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Shortened Rehearsals and Run Runs

Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Shortened Rehearsals and Renaissance Runs

“If the tag-rag people did not clap him
And hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased
Them, as they use to do the players in the theater, I am
No true man.”
- Casca, Julius Caesar I.ii.256-259

During the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, London was a rapidly expanding city which had also become, in the words of author John C. Meagher, “the dramatic capital of the world.”[1] Acting companies operated on a repertory basis, staging between thirty and forty different plays in a year. Consequently, the early modern actor was required to be highly skilled and adaptable.[2] The description of “An Excellent Actor,” in Sir Thomas Overbury’s 1615 essay, Characters, paints a vivid picture of the versatility of early modern players: “All men have beene of his occupation: and indeed, what hee doth fainedly that doe others essentially: this day one plaies a Monarch, the next a private person. Heere one Acts a Tyrant, on the morrow an Exile: A Parasite this man to-night, to-morow a Precisian, and so of divers others.”[3]

The diary of Philip Henslowe, manager of the Rose, recorded in his diary that a new play was added to his company’s repertory about every three weeks, with performances taking place daily in the afternoon. Unfortunately, there are no definitive statistics for how many rehearsal hours were devoted to new plays in Shakespeare’s day. What is known, however, is that the time between purchasing a new script and the first performance of thatplay could range anywhere from three to fifty one days, with an approximate average of twenty days. However, with daily performances of established plays, and new shows being acquired on a regular basis, it is clear that the time for group rehearsal in such a schedule would have been severely limited.[4] Furthermore, as theatrical scholar Tiffany Stern points out, “[s]ituations existed in which plays no longer in repertory had to be revived, the actor being obliged to (re)learn a script for performance the following day; with so little time to learn or relearn parts for performance, it is unlikely, in these instances, that there was any collective rehearsal at all.”[5]

Such limited rehearsal time demonstrates that, above all, early modern theater was a commercial pursuit, and an intensely competitive one at that. Thomas Platter noticed on his visit to Lodon that “daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.”[6] By the seventeenth century, a strong rivalry had been established between the multitude of acting companies throughout London. In the published Itinerary of his travels through the country (1617), Englishman Fynes Moryson wrote that, “The City of London alone hath four or five companies of players with their peculiar theaters capable of many thousands, wherein they all play every day in the week except Sunday…as there be in my opinion more plays in London than in all the world I have seen.”[7] This, in turn, required rapidly rotating shows to keep the public entertained and loyal. Playwrights wrote prodigiously and as fast as possible to keep up with this demand, and the players worked hard to put on as many of these shows as quickly as possible. Companies were not large enough to allow for lengthy rest periods for actors. Thomas Downton, the lead actor of the Admiral’s Men, might have had fifty sizeable parts in new plays between 1594 and 1597, as well as twenty in various revivals. It is likely that these early modern performances were not polished in the way expected by modern audiences. Yet they were still professional; it was the full time occupation of these men to entertain the paying public through shows which were both varied and well-produced. To prevent confusion between the various performances, companies produced plots, which listed the actors required for each scene. The plot would hang back stage during a performance and served as a reminder to actors of when to enter and exit each scene. 

According to Meagher, “From the evidence that remains, it as least possible to postulate that in the last three centuries the Western world has not seen a dramatic production done with a professional skill equivalent to what was available through Shakespeare’s plays as performed by his company.”[8] While this may be true, the American Shakespeare Center has striven to replicate this process in a modern context. 

Links to the ASC
During an Actor-Scholar Counsel on 28 January 2011, when several actors from the Renaissance Season gathered to discuss John Marston’s The Malcontent, John Harrell termed the shows staged during the Actor’s Renaissance Season “self-directed” rather than un-directed. Actors additionally take on the role of director, observing each other’s scenes and offering opinions and suggestions. At the same time, added Harrell, “We all feel totally comfortable ignoring each other.” Ben Curns, speaking about the masque featured in The Malcontent, said that, as an actor during this season, he had no problem being told exactly what to do, and that, with something like the masque, it was better to have just a couple of people in charge. In this case, Allison Glenzer noted that during the Renaissance Season, when actors are making their own style and costume, they would often pull similar things independently, without planning. Yet sometimes the differences in costume can be entertaining to an audience. Well into the run of a play, the actors are still going back and relooking at scenes, reworking them as part of an ongoing process of creation. 

Mary Baldwin College professor, Paul Menzer, remarked on the style of shows in the Renaissance Season as different from that of the other seasons. One element of this comes in an increase of what he termed “prosthetic personality,” or the use of wigs, makeup, etc. in creating a character. A possible shortcut to help in limited time. ASC actress Allison Glenzer said the use of such aids can help “illuminate the text” when there isn’t a lot of time to prepare. Harrell, referring to the “sleazy” mustache he wears in the play, called it an easily readable symbol of villainy: “Mustache twirling villain.” When not answerable to a director, the actors are more inclined to go with what feels right for their character and the text.  They are also more inclined to go for a “stock character,” and, historically, this would have been expected in early modern theater, where stock characters were a common theatrical convention, not the two-dimensional stereotype they are viewed as today. In this way, the Actor’s Renaissance Season allows the actors at this modern playhouse to establish a unique connection with the original performance practices behind these sixteenth and seventeenth century works.

[1] John C. Meagher, Pursuing Shakespeare’s Dramaturgy: Some Contexts, Resources, and Strategies in His Playmaking (Cranbury, NJ: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Co., 2003), 150. 
[2] Meagher, 150-152. 
[3]Sir Thomas Overbury, New Characters, Drawne to the Life of Several Persons in Several Qualities (London, UK: 1615), at http://www.eudaemonist.com/biblion/overbury.
[4]Tiffany Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 52-57.
[5]Stern, 57.
[6]Thomas Platter, “A Swiss Tourist in London,” From: The Northon Anthology of English Literature: Norton Topics Online (http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/16century/topic_4/tplatter.htm).
[7]Peter Thomson, Shakespeare’s Theater (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 56-8.
[8] Meagher, 151.


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