Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Dress Rehearsals as Market Research


“Nay, but ask my opinion too of that!”

– Jessica, The Merchant of Venice III.v.80


In order to achieve financial stability, early modern theatrical companies strove to please all levels of society. Such a goal posed a unique challenge, in that playwrights and players had to craft a work which might appeal to each member of the audience – young and old, rich and poor. And audiences of Shakespeare’s day were nothing if not opinionated. Englishman Edmund Gayton recorded what happened when one troupe of actors attempted to stage a show: “The players have been appointed […] to act what the major part of the company had a mind to. Sometimes Tamerlane, sometimes Jugurtha, sometimes The Jew of Malta, and sometimes parts of all these; and at last, none of the three taking, they were forced to undress and put off their tragick habits, and conclude the day with The Merry Milkmaides. And unless this were done, and the popular humour satisfied […], the benches, the tiles, the laths, the stones, oranges, apples, nuts, flew about most liberally; and as there were mechanicks of all professions, who fell every one to his trade, and dissolved a house in an instant, and made a ruin of a stately fabric.” This description, penned in 1654, provides a vivid example of what might happen if an early modern audience did not enjoy their show. 


In fact one person alone could greatly influence the play’s success. On “the first day of the presentation of the play at the Black-Friers, by the Lord Viscount Faulkland, may satisfie all others…the noble person, having for some time suffered the unquiet, and impertinent dislikes of this auditor, when he made this last exception, forbore him no longer, but…told him sir tis not altogether so monsterous and impossible, for one of seventeen years to speak at such a rate, when he that write the whole play was himself no older.” 


For this reason, the opening performances of new plays may have served the dual purpose of a dress rehearsal and premiere in one. This saved valuable rehearsal time while also created a form of market research, gauging audience reaction and determining whether it was worthwhile to continue producing a particular play. In the competitive environment of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, it behooved the early modern acting companies to cater subsequent performances of a play to the reaction of the first. Such a step was especially necessary in a time when very few hours were devoted to pre-performance rehearsal. Theater scholar Andrew Gurr believes that, “since the company was playing every afternoon, and probably spent part of each morning running through that day’s play, the company cannot have had much free time for full rehearsals of new plays. […] So the temptation must have been great not to put too much effort into a new play until its success onstage and its retention in the repertory were assured. Only then, perhaps, would much effort be put into polishing the production. With such large and rapidly changing repertoires of plays, no company could afford to spend much time on the niceties of staging.” 


This opinion is shared by fellow Shakespearean scholar Tiffany Stern, who points out that “revision in or as the result of a ‘trial’ performance seems also to have been an important part of the process of putting on a play.” Records indicate that in one year, the Lord Admiral’s Men offered twenty one new plays. Given the deficit of rehearsal hours and the rapid turnover rate at which plays were produced, acting companies were seemingly not overly concerned with perfecting a show before it was staged for the public. In fact, many plays were staged with only one rehearsal where the entire ensemble was present, with three being a generous amount and zero being not uncommon. At the same time, this was not seen in a negative light, as excessive preparation was not deemed necessary for theatrical success. Actors were primarily focused on learning their individual parts, and would also not have been paid for these extra rehearsals, making it beneficial for the company to forgo them. This made the first performance of a play the “dress rehearsal,” and it was the reaction to that performance which would determine its future. A new play would be regularly repeated so long as it continued to make money, and be closed if it did not.


Numerous accounts of ill-received plays can be found within the works of the early modern playwrights. One of these is the clumsy production of “The Pageant of the Nine Worthies” in Love’s Labour’s Lost, (V.ii), during which a rag-tag group of amateur performers are subject to incessant interruption and taunts from their aristocratic audience. One actor never makes it beyond his first line, “‘Judas I am’ (595),” because he is continuously heckled, forcing him to finally proclaim, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble” before retiring (629). The laughably disastrous “Pageant” parallels a similar scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V.i.), when Peter Quince and the rest of the “rude mechanicals” enact “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” (I.ii.11-12). Together, these two scenes paint a painfully comic picture of bumbling players and uncooperative audiences. Such pointed satire may have sprung from Shakespeare’s own experiences with actors and audiences during a first performance. Other playwrights often showed their anxiety about the success of a play in prologues and epilogues of the play itself.  One notes: 

‘Yf then this please (kinde gentlemen) saye so 

Yf yt displease affirem yt wth your No.

You, I, shall make yt live to glad the sire

Your, no, shall make yt burne in quenchles fire’ 

Despite his parody of the unsatisfied audience, Shakespeare’s plays were typically very popular with the play-going public and thus were most likely to receive a positive reaction upon their first performance.


Links to the ASC

During some instances of the Actors’ Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center, rehearsal time was limited to a matter of hours, the actors upheld the practice of using their first performances as a form of market research. The first show might be used as an opportunity to investigate which elements of a show are successful and which need tailoring, particularly in the timing of comedic moments. As actor Sarah Fallon points out, however, these opening shows are also the time when an actor has to step forward and own his/her choices within a scene, so the performance can be as strong as possible. When preparing The Comedy of Errors for the 2011 Actors’ Renaissance Season, the performers had only twenty hours of rehearsal. Working to mount a play in such a narrow window of time meant that the opening performance was only the first or second time a play has been run in its entirety by the company. The energy and unpredictability of staging a rotating repertory of plays under early modern rehearsal conditions makes for an exciting opening. Since they do not have to worry about closing after one performance, actors at the American Shakespeare Center continue to tune and perfect a show over the course of its run. 

Edmund Gayton, Pleasant Notes upon Don Quixot (1654), quoted in Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage: 1574-1642, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 225.

Henry Killigrew, Pallantus and Eudora (1653), A2a.

Gurr, 209.

Tiffany Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 122.

Stern, 53.

Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 70-71, 75-76.

Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. J. H. Walter (Oxford: Malone Society, 1933), 125.