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Historical Action

Historical Action is more than just 'baroque gesture'. It is full-body acting, focusing on face and eyes, supported by a strong, relaxed posture, and powered by the spirit of the actor's intention. 


We see typical 17th-century posture in paintings, dance-manuals and swordsmanship treatises. Like an athlete, the stage performer should be both relaxed and ready for action.

From renaissance Art, we take the concept of contrapposto. Don't stand straight-on to your audience, but slightly turned. Support your weight on one leg, bend the other leg elegantly. Your left hand rests, perhaps on the hilt of your sword. Your right hand is in front of your chest, ready to gesture.

From Negri's (1600) dance manual, we add the concept of in prospettiva. Like a modern-day celebrity, you are always "on camera", aware of the image you present. You walk in balance, with small steps.

From Castiglione's Book of the Courtier  we complete this posture with an attitude of sprezzatura, elegant nochalance. Be quietly confident, un-fazed by whomever might be in the audience: you are cool.  

Stage positions are derived from court etiquette.

Stage Right (as you look out towards the audience) is the "good side"; Stage Left is the "bad side". 

The most important character will stand towards the right, or alternatively in the centre of a group. 

Don't walk and talk at the same time. 

In dialogue, create an elegant picture with your acting partner, turned slightly towards or away from each other.

Each actor moves back to speak, forwards to listen.


Elegant hand gesture flows with your speech - once every three or four words suggests Quintilian for Latin. Perhaps once or twice per line of text, or within each musical phrase. Do not saw the air too much with your hand, advises Shakespeare.

Default hand positions, after Barnett (1987).

The fingers are held similarly in both examples,

the difference is in the turn of the hand at the wrist.

Passionate gestures are the outward and visible sign of the inward spirit: triumph, wonder, grief, threats, irony, scorn, compassion. Be not too tame neither,  advises Shakespeare.

Passionate gestures from Bulwer (1644):

Grief, Threatening, and Impatience

(apply the hand passionately to the head).

Oratorical gestures help the listeners understand what you are trying to say: commanding attention, making comparisons, enumerating arguments.

Suit the Action to the Word, advises Shakespeare.

Oratorical Gestures from Bulwer (1644): Comparison and Enumerating Arguments

Commanding Attention: from Bulwer (1644) and in fine art, after Rouillé (2006) 

The efficacy of the gesture depends crucially on good timing,

and on the actor's intention. If your focus is on moving your hand beautifully, the audience might enjoy the hand-ballet,

but they will not share your passion. Gestures overdone or come tardy off, says Shakespeare, will make the unskillful laugh, and sadden the more discerning critic, make the judicious grieve



The performer's Passion is conveyed to the audience by enargeia from the eyes, or by pneuma, the performer's mystic breath. Pneuma is also the divine spirit of creation, the breath of life itself; and the spirit that channels energy and proprioceptive information through the body, rather like oriental Chi.

The 'ground fiction' of Historical Action

In early opera and historical theatre, modern performers have a double role to play. First they must acquire the skills to present themselves on stage as a 17th-century performer: then they must represent the particular character this performer embodies. First learn to emulate Rasi or La Florinda, then act the role of Orfeo or Arianna. The first part of the job is by far the harder!

Historical Action for modern performers & today's audiences.

Most current work on Baroque Gesture is focused on later, French repertoire and led by baroque dancers. The focus of Il Corago's Historical Action is on early 17th-century English and Italian material: Shakespeare and the first operas. We are led by the text and by the rhythm of the music. Our guiding principle is to integrate all aspects of production with the sung (or spoken) text. Suit the Action to the Word!

Read original 17th-century advice for integrating all aspects of production with the text here.

​How do modern performers and audiences respond to Historical Action? 
"The avant-garde... has become commonplace...
the spirit of the original works is now, by default, cutting edge" 
​Read the complete text of Robert Harris' review of
Opera Atelier's work on Mozart and French repertoire ​here

Il Corago's Vision of Historical Action

Andrew Lawrence-King writes: ​

Anyone working on historical staging of early operas must be aware of the legacy of Australian researcher Dene Barnett, whose pioneering book The Art of Gesture (1987) remains an indispensable resource. Barnett’s work concentrated on 18th and early 19th century sources, mostly French, and his approach when coaching performers was to emphasise precision and accuracy, discouraging experimentation or improvisation.

My work with Il Corago concentrates on early 17th century repertoire, mostly Italian and English. And my  approach to coaching performers is to give them 'ownership' of this Historical Action, by encouraging them to improvise.

In Early Music, continuo-players learn complicated rules of harmony and voice-leading, and then improvise their realisations; soloists learn how to improvise ornamentation within particular historical styles. Those improvisations are usually not totally new - rather the performer assembles familiar elements, making spontaneous choices from a rich collection of well-prepared options.

This is my model for Historical Action: a text-based approach to period acting that combines the latest understanding of historical sources, dramatic timing and strong rhythm, the performer's spontaneous vision and a passionate intention to communicate with the modern audience. 

Critics have praised how The Harp Consort makes old music new, combining the spontaneity of improvised jazz and the perfection of state-of-the-art early music: a stupendous mixture of historical accuracy and improvisatory freedom. My vision is for Il Corago to do similarly with Historical Action. 

The wheel has come full circle wrote William Shakespeare. Radically 'authentic' 17th-century Action has now become cutting-edge theatre. I don't claim it's easy to achieve, but I do believe it's worth striving for. And thus far, our audiences agree!

Press quotes: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Frankfurt Rund-Schau

Look like a painting,

move like a dancer,

strike like a swordsman! 

The renaissance theory of Visions considers that the Passions are moved by Visions, conjured up by the words. The actor creates his own imagined Vision as he speaks (or sings) his words. This Vision moves his, and the audience's Passions, and also guides his gestures: he can point at what he sees 'in his mind's eye'.  

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