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Moving Past Present

This practice-based research project addressed the pre-history of the digital avatar, exploring the lives of two 1890s 'Gaiety Girls' to draw parallels between forms of self-presentation emerging in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries and practices that have become ubiquitous online today.


Like Animating Sight and Song, Moving Past Present considers the genealogy of the digital avatars used in so much online identity work. The project was a collaboration with artist Janina Lange, and was initially presented at the 2016 Arts and Humanities festival at King's College London. We wanted to create a piece that would draw attention to Ego Media’s research, and to our sister project Strandlines. An online archive devoted to the famous street where the main King's campus is located, Strandlines hosts a variety of material about ‘lives on the Strand, past, present and creative’, and visitors are encouraged to submit their own stories, images, videos and essays. In her previous work Janina had used 3D modelling software and Kinect gesture tracking technology to 'reanimate' the early film comedienne Sarah Duhamel (1873-1926), and I wondered whether she could do something similar for the 'Gaiety Girls' - musical comedy performers who appeared at the Strand's Gaiety theatre in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Our research quickly came to focus on two 'Girls' in particular: Ellaline Terriss and Constance Collier. Both started out as 'Gaiety Girls' in the 1890s, and went on to enjoy careers that spanned a period of dramatic social change and rapid technological advancement - including the introduction of new media like radio, phonography and film. Reasoning that to be a Gaiety Girl was, in a sense, already to be a kind of avatar, embodying particular visions of femininity, modernity and Britishness across a range of media, we created a pop-up motion capture studio where Janina presented digital doubles of Terriss and Collier to the public. Somewhere between performance, biographical exhibition, recording session and videogame 'let's play' (the Kinect was initially sold as a means of controlling Xbox 360 games using gestures and voice commands) the event aimed to foreground the role of new technologies in altering conceptions of identity and embodiment.

Ellaline Terriss and Constance Collier

The images above represent some of the ebay acquisitions we made in the course of our research. As they suggest, our two subjects developed very different star personae. Where Terriss specialised in visions of feminine sweetness and forbearance (in her memoirs she jokes ‘some years ago I christened myself “The Veteran Ingénue”… I was nearly fifty and still playing young parts’2) Collier had a flair for tragedy.

Digital technologies may have radically accelerated the circulation of images, but the Gaiety Girls were already, as these objects show, living in an increasingly media-saturated culture. Terriss and Collier reached audiences beyond the theatre via souvenir photographs and programmes, cigarette cards and sheet music, magazine interviews and memoirs - and eventually radio, records and film. The cheap, smartphone-sized portraits depicted above allowed fans to cultivate indirectly intimate relationships with favourite celebrities, and even to enlist them as avatars of a sort (in one of the postcards above Terriss bears 'best wishes' to Brixton; in another 'bes' love' and 'kisses' to West Croydon).

Terriss and Collier were test subjects for modes of self-presentation that have become all-pervasive in our age of social media self-branding. Collier sounds very much like a prototype of the modern Instagram influencer when she describes how, as a Gaiety Girl, ‘I was photographed three times a week by [William] Downey, for which I received a settled income… My picture advertised all sorts of wares, and face creams and soaps, and I gave advice in all the papers on how to keep healthy and beautiful and young’.3

The Performance

For the performance/motion capture session we enlisted performer Meghan Treadway to recreate snippets of performances by Terriss and Collier, from comic dances to Lady Dedlock's tragic death scene in Maurice Elvey's extraordinary 1920 film of Dickens' Bleak House.

These were recorded using a Kinect sensor array. Initially sold as an accessory for the Xbox 360 console, the Kinect has since been repurposed by hackers and engineers. With assistance from 3D animator Moses Attah, Janina configured things so that Meghan's movements would be mirrored in real-time by Ellaline and Constance avatars projected onto the screen behind her.

Janina created these avatars using free Adobe software that, while comparatively powerful and intuitive, imposes certain limits on users - hence the metallic body stocking 'Ellaline' appears to be wearing, and hence too her hyperbolically gendered physique (avatars must be assigned a default 'male' or 'female' body). Janina also had to stick squares of white tape to Meghan's knees and feet in order to make her movements easier for the Kinect to 'see'. We hoped the performance would be a spur to think about the terms on which new technologies - from the cinecamera to the smartphone - enable gestures, acts and expressions to be read and recorded.

The 3D models

The results of the motion capture session were uploaded to Sketchfab, an online database of 3D models used by videogame developers and digital animators. Texts, images and film of Terriss and Collier already exist across archives both official (the British Film Institute, the V&A and the Westminster Archives) and unofficial (YouTube, ebay). By seeding Sketchfab with traces of their performances we wanted to claim a space for female artists and performers on a platform associated with male-dominated industries. Janina aimed to make these avatars more 'neutral' than the ones depicted above, settling on a look somewhat akin to a crash test dummy. Their recreations of Meghan's movements phase between uncanny fidelity and moments of bathetic breakdown, with extremities beginning to jitter or flap in anatomically impossible ways as the Kinect loses track of Meghan's limbs. By grabbing and dragging with the cursor you can see how the Kinect uses a combination of 2D video capture and infrared grids to infer depth.

Clip 8

Kind of Crying

Longer Hand Face

All by Janina Lange

The texts

To accompany the performance we exhibited copies of Terriss and Collier's autobiographies alongside articles of memorabilia (cabinet cards, sheet music and magazine covers) sourced from ebay. We also presented four short texts exploring the idea of the Gaiety Girls as avatars and arguing for their relevance to scholars of contemporary digital culture. These texts are reproduced below.

  1. Reanimating the 'not very animated'

‘In the nameless characters we have an unusually large number of young ladies who are strikingly pretty if not very animated’

Review of A Runaway Girl at the Gaiety,The Referee (1898)4

Ellaline Terriss begins her memoir By Herself and with Others by conceding ‘I was never a great actress. Great actresses play Lady Macbeth and Camille, and, I believe, cause audiences to swoon away’ 5. Early in her memoir Harlequinade, Constance Collier reveals that ‘the first part I studied, when I was about ten or eleven years old, was Lady Macbeth.’6 Terriss’ wry self-deprecation is typical of a performer who seems to be perpetually smiling, a vision of feminine innocence and good humour. Collier’s anecdote shows the flair for self-dramatisation that served her well playing a succession of vamps, villainesses, fallen women and ‘exotic’ beauties. Where Terriss found the mask of comedy a better fit Collier preferred melodrama and tragedy – though it was Terriss whose father, also a famous actor, was murdered by a resentful rival.

As a performer, writer and dialogue coach Collier worked with D.W. Griffith, Josef von Sternberg, Ivor Novello, Alfred Hitchcock and Katherine Hepburn, to name a few; Terriss enjoyed popular success in numerous stage and screen comedies and dramas, often collaborating with her husband Seymour Hicks, a comedian, actor, writer and producer. But both women made their names at the Gaiety Theatre, initially located on the south side of the Strand before moving, in 1903, to the Waterloo Bridge corner of the Aldwych semicircle. Under Irish impresario George Edwardes the Gaiety became the home of a new genre: musical comedy. Shows like A Gaiety Girl, The Shop Girl, The Quaker Girl, A Runaway Girl and The Circus Girl offered songs, spectacle, romance and topical humour. As their titles suggest, much of their appeal was due to the theatre’s glamorous chorus of ‘Gaiety Girls’. Objects of desire, 'Girls' like Collier and Terriss also embodied other fantasies (and fears), giving a face to emerging models of femininity, debates regarding the role of women in the workplace and notions of national and ethnic identity. During a time of rapid technological change, the personae they developed were diffused across magazine covers, cigarette cards, print ads and hand-tinted photographs, records and volumes of sheet music, books and reels of film.

In an age of ‘new women’ agitating for equality and political representation, the Gaiety Girls offered male audiences a less threatening, more seductive vision of modern womanhood – ‘end of the century girls’7 less interested in the vote than bicycle rides, bathing suits and crafty cigarettes. If the Gaiety Girl sometimes seems scandalously forward, it is only because she is too guileless to realise she’s doing something shocking (Terriss:I used to sing quite innocently lines on the most controversial subjects and generally, I believe, looked the most surprised individual in the world when I heard boos or cheers’ 8). But the Gaiety Girls also had many female fans, for whom they represented independence from the strictures of nineteenth century gender norms.

In this performance we enlist Terriss and Collier as our avatars to explore resonances between the turn of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first. Today, platforms like Instagram, Twitch and YouTube are fostering new forms of storytelling, self-branding and playful performance, while ‘the girl’ remains a privileged figure in both utopian and dystopian accounts of technology, work, gender and the self. Technology is also changing our relationship with the body in ways that bear comparison with the Gaiety era. Collier’s performances show an actor gradually divesting herself of the Victorian theatre’s grammar of ostentatious stock gestures; Terriss’ attest to the long prehistory of today’s viral dance crazes. In the wake of Siri, Snapchat, the Wii and the Xbox Kinect - technologies which encourage users to perform gestures, strike poses and pronounce words in ways that computers can understand even as they aim to make interacting with digital code more ‘natural’ – their work reminds us that gestures have histories, and that history is recorded in bodies as well as books.

  1. Svengali’s playthings

‘George Edwardes was the only man I have ever met who could convince you without a doubt that black was white’

Ellaline Terriss, By Herself and with Others (1928)9

In 1905 Constance Collier starred opposite legendary actor and manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in a production of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby - the tale of an Irish lass falling under the hypnotic sway of a sinister Jewish musician who turns her into an international singing sensation. Hardly remembered today (though Svengali, the name of the villain, has survived as tabloid shorthand for pop puppet masters from Pete Waterman to Simon Cowell), Trilby was phenomenally successful at the time. Notions of mesmeric influence, animal magnetism, ventriloquism and remote control didn’t seem so far-fetched in an era of new hypnotic therapies and experiments with radio transmission - experiments which would see the Strand’s Gaiety restaurant make way for Marconi House, site of the BBC’s first broadcasts.

These ideas run through the accounts Terriss and Collier give of lives and careers shaped in concert with (and often in opposition to) men in positions of power. Having rejected her father’s demand that she go into nursing, Collier nearly abandoned the stage while infatuated with a much older actor who used his ‘magnetic’ charisma and ‘attentions of the most subtle kind’ to reduce her to the status of an ‘abject slave’ - a spell broken during a row which saw him dismiss her as ‘only a Gaiety girl’, spurring her to leave musical comedy for the higher calling of serious theatre.10 Terriss, meanwhile, was urged onto the stage by her father - but defied him by eloping with her Gaiety co-star Seymour Hicks, who became her chief artistic collaborator.

The key Svengali figure in both narratives, however, is Gaiety manager George Edwardes, who is credited by his 'Girls' with almost supernatural perspicacity, charm and persuasive power. If the glassy, boggling eyeballs of John Barrymore in the 1931 film Svengali compel obedience through horrified fascination, the managerial style of ‘Gaiety George’ was slightly different: Terriss describes how ‘if anyone ever really cornered him he used to open his eyes with the bland innocence of a newborn baby and was apparently so surprised about everything he was told that it almost seemed a shame to believe he ought ever to have been blamed for anything’.11 Theatre historian Peter Bailey suggests there may have been a more sinister side to ‘the Guv’nor’ however, citing playwright Arthur Pinero’s portrayal of Edwardes as ‘something of a pimp and a pander’.12 There are, moreover, shades of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) about the way Edwardes drilled, coaxed, bullied, surveilled and bribed the Gaiety’s chorus into line with his ideal.

Today, Du Maurier’s drawings of Svengali conducting an eerily quiescent Trilby take on another resonance; in the wake of game series like Digital Dance Mix (AM2, 1997), Just Dance (Ubisoft, 2009-2019) and The idolm@ster (Bandai Namco, 2005-2018), they evoke the symbiotic relationship between gamer and avatar, raising questions as to how webcams, infrared sensors, algorithms and metrics also enforce, even as they provide scope to play with, assumptions about how bodies ought to be.

III. Living commodities

I was photographed three times a week by Downey, for which I received a settled income… Two famous dressmakers dressed me for nothing, and a famous English designer called her models after me and made my clothes at a very nominal fee… My picture advertised all sorts of wares, and face creams and soaps, and I gave advice in all the papers on how to keep healthy and beautiful and young. If I had followed the regime I laid down, I could never have finished in the twenty-four hours

Constance Collier, Harlequinade (1929)13

Described by Stephen Gundle as ‘the world’s first branded showgirl’,14 Gaiety Girls had to maintain their personae both onstage and off. Edwardes ‘carefully selected, groomed and glorified them, providing lessons in elocution, singing, dancing and fencing… Tanning was forbidden in order to preserve an aristocratic whiteness of complexion and make-up was never worn off stage. The girls were reputedly always polite and very well-behaved.’15 The Gaiety team also had a keen eye for promotion and co-branding opportunities, contracting Girls to photographic studios, selling advertising space in show programmes, working endorsements of businesses like Harrods and Thomas Cook into productions, licensing sheet music and arranging discounts for their stars at restaurants only too keen to have the cover star of this week’s Sketch dining with them.

Technological breakthroughs (like the development of half-tone plates, which allowed for the cheap reproduction of high quality monochrome images) turned these ‘girls’ into recognisable faces even for those who had never set foot in the theatre, disseminating their signature attitudes, expressions and poses. Privileging beauty and ‘personality’ over theatrical skill (while they did dance and sing, the main purpose of the Gaiety’s chorus was to ‘decorate the stage and respond with individual mannerisms to what was going on around them’16) and auditioning hundreds of aspirant stars a week, Edwardes’ methods represented a step toward the industrialisation of the star system.

If this regime represented the application of assembly line principles to theatre, shows like The Shop Girl, The Girl from Kays and Our Miss Gibbs also saw musical comedy stars portraying working women at a time when, as Tracy C. Davis notes, real shopgirls were expected to present themselves like performers - polite, personable and sexually appealing.17 Some saw such jobs as more glamorous and dignified than manual labour; others argued it was demeaning to be forced not just to work but to act like you were enjoying it. In other words, if the Gaiety Girls anticipated the age of Instagram influencers, personal branding and online ‘micro-celebrity’,18 they also played a part in laying the groundwork for what scholars like Hochschild and McRobbie have called a culture of ‘emotional labour’19 and ‘passionate work’.20 In the post-Fordist workplace as on the late-Victorian shopfloor, it has become an unwritten condition of many jobs that employees should serve both as assets to their employer and as embodiments of a corporate identity – especially if those employees are ‘girls’.

  1. Avatars of empire

We would rather be ladies by nature / Than mere Upper-Ten nomenclature’

'The Ladies Cannot Bathe’ from A Gaiety Girl (1893)21

Often cast as a flower of English womanhood, Ellaline Terriss was in fact born off the coast of Patagonia, to an English father who migrated as part of Britain’s colonisation of the Malvinas/Falkland islands. Constance Collier was born in the royal seat of Windsor, though her heritage (her mother was half Portuguese) meant she registered as ethnically other. At a time when English theatre was obsessed with ‘the orient’, a fantasy realm onto which it could project and play out its own preoccupations, this meant she was often cast in ‘exotic’ roles – from Cleopatra, Pallas Athene, Poppea and Ben Hur’s Iris to the native American Adulola in 1907’s The Last of His Race and the bandit queen in Ivor Novello’s film of The Bohemian Girl (1922).

In her autobiography Collier frequently accounts for aspects of her character through essentialising references to what she variously calls her ‘Latin’ or ‘Arab’ heritage (terms she uses interchangeably).22 While her claims that her ancestry has made her romantic, vain, impetuous and in need of ‘civiliz[ing]’23 make for awkward reading today, they do represent an attempt to articulate a kind of hybrid identity in a cultural climate rife with xenophobia - the schoolmistress who makes her ‘plait my lovely, dark, curly hair that my mother was so proud of’24 becomes an embodiment of the moralistic Victorian narrow-mindedness that she develops a creative, cosmopolitan identity in opposition to.

Terriss is more respectful of tradition and the establishment. Her memoirs record her many brushes with royalty (including the future Edward VII, who prompts her with the lyrics to her hit ‘A Little Bit of String’ when, star-struck at his having requested a private recital, she forgets them), and she became Lady Hicks when her husband was knighted. Part of the frisson of her stage performances came from this coy, proper young Englishwoman tackling songs and dances derived from African American culture - minstrelsy being something of a Gaiety staple.

Antisemitic humour was another staple, though an 1896 review of The Shop Girl argued that the play showed ‘more daring than discretion in making fun, however, comically, of the Hebrews’ given how many of the Gaiety’s patrons were Jewish.25 Collier describes how enterprising Londoners who had made their fortunes in South African diamond mines, many of them Jewish, returned to London to vie with blue-blooded ‘stage door Johnnies’ for the right to pay court to Gaiety Girls. In doing so, she frames the cross-class romances embarked upon by ‘Johnnies’ like the 4th Marquess of Headfort (who married Gaiety Girl Rosie Boote) as antidotes to ‘the hypocrisy and prudery of the Victorian age’ - albeit while striking a queasily eugenicist note (‘it was as if Nature were fortifying herself and using the blood and strength of these magnificent plebeians to build a finer race’).26

Playing on the scandal of peers ignoring debutantes in favour of Gaiety chorus girls, A Gaiety Girl anticipates some of the same awkward questions about education, social mobility and class posed by Shaw's Eliza Doolittle – if women who weren’t ladies by birth could be made to seem so ladylike what did that say about the basis of aristocratic privilege? There’s a Darwinian tinge, too, to Collier’s account of the ‘girls’ who don’t carve out lasting careers and the ‘shifty gentlemen’ ready to capitalise on their misfortune. Walking on the Strand she meets an out-of-work former Gaiety Girl who, beneath her fur coat is wearing a ‘threadbare little dress’ having pawned all her other clothes – a reminder that if Collier and Terriss incarnated the rags-to-riches promise of the stage, their success was very much the exception to the rule.27

For more on the Gaiety girls and the ideas behind Moving Past Present head to Strandlines.


1. Shaw Desmond, London Nights of Long Ago (Duckworth, 1927). 202.

2. Ellaline Terriss, Ellaline Terriss. By Herself and with Others (London: Cassell & Co, 1928). 3.

3. Constance Collier, Harlequinade. The Story of My Life (London: John Lane, 1929). 61.

4. “Gaiety - Saturday Night,” The Referee, May 22, 1898. 3.

5. Terriss, Ellaline Terriss. By Herself and with Others. 4.

6. Collier, Harlequinade. The Story of My Life. 32.

7. Sidney Jones, Owen Hall, and Harry Greenbank, “A Gaiety Girl : New Musical Comedy in Two Acts,” 1893. 30.

8. Terriss, Ellaline Terriss. By Herself and with Others. 73.

9. Ibid. 74.

10. Collier, Harlequinade. The Story of My Life. 63-5.

11. Terriss, Ellaline Terriss. By Herself and with Others. 74.

12. Peter Bailey, Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 189.

13. Collier, Harlequinade. The Story of My Life. 61.

14. Stephen Gundle, Glamour: A History (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). 130.

15. Idem.

16. Idem.

17. Tracy C Davis, Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture (London; New York: Routledge, 1991). 162-3.

18. See Alice Marwick, “Microcelebrity, Self-Branding, and the Internet,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, ed. George Ritzer (Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2017), 1–3,

19. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Updated with a new preface (Berkeley, Calif. ; London: University of California Press, 2012). ix.

20. Angela McRobbie, Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Cambridge: Polity, 2016). 113.

21. Jones, Hall, and Greenbank, “A Gaiety Girl.” 103.

22. Collier, Harlequinade. The Story of My Life. 38, 4.

23. Ibid 63.

24. Ibid.

25. “‘My Girl,’ at The Gaiety,” The Sketch, July 22, 1896. 542.

26. Collier, Harlequinade. The Story of My Life. 50, 48.

27. Ibid. 69.

Project status: Completed
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