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Open Rehearsals

Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Open Rehearsals


“[M]eet me in the palace wood, a 
Mile without the town, by moonlight; there will 
We rehearse, for if we meet in the city, we shall be 
Dogged with company, and our devices known.”
- Peter Quince, A Midsummer Night’s Dream I.ii.101-104


In the quote above, Quince expresses a distinct wish to rehearse in private and to avoid the public eye. Perhaps these lines of Shakespeare’s were inspired by times when rehearsals were “dogged with company.” Although not leading the paradigm of professional acting troupes, Peter Quince might be read as the voice of the early modern theatrical manager. In fact, the rehearsal methods which these bumbling players employ are not unlike those Shakespeare’s company may have used. 

Playgoing was an extremely popular activity in early modern London. Numerous accounts detail individual’s visits to the London theater in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The theater attracted locals and tourists alike from all levels of society, and the players onstage did their best to entertain the crowds and keep them coming back for more. Many testaments also attest to the skills of the English actors. Johannes Rheinanus, a German visitor to England, wrote: “So far as the actors are concerned they, as I have noticed in England, are daily instructed, as it were in a school, so that even the most eminent actors have to allow themselves to be taught their places by the dramatists, and this gives life and ornament to a well-written play, so that it is no wonder that the English players (I speak of the skilled ones) surpass others and have the advantage over them.”[1] His pointed insight into English theatrical training may even imply that Rheinanus attended a rehearsal. Yet with such limited rehearsal time, extended periods of rehearsals which might be open to the public were not a realistic possibility for most companies. There were a variety of other ways that rehearsals of different sorts could be witnessed by an audience.

In fact, it could be said that all early modern theatrical productions were technically “open rehearsals.” In the late sixteenth century, when professional theater was on the rise in London, companies such as the Lord Chamberlain’s (later King’s) Men claimed that their public and for-profit performances were, in truth, nothing more than rehearsals for private shows to be put on at a later date for their titular sponsor. Players in these troupes cast themselves as servants of the theater-loving aristocrats who supported them. In this way, playing troupes received the necessary protection of their endeavors by couching their primary form of money-making in the guise of “open rehearsals.” Thanks to this balancing act, professional theater began a rapid ascent as a highly lucrative commercial enterprise.[2] This rather sneaky practice was indirectly supported by no one less than Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary. In a letter written to the Lord Mayor of London, Walsingham claimed, “without frequent exercise of such plaies as are to be presented before hir majestie [Elizabeth I], her servants cannot conveniently satisfie hir recreation.”[3] Another form of what could be termed “open rehearsal” in early modern theater was the preliminary reading of a new play. These readings were rough and minimalist, as sometimes the play in question was still in progress, which meant that they took place at the very beginning of the rehearsal process. Such readings, however, were often staged at a public tavern for financial backers of the company, or put on by the playwright himself for the actors’ benefit, but it also seems probable that other tavern patrons and passers-by may have witnessed these unique rehearsals as well.[4] These events were certainly cast as social occasions, presumably to keep a troupe’s financers in generous spirits during what was essentially a sales pitch. The manager of the Rose, Philip Henslowe, recorded in his diary that on one occasion he lent money “unto the companye for to spend at the Readynge of that boocke [Henry I] at the sonne [a tavern] in new fyshstrete.” This entry is followed closely by a note designating further funds “layd owt the same tyme at the taverne in fyshstreate for good cheare.”[5] Later, Henslowe also recorded that money was “[l]ayd owt for the companye when they Read the playe of Jeffa for wine at the tavern.”[6] By keeping the wine flowing, Henslowe kept his backers and actors in good humor, and the public venue may have invited outside onlookers to witness a preview of a play to come.

Today, the American Shakespeare Center maintains the practice of open rehearsals. From the very beginning of the process, rehearsals may be viewed by students in Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare in Performance MLitt/MFA graduate program. Attending such a rehearsal during the annual Actors’ Renaissance Season, when shows are produced in a restricted amount of time, one may catch an echo of early modern theatrical practice. 
Additionally, dress rehearsals of shows at the American Shakespeare Center are frequently open to the public, free of charge. In this way, an audience is able to see a play in a close-to-complete form before it has officially “opened,” and the actors get to gauge public reaction to a to a production in order to make final improvements. Attending a public dress rehearsal is a way of bringing the playgoing public into the sphere of early modern rehearsal; the combination of these two in the space of the Blackfriars playhouse is an alchemy which harkens back to the theater of Shakespeare’s day.  

[1] Johannes Rheinanus (1611), quoted in Pauline Kiernan, Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe, (New 
York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, Inc, 1999), 68.
[2] Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller, Shakespeare, the Stage, and the Book (Folger Shakespeare Library, 
Shakespeare’s First Folio: digital copy: http://shakespeare.folger.edu/other/folio/ShaF1B.pdf), 17-19.
[3] Sir Francis Walsingham (1583), quoted in Stern, 92. Links to the ASC
[4] Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 57-59.
[5] Philip Henslowe, Henslowe’s Diary: Second Edition, ed. R.A. Foakes (Cambridge: UK, Cambridge University Press, 2002), 88.
[6] Henslowe, 201.

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