Our understanding of what theatre is, and how it ought to be performed, rehearsed and designed has shifted continually ever since the first audiences and performers gathered together. For example, women in Japan used to perform kabuki, which is exclusively performed by men today. Although Chinese opera used to be performed in gender segregated troupes, it is the norm today for men and women to share a stage.
In the past two or so decades, there has been renewed interest in rehearsing and staging Shakespeare’s plays under original practices. This means rehearsing and performing Shakespeare as it would have been done in his day (around the late 16th and early 17th centuries). The Globe theatre, for example, has produced an all-male staging of Twelfth Night, adopting the original practice of only using male actors.
Original practice allows the audience and performers to discover things in Shakespeare’s plays that otherwise might be lost or diminished due to modern performance practices. Here are some of the original stage practices that were in use during Shakespeare’s time:
Shakespeare’s Globe in London has recreated two Shakespearean-era stages: the outdoor Globe theatre and the indoor Sam Wanamaker theatre. Most of Shakespeare’s earlier plays would have been performed in this outdoor stage, while his later plays may have shifted indoors. A prominent feature of the outdoor Globe theatre is the thrust stage that projects into an audience of “groundlings”—audience members who pay for cheap tickets to stand on the ground floor.
Due to the higher cost of printing on paper in Shakespeare’s time, actors were not given a full copy of the script. Instead, they were given cue scripts: scripts with only one character’s lines printed out, as well as the cue lines for each character. This meant that actors would go into rehearsal not knowing the majority of their colleagues’ lines! Doing this, however, might increase an actor’s attentiveness and elicit genuine reactions when a colleague speaking says something unexpected.
Actors would remember the entire cue script before rehearsals began, then jump immediately into rehearsals. This meant that a play could be staged with fewer rehearsals and more cheaply. Shakespeare’s acting troupe would often have multiple plays memorized at a time, allowing them to perform in repertory and on short notice.
As previously mentioned, women were not allowed onstage during Shakespeare’s time. All of Shakespeare’s female roles were played by boy actors—a considerable feat given the complexity of his female roles. In plays such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It, where a prominent female character dresses as a man, the casting of a boy in these roles brought another layer of gendered performance to the part.
Although Shakespeare was English, the accent that his actors spoke in during his time was probably closer to the standard American accent today than it is to the standard British accent today. Original practice tries to recreate Shakespearean English pronunciation based on written clues. With original pronunciation, words that no longer rhyme in modern English rhyme again, giving renewed meaning to verse written in rhyming couplets.