Coming in 2017

A New Practical Guide to Rhetorical Gesture and Action


an illustrated book project

documenting contemporary performance in New York City

Gesture Group

A New Practical Guide to Rhetorical Gesture and Action is book project that uses the form of Henry Siddon’s 1807 catalogue of theatrical gestures for the London stage to document the stars and stalwarts of New York’s contemporary experimental theater scene.

Published by 53rd State Press, this beautifully bound book consists of 36 illustrations by Jesse Hawley of leading performers and performance groups reinterpreting gestures from the original. Each reinterpreted gesture is accompanied by commentary by Normandy Raven Sherwood in a poetic subversion of the original’s pedagogical style. This volume also includes an introductory essay by James Stanley contextualizing this work and the original in the histories of acting and actor training.

A gallery show if images and text from the book is currently up at Abrons Arts Center in NYC.

A Book Launch party will be  held at Abrons on Saturday, May 27 from 6:30 – 9:30pm. Come for drinks, conversation and dancing to the sounds of the Vintage DJ.

Order your copy of A New Practical Guide to Rhetorical Gesture and Action HERE.

from the book


  • Devotion

    Fig. 1: Edgar Oliver


    A devoted shape is characterized by folding. When we devote ourselves we bow and crumple. To achieve devotion think of the curling of each small part, of the body and of the clothing, of the hair. But, significantly, devotion does not curl in the way a newspaper curls when it is burnt. The devoted one maintains eye contact with the adored object, in the air, slightly off stage. The face lifts up to receive its reward.

    Devotion, you’ll apprehend, is not soggy. It retains its crispness: crisp without being brittle. It is not over stoic— it betrays its tenderness around the eyes and mouth. Imagine a tender folding, like folding new washed sheets that have dried in the sun. Your lover’s sheets, or the sheets of a very nice child.

  • Enthusiasm

    Fig. 2: Nikki Calonge


    It’s simplest to imagine surprises: a gift, or gift opening. Perhaps hugs at the airport, or at a party.

    A more advanced way is to remember flying. As an actor you needn’t make anything up. You can just look out the window and imagine being outside of the window. Outside the window you are in the air and looking down, without danger, just joy of seeing. Think of the moment after a leap up, a moment of hanging in the air. Consider the newness of that feeling, the delight.

    Not only delight, enthusiasm is a kind of mad fervor: enthusiasm abandons. The body loses its government. Strange things leap out of the mouth: pearls, frogs, poems, prophesies.

    But enthusiasm also has its rigor, finds its source in the eyes. Open the eyes and the body opens. The chest broadens and rises.

    Enthusiasm, most advanced: Make a fire on your own.

  • Brotherly Love

    Fig. 3: Joe Silovsky and Stanley the Robot


    Brotherly Love could be otherwise described as a species of fraternal self-confidence. Actors seeking to portray Brotherly Love must relax, releasing their spines and their hydraulics. The actors might imagine backyard nature, or sharing a can of beer in the gloaming, with crickets.

    A tender, fraternal attention is nurtured here, in the turn of the neck. A care for your fellow’s mood resides in the angle of the reassuring arm. The actors may choose to think of fishing in a silence punctuated only by splashing and the occasional utterance—“Welp….”

    Or other scenarios. Lying in a hammock with legs intertwined. Or patting each other’s backs. Or after the battle, tending to wounds. In all, a species of contentment, as expressed in a loose posture and a gentle touch.

    (incorporating observations from the actors’ experience)

  • Horror

    Fig. 9: Juliana Francis Kelly


    Horror beholds, but it unfolds in the mind. Horror is intimate. It is a gesture of realization rather than of reacting to a present threat. And yet the gesticulations of horror are large, they open up. The attitude of the head—please note—the head wants to turn away but the face must look—the face must face.

    Horror does not cringe. It is a species of inviting gesture. Horror animates the upper body (we have yet to see horrified legs and ankles dancing, though we’ll admit it may not be impossible). Horror tuns away and asks others to be horrified. Horror asks us to behold. Behold the hand on the right, wrist pressing forehead. The hand wants to cover the face but—no—it cannot. In horror, the hands must realize that they are useless.

    And if terror reacts to a threat—perhaps a giant bird that swoops down on your village to pluck the children up—then horror is when we are held rapt by a sight—it is finding an unlabeled shoebox in the bottom of your closet, and opening it. The village must know what you see—that the box contains the bones of those children.

  • Despair

    Fig. 11: Okwui Okpokwasili


    Despair evokes absence.

    The figure hollows out, allows the exoskeleton of the draperies to make shapes. The body of despair is aware of the vanity of shapes.

    The left hand almost closes on something. It curves. It could hold the hand of a child, a sword or a sandwich. It doesn’t.

    Despair hoods and shrouds itself. A forward gaze, a listless eye, limpness in the limbs and in the garment. Despair resigns, it is fixes, it fails to notice cold or bees or lights.

    Despair, resplendent in its patience, is aware that the ship is burning in the distance, offstage. Perhaps the ship’s burning has not been confirmed—a ship is burning in the mind. Perhaps the ship is in full view, with sails, with sailors, with a topless mermaid on the prow. That is to say, cheerful. But the mind is occupied with the possibility of the ship burning.

    Once thought, the word burning never subsides, voiding out the ship: uncashable check.

    Even so. We can see the toes of despair. Even so: we can think: “Within despair there is a hope, the toes peeking out.”

collaborating artists


Jesse Hawley (illustrator, designer) is an artist, designer, songwriter, performer and co-artistic director of the NTUSA and has co-created and performed in all of the company's work. She has also performed with Richard Foreman, Ken Nintzel, and the Vintage DJ, and has designed murals for sets by Young Jean Lee. She has illustrated two books: Animals vs. Furniture by Normandy Sherwood (Ugly Duckling Presse), and What Happened to an Alligator by Leon Stanley (Pet Snail Books).

Normandy Raven Sherwood (author, designer) is a playwright, costumer and performer. Her own plays have been presented at The Kitchen, the Ontological Hysteric Theater, 13th St. Rep and Skidmore College, among others. She is a Co-Artistic Director and Executive Director of the NTUSA and has collaborated on all of the OBIE Award-winning company’s shows. She holds an MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College, and currently teaches at New York University.

James P. Stanley (author, editor) is a media scholar and theater artist whose works in both fields mine the history of American media. He is co-artistic director of the company and has collaborated on all of the company’s work as a writer, designer, director and performer. He was the author of the company’s first two shows, Garvey & Superpant$; Episode #23 and Placebo Sunrise, and co-authored all but their most recent show with Sherwood, which he directed. Stanley holds a PhD in Media, Culture, and Communication from New York University and currently teaches in History and Literature at Harvard University.