How Performers Use Perfume

The Guardian has published an incredible article about how various actors and other performers use fragrance and perfume to get into their roles (hat tip to Now Smell This): The Spray’s The Thing: How Actors Use Perfume To Get Into Character. It was fascinating. I can’t help but wonder what Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole might have chosen to wear as they played cosmetics pioneers and queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in the recent musical “War Paint”! In the Guardian article, I was particularly taken with the approach by one ballerina:

The ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson works with a perfumer, sometimes over months, to devise the perfect scent for her roles with the Royal Ballet. “I learn a lot when I work with her,” she once told me. “I talk it all through, from the beginning to the end of the ballet, while she asks many questions. There was a moment in act two of Giselle” – where the heroine appears as a spirit – “which she captured unbelievably. I’d said I wanted to feel like there was a veil or gauze over me, and she did it in scent.”

I had just written recently here about ballerina Carla Fracci’s fragrance Giselle, which I find captures the heroine in the happy first act of that ballet; how wonderful to know that a ballerina of today had a perfume created to capture the sense of the ghostly second act!

The same article reveals that a new book has been published which clearly I must get, if only for its title: “Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture”, by Catherine Maxwell; it includes descriptions of scents at the 19th century theater:

Catherine Maxwell quotes Oscar Wilde’s plan for mood-enhancing fragrance in Salome. He wanted “in place of an orchestra, braziers of perfume. Think – the scented clouds rising and partly veiling the stage from time to time – a new perfume for each emotion.” It never happened: how could you air the theatre between emotions?

However, Wilde’s fans ensured an aromatic premiere for The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895. Ada Leverson reported that “nearly all the pretty women wore sprays of lilies against their large puffed sleeves, while rows and rows of young elegants had buttonholes of the delicate bloom of lily of the valley.”

I love the idea of scented theater productions, something perfumer Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays has done in collaboration with directors:

She has scented productions, including Handel’s Acis and Galatea. The opening fragrance summoned cut grass and cucumber, “fresh, green and outdoors”. During the interval, as the plot darkened, she sprayed a muddy, leathery, mossy brew called Foreboding from bottles in the balcony.

I recently attended a production of “Twelfth Night” in a tavern-style theater that presents plays on a stage that resembles the Globe Theater, but smaller, and that encourages the audience to buy dinner and drinks to consume during the show, from a kitchen behind the seating area. Choices include Shepherd’s Pie, Cornish pasties, Guinness, Samuel Smith ales, etc. It’s a different means of “scenting” a production but remarkably fun when paired with a Shakespearean comedy. Not sure I’d enjoy it so much during “Romeo and Juliet”, though …

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