Kathryn Alexandre and the Performance of the Body

Curator's Note

In BBC America’s behind the scenes video, Kathryn Alexandre describes herself as ‘Tatiana’s clone double’. The redundancy of this somewhat awkward tautology suggests that we lack the terminology to properly account for Alexandre’s contribution to Orphan Black. The critical praise lauded upon the series highlights Tatiana Maslany’s extraordinary performance(s). Yet her work is intertwined with that of Alexandre, who provides a performance for Maslany to ‘play off’ in scenes involving two clones. The concept of ‘playing off’ fellow actors, while a relatively common phrase in the critical lexicon, grounds television performance within the ricochets of three-dimensional space, and offers a way to reassess the relational dynamics of the Alexandre-Maslany team.

Both television theory and popular criticism of performance tend to privilege the face, largely ignoring the spatial dynamics of the body. Alexandre’s face is replaced in post-production, thus rendering her work somewhat invisible to the critical eye. Yet this performance is not effaced entirely; rather, the traces of her physical interaction with Maslany retain a ghostly presence on screen. In the BBC America clip, one of the crew draws attention to the way Maslany aligns her body with Alexandre’s in the scene between Rachel and Sarah, mirroring her placement of eyes, nose, and shoulder. However, this symmetry is lost in the final version of the scene, as Maslany-as-Rachel’s face occupies a different position to that of Alexandre-as-Rachel. Alexandre’s body retains a trace presence within the sequence, visible through the misaligned orientation of Maslany’s two bodies.

As the use of computer generated imagery becomes more customary in screen media, the question of where to locate the truth of performance will only become more pressing. In this sense, our understanding and evaluation of performance could perhaps learn something from Darwinian theory, reconfiguring it as a relational question of fit with a surrounding environment. Much like the extra or the stand-in, the role the double plays is that of the body in space, seemingly possessing a replicative function that can easily be translated to the digital world. Yet in Maslany’s words, Alexandre ‘gives [my performance] back to me’. Rather than something an actor gives to a camera (and to the audience), the performance becomes a gift between actors, establishing a structure of care between bodies in space.


Fantastic post! I'm so glad that someone is writing about Alexandre this week as she plays such a phenomenal (yet mostly invisible role) in the series. What I love about the BBC behind the scenes clip you have chosen is that it so clearly foregrounds and calls attention to Alexandre's labor. It's especially telling that they refer to her as an actress in "her own right." This phrase calls attention to the performance work done by a double and also calls attention to the labor behind performance, even when that labor is uniquely hidden. (It's also interesting to note that in season 1, Alexandre is uncreditted, according to IMBD, but her role as body double becomes credited in season 2). More on Alexandre's labor here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNfTJCwQ6ms You call attention to the ghost of Alexandre's performance and what I find most fascinating are the -visible- traces of Alexandre. For example, moments when her hand or arm are -not- edited out. I've read elsewhere that there are moments in which they have kept in some of Alexandre's body parts (for example, when Sarah and Cosima are in Cosima's bed together toward the end of season 2). They also wrote a small role for her in season 2! She plays one of the nurses when Helena is artificially inseminated: http://afterellen.mtvnimages.com/uploads/2014/06/OB-209-1.png?quality=0.6 I provide these two examples to further underscore the points you make here. Alexandre's (invisible and visible) presence on the show offers up new ways to think about the multiplicity of acting bodies and the performance of body doubles.

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Staci! You very astutely pull out the phrase "in her own right", which reveals a lot about how we value the labour of performance. It reflects the privileging of the individual over the collective - a performance is valuable when it can stand alone, in its "own right", not when it's tangled up with others. Your thoughts also raise issues relating to the industrial politics of performance: if Alexandre was uncredited in the first season, would she have been paid less? Pay rates for extras certainly vary depending on whether dialogue is involved, again reflecting hierarchies of labour. In this sense, there are very material implications for the way we value performance that would be interesting to explore. I also love the examples about Alexandre's visibility in the series. The nurse cameo has always interested me. Cameos tend not to work within a narrative diegesis: for audiences in the know, they explicitly call upon extra-textual knowledge and jolt us out of the narrative for a brief moment, and for unaware audiences, they're essentially invisible. In this sense, Alexandre isn't really 'playing' a nurse here - again, she's playing a body in space. For the fan audience, her body seizes our attention, occupying the foreground for a moment; and for the rest of the audience, she is simply background scenery, filling in the space of the scene like most extras. Consequently, her visibility depends entirely on the audience's own understanding and perception of performance hierarchies in Orphan Black.

I love this call to attention on the body and embodiment, which I think has become particularly pressing for television as we have moved into digital and hi-def televisual technologies that permit us to think less about just the face, and literally see "extra" things in the visual field. How fitting that a show like OB, which is thematically about the conundrum of "extra" bodies and the way in which they problematize subjectivity, should also be pioneering new uses of the "extra" in casting and crediting! Digital worlding has fundamentally changed how actors act, and also what bodies can do on screen. What we now see is even a blending of bodies, rather than the analog "stand-in" model of the stunt double or the previous understudy role in the theatrical tradition.

About a month ago I was at a panel on puppetry where the host started talking about the importance of eye contact for performances involving puppets. It's something that sounds like common sense, but he pointed out that it gets largely ignored by many performers who do not realize how large a part our eyes actually play. Considering this information alongside Orphan Black I am very thankful for Alexandre (as well as the creators for thinking to have her). There are a few behind-the-scenes videos that show Tatiana acting against a tennis ball attached to the top of a microphone stand. This is the "stand in" for Alison or Cosima, etc. and is meant to give her an eye line to perform against. But she's not actually looking into anyone's eyes. There's no one there for her to focus on. As you've pointed out here, Tatiana fully realizes that with Alexandre there her performance is echoed back to her. She has somewhere to look, someone to connect with and this really changes her performance. This leads me to wonder how might her performance change (or suffer?) were Alexandre not there for her to act against? Now, as we come up to season three, I feel as if Tatiana and Kathryn's connection as actresses has become more solidified by there time working closely together. It will therefore be very interesting to compare their performances against each other to Ari's with his own "clone double" (I am assuming he will have one). Also, how do these performances change over time? Not just technologically speaking, but in the sense of the spaces that the performers now inhabit and the emotions they are now able to give back to each other.

Fascinating! This recalls some of the early discussion about motion capture, and the debates about credit, recognition and awards for “synthespian” actors, in particular Andy Serkis and his portrayal of Gollum. But even though the face of Serkis was not seen onscreen, and even though many animators also played an indispensable role in bringing the character to life, Gollum was known as “his”character. Here, that ownership is missing but your framing of this performance as a “gift between actors” gives it a new depth. The change in the credits and the addition of the nurse cameo suggest that perhaps Alexandre, like Serkis, can help the public to imagine new kinds of acting in digital environments.

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