The Space of the “Script”

While reading Robin Bernstein’s “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race” for my performance theory class last week, I was especially struck by her use of the word “script.”She defines it several times throughout her article.

1. “I use the term script as a theatrical practitioner might: to denote an evocative primary substance from which actors, directors, and designers build complex, variable performances that occupy real time and space” (69).

2. “The term script denotes not a rigid dictation of performed action but, rather, a necessary openness to resistance, interpretation, and improvisation” (68).

3. “The word script captures the moment when dramatic narrative and movement through space are in the act of becoming each other” (89).

4. “The word script as I use it signals neither writing nor performance alone, neither archive nor repertoire alone, neither thing nor human alone, but dances between and among all of these forms of knowledge” (footnote 69).

I’m very intrigued by the way Bernstein is using the word “script” throughout her article  and her placement of “script” between archive and repertoire seems especially compelling. Scripts are both records (archives) of the unchangeable text and the material from which wide ranges of varying performances (repertoire) are created. However, I think it’s very important to take into consideration the literal materiality of scripts as text. I’m thinking a bit about Barthes’ “From Work to Text” and the way he defines these two different terms. The work can be considered the particular copy of the script that we can hold in our hands on any given occasion – the bound copy, published by so and so that sits on a shelf and acts as a literal representation of a material archive. Text, on the other hand, can be thought of as the words that make up the work. That elusive, ever-changing, infinitely-analyzed piece of writing that seems more important in the space between archive and repertoire. A work is but one, materialized instance of a text.

But the interesting thing about Bernstein’s use of script in light of these thoughts is that scripts are almost overwhelmingly materialized during theatrical processes. Actors, directors, designers handwrite notes in scripts as they work through the creative process. There’s a moment during the rehearsal process when actors are required to be “off book” but the “book” is always still part of that process because someone (probably the stage manager) is following along to keep track of dropped lines or provide cues if the actor calls for “line.” When an actor calls “line,” always possible only when he or she is not holding the material script in hand, the subtext is, “can someone look at the material script and read me a cue?” What should we make of this seemingly unchangeable reliance on actual, material scripts in the theater?

If an actor marks up his book with notes, the tension between the lines of text that make up the script and the (usually) handwritten notes in the margins seems to materialize Bernstein’s notion of script as “the moment when dramatic narrative and movement through space are in the act of becoming each other” (89). A writer scrawling interior thoughts connected to words or movements connected to specific lines materializes the process of transformation from archive to repertoire. But, what we might be perhaps failing to take into account is that this process relies so heavily on that material script that an actor’s or director’s notes can even become part of the archive, even as they fully inhabit the repertoire during the process of staging a performance. The photos in this post display pages of script with notes that I found just by simply googling “actor script notes.” How do we explain the distinction between archive and repertoire when even the process of creating the repertoire is heavily reliant on the existing archive and the archive being created subsequent to that particular instance of repertoire?


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