Company Composition

The Queen’s Men

All three of the plays performed in the SQM experiment were published and/or entered into the Stationers' Register in 1594. In their doubling analysis of these plays, and of the two others that were printed that year, McMillin and MacLean argue that each play could be performed with a minimum cast of fourteen actors.

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King Leir
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Famous Victories
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Friar Bacon
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As the starting point for their analysis, they identified the limiting scene or concurrent scenes in each play: the scene that demands the largest number of actors. Strikingly, in each case, the number of characters in the limiting scene was fourteen - but could the entire plays be doubled for fourteen actors? McMillin and MacLean plotted a doubling chart for each play, working with the principle that any plural reference to supernumerary characters such as servants, officers or lords indicates the presence of two actors on the stage and that apprentices would only play female characters or characters explicitly identified as boys. They found that in each of the 1594 plays the cast of fourteen, implied by the limiting scenes, indeed was sufficient to perform the entire play.

McMillin and MacLean acknowledge that the composition of the personnel for each play varies slightly. The True Tragedy of Richard III, for instance, requires four apprentice boys, not three. In addition, our analysis of their doubling charts reveals that Famous Victories requires one apprentice to play speaking male roles in addition to a mute female role, and one apprentice to play speaking female roles and mute male roles. Without casting apprentices in male and female roles the minimum number of the cast would have to increase to fifteen. McMillin and MacLean’s rule that apprentices can play only women or male characters identified as boys is thus broken (or at least softened) in this instance in order to keep the cast down to fourteen but the consistency of their results is still striking. It does not establish definitively that the Queen’s Men at this time had a company of fourteen but it does indicate that a company of fourteen actors is the “economic ground-level” (99) needed to perform the 1594 plays as published.

The SQM Company

A full company of fourteen professional actors was beyond our financial resources. Only commercial theatre productions or the major festival companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company or Canada’s Stratford Festival can afford to employ fourteen union members to perform plays on a regular basis. After much deliberation we decided to form a company with three full union Equity artists, eight non-union but experienced professionals, a musical director who would play minor roles, and two student actors who would participate in the project for course credit playing smaller roles.

The three Equity actors were given the authority of master actors in the company, the eight other professionals were the equivalent of hired men (trained freemen of their livery companies but not masters or financial sharers in the company) and the musical director and the two students were conceived as company apprentices. Already the comparison between the composition of our company and the Queen’s Men was being stretched since the original company was formed out of two established companies and therefore would have had a predominance of master actors. Analysis of surviving playhouse documents reveals that hired men would only take minor roles in plays and the vast majority of the lines would be assigned to the company sharers and apprentices.

Furthermore, since most modern male actors are not accustomed to playing female roles, we needed actors with some experience to tackle these parts and therefore could not give them to our student “apprentices.” In practice, our student “apprentices” were used more in the manner of Elizabethan hired men, playing supernumerary characters and smaller roles. The challenges we faced with our personnel made it clear that our company could not follow the casting suggested by McMillin and MacLean’s analysis of the company and the texts.

To compound the problem still further, it proved surprisingly difficult to find students to participate in the project for course credit. At the outset of the rehearsals, we only had a company of 12 actors, not 14 and therefore had to recast King Leir and Famous Victories at the last minute to reflect the smaller size of our company. The SQM experiment could no longer test McMillin and MacLean’s casting suggestions but the problems we faced still taught us much about the plays and the workings of an early modern theatre company.

T.J. King, Casting Shakespeare’s plays: London actors and their roles, 1590-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1-21.