The daily life of an Elizabethan actor

Johannes de Witt's drawing of the Swan
playhouse, 1596. It may depict a
rehearsal, since there are actors on the
stage but no audience.
Elizabethan actors lived very differently from modern theatre actors. Their use of a repertory system meant that their company would perform a different play each day, gradually cycling through the plays they owned, adding new ones, and dropping old ones that had gone out of fashion. The actors were thus expected to memorize their roles for each of these plays and be able to perform them with only a few days' notice.

As if this were not stressful enough, an actor did not receive a copy of the entire play, only a 'part': a scroll containing only his character's lines with short cues indicated. Actors normally studied and learned their lines alone, and often received only one group rehearsal before the play was performed.

Typically, the actors' day went like this: in the morning, they would get together at the theatre for a group rehearsal, having already memorized their part. In the afternoon they would perform the play to a paying audience. After the show, they would retire to a tavern for dinner. Presumably any remaining free time was devoted to learning and practicing their parts.

This seems an incredibly stressful and exhausting lifestyle, as the potential for onstage mistakes was enormous. And no doubt it was. But when you think about the incredible levels of focus that these actors must have had, you can see how exciting their performances may have been, both for the audience and for each other. These actors had to listen intently to their fellow actors and adapt quickly to cover mistakes or unexpected audience reactions. There could be no laziness or staleness in these shows: the actors needed to be on the ball at all times. So their performances must have had a crackling energy that it's hard to imagine today.

Further information

The information on this page is from:
  • Tiffany Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Other useful sources are:
  • G.E. Bentley, The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time, 1590-1642 (Princeton University Press, 1984)
  • John Astington, Actors and Acting in Shakespeare's Time: The Art of Stage Playing (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

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