Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Companies
“O, there be players that I
have seen play, and heard others praise”
-Hamlet, Hamlet III.ii.35
Acting companies were formed in Elizabethan England as a way of regulating performances throughout the city. The primary purpose of playing was to please the monarch, and as a way of maintaining appropriate conduct on stage, the Privy Council of England ordered that a “license hath been granted unto two companies of stage players retained unto us, the Lord Admiral and Lord Chamberlain, to use and practice stage plays, whereby they might be the better enabled and prepared to show such plays before her Majesty as they shall be required at times meet and accustomed, to which end they have been chiefly licensed and tolerated as aforesaid.”
These two companies were licensed in order to diminish the amount of rogues roaming about the city, as actors were considered nothing better than vagabonds. Contemporary discourse about players commented that “the statute hath done wisely to acknowledge him a rogue, for his chief essence is, a daily counterfeit: he hath been familiar so long with out-sides, that he professes himself, (being unknown) to be an apparent gentleman. But his thin felt, and his silk stockings, or his foul linen, and fair doublet, do (in him) bodily reveal the broker: so being not suitable, he process a motley.” A company required a patron who was a noble birth in order to advocate for them to the city officials for the rights to be able to perform. Professional players were servants to their patron, as can be seen on various quarto publications where they are mentioned.
The most famous companies in Elizabethan England consisted of 8 to 10 members at any given time (with a shifting number of sharers), 4 boys for women’s roles, as many as 10 hired men for supernumeraries, a bookkeeper who looked after the playbooks and a tireman who managed the costumes. Many companies also employed gatherers who worked as doormen and took in money at various points in the playhouse, while others designated that role to one already in the company.
In 1583, The Queen’s Men had twelve sharers, but by the 1590s, most companies in London had eight to ten sharers at most. The sharers would cover the company’s capital which included any assets that the company owned (costumes and props), the playhouse rent, and running costs for the company. A strong company with eight sharers would be valued at around £500, with each sharer expected to pay a rate determined by the company’s success at the time, usually around £50 to £80. Buying into a company identified a commitment to the company and allowed the person to share in the company’s profits and losses.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men was formed in 1594 with eight sharers, each paying for one full share (part shares were later available): George Bryan, Richard Burbage, John Heminges, Will Kemp, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, Will Shakespeare, and most likely Will Sly. George Bryan lasted only a few years and was replaced by Henry Condell in 1597. Young boy actors often housed with their masters, just as boys who formally apprenticed to members of London’s livery companies did. John Heminges registered ten boys throughout his career. Company management allowed players to act as their own managers and financers, “creating the only effective democracy of its time in totalitarian England.” While eight to ten men at most were sharers, more players were included in each company. Fifteen players performed Julius Caesar at the Globe in 1599.
Companies would purchase a play from a playwright and adapted it as they pleased it. The Master of the Revels needed to license the play text in order to censor it of any profanities or politically sensitive information. This was a way for monarchs to control the information put into plays. An example of this is in many plays, where “zounds” exists as a result of the censors taking out “God’s wounds.” The “resident poet” of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, William Shakespeare, brought the company much success. The fact that “the Chamberlain’s acquired so many of his pre-1594 plays is either a tribute to his self-esteem and the high value he put on his own plays, or to his commercial acumen in keeping possession of them himself” as actors typically sold them to the company performing the play and had no other rights over their plays.
In 1596, a license was presented to the Bailiff at Guild Hall, signed by 31 residents of Blackfriars, which stated: “now all players being banished by the Lord Mayor from playing within the cittie by reason of the great inconveniences and ill rule that followeth them, they now thincke to plant them selves in liberties.” Performing, often considered lewd and immoral by many in London at the time, was banned from the city. Performing, often considered lewd and immoral by many in London at the time, was banned from the city. In 1598 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who had been playing at the Theatre in Shoreditch in north London since 1594, lost the lease to the land on which the playhouse sat. Over Christmas, they dismantled the building and moved south of the Thames to a liberty known as Southwark to build the Globe, which they built in 1599 using materials from their former playhouse. The company played at the Globe in Southwark in south London exclusively until 1608, at which time they acquired Blackfriars and split performances between the two playhouses.. Financially, the company flourished, bringing in their fiscal investment in the Globe in just two years.
Acting companies typically performed up to 35 plays a year and many were well known in London. In remembering the playhouse activity in 1609, James Wright recalled “there were in being all these playhouses at the same time. The Blackfriars, and Globe on Bankside a winter and summer house belonging to the same company called the King’s Servants […] all these companies got money and lived in reputation, especially those of the Blackfriars who were men of grave and sober behavior.” Often clowns or tragedians were well known for their parts as well. Will Kempe was a famous clown, known for playing Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet; while Richard Burbage was known for his tragic roles, such as Richard III, Hamlet and Othello.
While the company was well known, they were not liked by all. Various anti-theatrical tracts published during this time noted the concerns that many Puritans had about the theater. William Prynne stated that players “corrupt the minds, the manners, the virtuous education of those gentlemen […] by drawing them on idleness, luxury, incontinency, prophanesse, and those other dangerous vices which plays and playhouses oft occasion.” While his comments are extremely strong, it is important to remember the tension between playhouse and pulpit at this time. Several Puritans were frustrated with the fact that many in their congregation were going to the theaters instead of going to church, eventually leading to the closing of the theaters in 1642. These comments are coming from this platform and are by no means consistent with everyone’s views at this time, but it is important to note the tension surrounding the acting companies during the early modern period.
LINKS TO ASC
The ASC has historically hired companies of eleven to sixteen actors who performed in repertory in three seasons. The Actors’ Renaissance Season featured only actors with experience working on the Blackfriars stage with self-directing their shows with limited rehearsal time. The Touring company rehearsed in the summer and traveled to universities and performing arts venues during the school year, returning to play on the Blackfriars stage as their fellows in the Summer and Fall seasons rehearsed. The Summer and Fall troupes would begin performing in late June and continue into November. As ASC moves into a post-pandemic world, the company is moving ever-closer to Shakespeare’s practices regarding company management and collaboration. Working as a team, 4 actor-managers, our founder and senior-advisor, a producer, and the education programming team are joining forces to determine the season structure, titles, and additional programming to support the work on stage
ACTS OF THE PRIVY COUNCIL OF ENGLAND, QUOTED BY ANDREW GURR, THE SHAKESPEAREAN PLAYING COMPANIES (OXFORD: CLARENDON PRESS, 1996), 175.
K. CHAMBERS, THE ELIZABETHAN STAGE (OXFORD: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2009) 4.319-20.
MELISSA D. AARON, GLOBAL ECONOMICS: A HISTORY OF THE THEATER BUSINESS, THE CHAMBERLAIN’S/KING’S MEN AND THEIR PLAYS, 1599-1642 (NEWARK: UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE PRESS, 2005), 55.
JAMES WRIGHT, QUOTED BY GURR.
WILLIAM PRYNNE , HISTRIOMASTIX: THE PLAYER’S SCOURGE, OR ACTOR’S TRAGEDY (LONDON: MICHAEL SPARKE, 1633).