‘That’s Me Over There!’: Corporeal Proximity and the Agency of Costume
I take Melly Still’s production of The Lovely Bones (Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 2018) as a case study to explore how the agency of costume alters when placed in different relationships to the performing body. Alongside observations made in rehearsals, I use interviews with the production team and cast members to theorise the significance of proximity to the body in attributing agency to costume. Such a conceptualisation employs a new materialist approach that considers how agency is distributed across collaborative networks composed of humans and objects. This framework undermines anthropocentric intentionality as the sole precondition of agency and destabilises distinctions between subject and object.
I use two examples from The Lovely Bones to address distinct entanglements of the performer’s body with costume. In both cases, garments stand as proxy bodies for characters. The first addresses the agency of a costume onstage when it is unworn. I consider how the inanimate garments – doubles of the costume worn by an actress – are granted agency through their semiotic connection to the performer’s body. The second example examines how agency is distributed between costume and performers as they interact physically. Dresses are manipulated by actors to depict disembodied characters. Here, the function of the garments fluctuates between costume, prop, and puppet. I reflect on how the changing significance of the dresses is caused by the different interactions of the performing body with the material object and how this alters the distribution of agency between each party. Taken together, these two examples are used to consider how agency is shared between costume and performer. I argue that interrogating the notion of corporeal proximity can help us to think about the co-constituted nature of embodied encounters with the materiality of the stage.
Kitty Gurnos-Davies is a PhD candidate in English at Merton College, University of Oxford. She works on the interrelationships between women’s activities, objects, and the question of agency in the material culture of regional theatre. Her research is facilitated by an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) designed to foster knowledge exchange between academia and external institutes. The project is partnered with The Theatre Chipping Norton and the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. Her research builds upon eight years of experience working in costume and wig departments. Kitty is a co-convenor of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) Theatre and Performance Network.
Charlotte Beaumont and Keith Dunphy in The Lovely Bones (2018) at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton. Photograph by Sheila Burnett.