Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Brief History of Elizabethan Theatre or 'Why Bootlegging is Most Excellent'

I recently attended a conference at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA where much discussion surrounded Original Practices (or ‘OP’ as the musty, tweed-clad academics refer to it.)  What struck me most about this topic was not only how far the theatre has come over the past 400 years, but also the myriad of standards that have been shaped around it. 

We’ve become very accustomed to conventions that have taken over since Samuel Taylor Coleridge introduced the idea of ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ in 1817, where the reader or viewer is permitted to suspend judgement of a narrative (dramatic or literary) no matter how implausible.  While the phrase was originally coined in the context of the creating or reading of poetry, its implications have become more identifiable within the world of theatre and other dramatic forms.  With this concept comes more developed stagecraft, the advent of the ‘fourth wall’ and a crowd of social elite who politely come to a hush and silence their cell-phones when those lights go down indicating the beginning of the show.   It wasn’t always this way…

The term OP doesn’t just refer to the use of red scarves to indicate streaming blood and the banging of metal sheets to simulate thunder.  It’s more than just employing direct address when giving a soliloquy or performing without the aid of technology.  As a matter of fact, I daresay there are very few theatre companies in the United States or abroad that actually employ true ‘OP’ in the way that it counts the most:  The rehearsal process.
The first professional theatre was established in 1567 when the first ‘fixed theatre’ was erected in London.  Previous to that, theatre practice had been maintained by traveling players and schools and it wasn’t even until the late 19th century that the role of director became a regular part of theatrical production. While there is a lot of varying data on the ‘rehearsal process’ of any given production, the Elizabethan stage generally saw a three to four weeks of preparation before a production.  Nothing very unusual about that.
However, most of these companies like The Admirals Company of 1594-95, performed six days a week and offered 38 plays in total, 21 of which were new.  In 1596 they performed on every day except Sunday and presented 14 different plays.  Of those plays, six were performed only once.  Imagine what that means to the individual actor.  Much of your time is not only spent remembering those plays that serve as standbys, but also constantly learning new text.  Subsequently, most of the actor’s process during that time was conducted privately.  Actors were given their lines and the cue that indicated when they needed to execute those lines.  ‘Private’ or ‘individual’ rehearsals were held in the presence of an ‘instructor’ – usually the author, prompter or manager.  So not only were roles learned in isolation from the other actors, but also the rest of the play!  Once a role was established for a particular play, each set of blocking, gesture and inflection was fixed not only for that production, but also for every subsequent production.  New actors being trained to replace actors who had originated a role, were trained to mimic precisely the manner in which it was originally performed.

This meant that rehearsal served mostly to ensure that each actor had correctly learned the part – also setting them up for harsh judgement against their ‘originals’.  As actors brought to ‘group rehearsals’ a finished performance, the occasion functioned much like a final dress rehearsals does today.  ‘Collective rehearsals’ were then the most dispensable part of play preparation and usually only conducted a couple of times, if that.  In fact, as far as the companies were concerned, these live performances for the general public served as rehearsal preparing for the time they would have to bring it to court before her majesty, the queen.  Naturally, this process varies from company to company and evolved over time, but the name of the game was to keep the new plays coming as well as perform the plays that were tried and true.  That the first performance was in many cases a play’s ‘rehearsal’ accounts for why Henslowe (as he explains in his famous diaries) charged double for a play’s first performance.  By doing this, he not only made as much possible in the event of the play tanking, but also making the audience feel more exclusive.  They were after all the people, “who the Poet and the Actors fright, Least that their Censure thin the second night.” [Henry Harrington – On Mr. John Fletcher’s Dramaticall Works]

Perhaps even more importantly, the method of rehearsing and performing affected the way a play was watched.  Not only were these plays hotly staged, they were attended during the day by anyone who had the penny or two to pay the price of admission.  It was a social event more than anything. By modern standards, you might imagine a professional sports match.  Audiences certainly didn’t sit quietly and respect the actors on stage, let alone other audience members.   As a matter of fact, the relationship between audience and actor in these early days before the advent of a darkened auditorium was one of equality and of free communication.  Not only was it normal and acceptable to interact freely with those around you, but it was also just fine to respond vocally to what was going on on-stage.   Conversely, it was also utterly normal for actors to break character and acknowledge what was going on in the house.  While it is true that actors were given praise for not breaking their characters during a performance, they were also respected for being able to play 'with' the audience while maintaining the integrity of the show. It was exciting, it was alive and it was subject to the individuality of performance that a 'one night only' aesthetic can provide.

What I think is great about our annual Bootleg Project is that we employ this single 'OP' in that actors are given 30 days to privately prepare their roles with the single direction: “Bring it”.  By “it” I mean strong choices and a sense of play. Then on the day of the performance, we all gather bright and early at the theatre and stage the play.  The environment is always giving, friendly and most importantly fun.  Apart from the odd bout of anxiety about what is going to happen, what happens during that day is nothing short of magical.  You would not believe what a company of actors can accomplish in one day.  More importantly, the audience is aware of the rules of the game, giving them a slightly Elizabethan sensibility.  They react, they cheer, occasionally they talk back.  But mostly they are with those actors every step of the way.  What’s doubly great about the Bootleg is that we always do the Shakespeare plays that actors are not overly familiar with.  This enables them to approach the work without any preconceived notions or ideas about how it’s been done before.  It also gives audiences exposure to a Shakespeare piece that they will most likely never read.

For actors taking part for the first time, they learn a lot about themselves.  For those doing it a second time, it’s a chance to enjoy the implications of a zero stakes performance situation:  It’s one night only, the audience is admitted for free, there are no reviewers (except for the audience) and if they lose their spot, they’re allowed to call for line.   For many this prospect is terrifying, for others it’s liberating.  Either way, the audience rewards these actors with the kind of love you’ll never see in a production that’s had 4-5 weeks of rehearsals.  And what’s more, audiences walk away in disbelief that it only had the one.

Peggy Ashcroft says performance is simply ‘an after-image of processes set in motion – explored, nourished, made fit for growth – during the work of rehearsal’.  The Bootleg is a beautiful example of this type of work. Next year we hope you'll come out and experience this Elizabethan style of staging first hand.  I promise you, you'll be glad you did.

James Ricks - Artistic Director