Movement is as central in conveying meaning from the stage to the audience as any script. I came to realise this during my work as a Movement Director for the production of three Russian plays performed at the University of East Anglia in December 2016, including both The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov and The Storm by Aleksandr Ostrovsky. The Cherry Orchard tells the story of an aristocratic family whose wealth is under threat, as they are torn between their attachment to the past and the irresistible pull of the future. The Storm follows Katerina, a young married woman who falls in love with another man.  In a society smothered by traditionalism, home becomes prison and freedom is a sin, with the young Katerina caught in a battle between religious morality and her own desire.  As we were dealing with Russian plays from the late 18th – early 19th century, the problem of translation came up often and this is a reflection on how movement can contribute to that discussion.

When studying or examining plays there is usually a focus on textual analysis but to achieve a truly deep understanding of the play and its design, you must also look at all the other elements that lie within the pages: the intertextual, in particular physical life of the play and its implications and associations. It is helpful to imagine non-textual elements and movements as languages of their own, requiring specific translations of their own. Furthermore, just as there are types of language, (prose, archaic, colloquial etc.) there are also types of movement (such as stage directions, gestures and rituals). Drawing on my production work as Movement Director and my experience as an actor, This discussion explores different types of non- textual elements, considering what they show and how these elements need to be addressed when translating and performing a play.

Movement is a language of its own: we interpret and deduce things from physical actions as we do from texts. Stage entrances and exits are prime examples of physical language in theatre. By examining them in close analysis you can interpret features about characters and scenes. In The Storm I played Glasha, a servant girl. She has little dialogue and some would argue this gives little to analyse or, for actors, to construct a character around. However, non-textual or staging elements, once focussed on, can provide informative material.

First, Glasha has entrances and exits very close together, resulting in small, fleeting appearances; often delivering messages. From this, it could be presumed she is a generally busy person and so this informed my physical choices around characterisation, for example a fast pace and swift, fluid physicality. Second, in several translations of the play Glasha’s exits are often signified but her entrances are not, with these exits commonly noted as “others” or “all” exit, never as an independent characters such as Kabanov, Kabanova and Kuligin. This lack of clear stage directions means that decisions have to be made about when she enters a scene, either from the director or by the actor. In practice this often ended up being when a character of a higher social class entered. As a result, a large portion of Glasha’s identity appears to be linked to other, higher status, characters, such as her employer Kabanova. This informed staging in terms of where I stood on stage, often behind but close to those for whom Glasha works. I also adopted a muted, passive 
posture so as to not draw attention to myself and upset, upstage or embarrass those my character relied on: Glasha’s economic and social supporters.

That Glasha’s entrances themselves are sometimes not included could be seen as a social comment in itself. Arguably, she does not appear as a fully rounded character as a result of elisions, seemingly rather forgotten by the writer who may have viewed her simply as an agent to perform some function or role within the play, such as convening some information concerning events external to the current scene. This largely functional role can be seen when comparing translations: whilst in McGuinness’s translation Glasha talks about the ruins in Act IV scene 1 and relays information in the search for Katerina in Act IV scene 5, in Reeve’s translation, this information is conveyed by 1st Townsperson.

It is true that a large part of Glasha’s role is as expositional agent, relaying information to the audience, and in some translations this can be moved to the chorus of townspeople used for a similar role. So in The Storm one can see that a type of physical language, entrances and exits, can inform not only character choices but also generate insights about the play, its construction, and the society of the time.

In Act VI Scene 1, entrances are combined with a second type of physical language: gestures. When Dikoi enters, “everyone bows and assumes a respectful position”. It is stated in the dramatis personae that Dikoi is “an important person around the town”, but this stage direction provides a specific example of how this hierarchy manifests itself and how gestures can be a form used to present power dynamics to the audience. If someone were to modernise The Storm this action would need to be translated to the new context, For example, a curtsey or bow such as the one stated above, may be able to be exchanged for a handshake. To translate the action effectively you must first understand the original context and connotations of gestures and conventions of the time, just like as has to be done with archaic vocabulary.

Another example of the significance of gestures is in Act II scene 1 when it says “(All sit down. Silence).” At first reading this stage direction does not provide a great detail of information for actor or audience; to understand its value you have to research the context of the time to discover its origins, purpose and connotations. It references the Russian ritual of the family sitting in silence before one member leaves. At the time Ostrovsky was writing, the implications of the stage direction would have been clear and its connotations of religion and superstitions recognised. However, to a modern company its prevalence only becomes clear once research around the physical customs of the time has been gathered.

Furthermore, if this play were to be modernised the director would have to decide how to translate this stage direction. There are nuances of meaning within social customs such as the sitting ritual that are hard to move across contexts, and so the importance of religion of social institution would hence need to be stressed in other ways. For example, in our production there was heavy and repeated use of the sign of the cross hand gesture, the signum crucis. This was a physical translation of the religiosity initially convened by the sitting in silence ritual, providing an alternative physical action that could be read by a modern audience.

As well as explicit gestures there is social etiquette to consider. The etiquette of any period is often very complex, and not always explicitly presented in the text, but once understood it can indicate the ideals that dominate in the mainstream consciousness. Additionally, how characters follow or disregard these rules can provide insights into about them as clear as any soliloquy.

In our production of The Cherry Orchard at the University of East Anglia in December 2016 Ranyevskaya spent a lot of time lounging on furniture. In one sense this was to demonstrate her position of ownership and attachment to the house and the furniture in it: her “own dear bookcase” and “dear old table”. However, it also stands in contrast to many of the stipulations of the social etiquette of the time – i.e women being reserved, poised, sat upright[1] – thereby setting her apart, as a unique, “enchanting lady”.

Similarly, Anya was also very fluid and free in her movement, again lounging on furniture, mirroring her mother’s physical language, possibly presenting a reflection of the biological link between them but also showing that they both ignored or rejected social expectations, not adhering strictly to the reserved, controlled way women should behave. The rejection of conventional rules could be seen to reflect the self-confidence of the aristocracy, who were often criticised by a middle class who tended to be much more conformist to social conventions.

Varya whilst initially appearing to be part of the aristocratic family is adopted, and is set up in contrast with Ranyevskaya and Anya as she behaves within the accepted physical etiquette, being more controlled in her movement, sitting and standing in a neutral poised stance and being generally more restrained, although defies social convention through other physical actions, “rais[ing] her first threateningly” and later “raises [Firs’] stick threateningly”. This combination of practical, physical actions and reserved, focussed demeanour can be seen to represent values and practices that are more akin to those of the bourgeoisie such as Lopakhin – i.e. physical work and practical, rational organisation. The way these women engage with the expected social etiquette of different classes not only sets up personal differences but also social and ideological ones.

In Act IV scene 6 of The Storm, known as “the confession scene”, understanding customs of the time once again brings attention to religious rituals. In the early Russian Orthodox Church, “repentance […] was in fact a solemn public act”[2] and “rather than being separated from the priest by a barrier or from the parishioners by a booth, the penitent is often visible and audible not only to the priest, but to the others”[3] In the confession scene, “Several people of different ranks and sex enter”; the specificity of a mix of people provides a small sample of the community, similar to that of a congregation and therefore links Katya’s confession to this practice. The physical staging of the scene, through the ritual it depicts, is indicative of the cultural and religious context of the play without any expository words needing to be spoken.

Louis Althusser conceptualises ideology as material, and elucidates how dominant societal ideologies are enacted and continued through rituals and practices[4]. Drawing on this, Ostrovsky’s continual inclusion and referencing of religions rituals can be viewed as highlighting how, rather than being continued via intellectual or discursive methods, religion is strengthened via its material rituals. As Althusser argues, “existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus”[5]. This engages with issues interpretation and translation, as a modern audience, particularly a Western one, will likely not recognise specific Orthodox rituals such as public confession so instead other physical actions had to be found to represent the idea of a society soaked in ritual, such as repetition of processional walking and the sign of the cross, as was the case in our production.

Within types of movement there are subgenres, each with their own histories and connotations. Another significant type of movement is dance and analysis of the inclusion of “the dance section” in Act III of The Cherry Orchard can reveal a lot about characters and themes. The waltz is danced in this scene, which is representative of aristocratic life, given the dance’s link to the higher classes[6]. The inclusion of the waltz presents the audience with a visual representation of luxury and wealth, which stands in clear contrast with the audience’s knowledge by this scene of Ranyevskaya’s relative financial insufficiency and, thereby, intensifies that tension held between these two subjects. As well intensifying the tragedy, and thereby functioning as a narrative device, physical qualities can also be a vehicle for social critique.

Shortly before Chekhov was writing The Cherry Orchard, the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thornstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions, which introduced his concept of ‘conspicuous consumption’: “people spend money on artefacts of consumption in order to give an indication of their wealth to other members of society”[7]. In particular, he viewed this as a way the aristocracy, as a leisured
class, could establish distinction from other classes. The dance scene in The Cherry Orchard could be seen as an example of conspicuous consumption, as an upper-class leisure experience connected to the social sphere rather than economic production[8]. Chekhov’s play demonstrates, through the financial difficulties of Ranyevskaya’s family, what the nobility truly is without money. Here the waltz acts as an empty symbol of wealth and so demonstrates the social construction of the aristocracy through a series of Althusserian performative rituals.

As well as narrative and critical uses, movement can be used for character analysis. The waltz and its history links to Ranyevskaya’s past and the audience’s perception of her character. In July 1816, after the waltz was included in a ball in London, an editorial in The Times described it as an “indecent foreign dance” and said that “it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve”[9]. Although later adopted into the higher society, the waltz was originally seen as a scandalous and sinful[10], and Chekhov’s inclusion of this particular dance could thus in fact be a deliberate choice to connect with Ranyevskaya’s juxtaposition of nobility and her alluded to “depraved” past as a “self-confessed sinner”[11]. Similarly in Act III it says Ranyevskaya is “humming a Lezginka”, a lively Caucasian dance, and so the “sprightliness of the tune acts as a counterpoint to Ranyevskaya’s anxious questions”[12]. This is another example of how physical elements are a language of their own meanings and uses that can be used as a creative and critical tool.

In theatre, there is more to be read and translated than simply a text or a script. A whole spectrum of non-textual elements that can be explored as languages of their own to enrich the reading of a play. These non-textual languages provide their own challenges to translation, requiring the development of complex contextual understandings to understand and perform physical actions that emerged in specific, and sometimes quite fleeting, moments in history. When considered in this way, they can open a whole new area of creative opportunities for interpretation and translation. Stage directions, gestures, rituals, etiquette, and dance are all distinct types of movement and can be used by playwrights, directors and/or actors to portray ideas of character, emotional narrative, power dynamics and social criticism. When studying or performing theatre, a movement can be worth a thousand words.



[1] Bush, Laura. “‘The Savage Had Been Expected’: Russia”.


[3] Kikenko, Nadieszda. “Confession In Modern Russian Culture”.

[4] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards an investigation)”.

[5] Althusser, Louis. The anthropology of the state: A reader.

[6] Wilson, Cheryl A. Literature and Dance in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman.

[7] Trigg, Andrew. “Veblen, Bourdieu, and Conspicuous Consumption”.

[8] Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class.

[9] Sears, Herold, and Meredith Sears. “Some Waltz History”.

[10] Knowles, Mark. The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

[11] Senelick, Laurence. “Introduction.” In The Cherry Orchard, by Laurence Senelick Anton Chekhob.

[12] Textual notes by Senelick in Chekhov, Anton. “The Cherry Orchard.” In The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull : Chekhov, translated by Laurence Senelick.