera, these movements were uploaded live during the event to Sketchfab, a database used by animators and videogame creators. As digital files ready to be downloaded and incorporated into new contexts, these records of Meghan’s movements will describe their own trajectories through online space, inscribing themselves into other virtual bodies, seeding the contemporary Internet traces of the nineteenth century Strand. I look forward to sharing more of the material we discovered and created in the course of the project on Strandlines.