Doubling for Touring

The idea that the London companies reduced the casts of their plays when touring has been with us for a long while. The traditional implication has been that the companies could present low budget versions of their shows in the provinces where a less sophisticated audience might not notice the difference. The more likely explanation is that touring added additional financial expenses for each member of the company to pay for travel and accommodation. A smaller cast therefore made economic sense. The SQM experiment suggests an additional reason for the smaller cast size. In London, the companies had to maintain an extensive repertoire, performing a different play every day and preparing several new plays for performance each month in order to satisfy a local audience that demanded novelty. On tour the company might only perform once in any given town and therefore could maintain a much smaller repertoire and still keep their audience satisfied. In London, plays had to be prepared quickly and might not be re-mounted for several weeks and this made heavy demands on the actors’ memories. Not only did they have to learn all the lines but also the timing of their costume changes when doubling. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the companies did not rehearse a new play as an ensemble until the day of the first performance. The SQM company followed this practice and aside from memorization of the lines, the quick changes were the single most problematic element of our ‘trial performances.’ An effective quick change requires practice, and since the actors were working principally from parts, it was hard for them to assess the time available for changing their costumes until the performance was upon them. Quick changes became one of the key areas of focus in our four hour company rehearsal before the trial performances. In spite of our best efforts the first performances of the plays in front of an audience contained delays caused by the backstage rush from one costume to another. In the context of the London theatre rehearsal process as we understand it, the evidential implication that London companies worked with larger casts makes pragmatic sense, since it reduces the number of lines each actor has to learn, the characters they have to develop and most importantly removes the need for quick changes.

A touring company like the Queen’s Men in contrast could likely manage with a much smaller repertoire because, as they moved from town to town, they could perform the same plays to different audiences. The intense doubling plots implied by McMillin and MacLean’s analysis would have been workable for a company that took a small repertoire on tour and performed the plays on regular rotation as they traveled across England. The company could have ironed out the kinks, prepared themselves for all quick changes in London as they prepared to set off to the provinces without facing the pressure of producing new material weekly for the local audience.

The SQM’s ‘trial performances’ may well have been more challenging than they need have been because the SQM rehearsal process was founded on evidence of practice in the playhouses of London but we were performing plays written for touring and using doubling techniques appropriate for a touring company. The SQM actors became very efficient with the quick changes once they were familiar with the play and had performed it twice. Performing the plays in more regular rotation on tour allows the actor to recall the complex track they have to follow from one character to the next through each play. The tight doubling plots featuring actors ‘dodging’ multiple roles would not have allowed for successful trial performances in the London repertory theatre due to the lack of ensemble rehearsal and the length of time between performances of each play but a touring company had more leisure to prepare and perfect each play they chose to perform and could perhaps pull off quick-change artistry not possible in the London theatres. While ‘dodging’ might have been rare on the London stage, it could well have been common practice when on tour.

W.W. Greg presumed that the Plot for the Battle of Alcazar which features the most ‘dodging’ of the extant ‘plots’ was created for a touring production of the play; however, Bradley argues that the company was hard pressed simply because many of the actors had to perform in black face and therefore could not double with white characters in the play (36-38). There is unfortunately no external evidence to connect any of the surviving playhouse documents with touring productions. Our theory proposed above must remain just that but if we are to consider the hypothesis that McMillin and MacLean’s tight doubling plots might approximate the practice of the Queen’s Men, we can posit certain conditions that would improve the efficient operation of the company, the first two of which were proposed by McMillin and MacLean and are mentioned above:

  1. The actors were skilled quick-change artists.
  2. The company used simple, tokenistic costumes where necessary to delineate one character from another.
  3. The company employed a skilled book-keeper to create the plots.
  4. The company traveled with “tire-men” to assist with costume changes and the co-ordination of back-stage traffic.
  5. The company toured with a relatively small repertoire performed in regular rotation.
  6. In preparation for a first performance, the company rehearsed as an ensemble more often than is suggested by the evidence from the London playhouses.

The third point begs a further question: in the absence of computer spreadsheets how did the company book-keeper create doubling plots of the plays? T.J. King argues, following David Bevingtion, that the playwrights wrote their plays with doubling options in mind and before writing the play would present a ‘plot’ to the company for approval. 5 We do not know what this ‘plot’ contained, however, King assumes it tracked the traffic on the stage much like the stage ‘plots’ used by the company back stage and gave the company some idea of the characters and story of the play. Once the play was written the company book-keeper or another delegate with intimate knowledge of theatre practice, would prepare the stage ‘plot’ of the play. It is likely that this was the principal document used for doubling the play. The extant ‘plots’ contain the names of actors assigned to specific roles and it is possible that this was done to establish the doubling patterns in the plays. In the plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins the actors’ names are absent from the two lead roles of Henry VI and Lidgate, likely because the actors playing these roles did not double other roles in the play.6 A stage plot marks English scenes with lines across the page, giving the plotter a visual sense of the doubling possibilities in the play. French scenes, however, are not marked as exits from the stage are not recorded, although characters delayed entrances into scenes are recorded usually by the phrase “Enter….; to him…” Anyone trying to double the play from a stage plot would not have the same amount of information presented in the SQM doubling plots. Could the book-keeper, or other member of the company, have created the intricate doubling charts necessary to keep the cast numbers to fourteen using only a stage plot and prompt book as reference?

Without further evidence it is impossible to be certain in this matter but in the absence of other documents it seems likely to me that the plot of the play was the starting point when casting the play. McMillin and MacLean created their doubling charts without knowing about the idea of the French scene, although open to the possibility that early exits and late entrances to scenes increased the doubling options. The spreadsheet charts accessible on this site were created from the SQM doubling plots and reflect the doubling that is presented in list form only in McMillin and MacLean’s book. The intricate doubling task is thus possible without knowledge of modern doubling techniques and the use of a computer spreadsheet. However, none of the extant plots offer doubling that approaches the complexity of McMillin and MacLean’s doubling. So few documents have survived from the theatre that it is dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions based on their evidence but in the absence of other evidence it is also difficult to contradict them. The consistency that McMillin and MacLean find in the 1594 plays lends much weight to the argument that touring companies operated with smaller casts and intricate doubling plots. The success of the SQM company in performing the plays in this manner, especially after the initial pressured ‘trial performance’, confirms that the kind of intense doubling proposed by McMillin and MacLean, while presenting enormous challenges within a London theatre rehearsal schedule, is fully feasible for a touring company working under the conditions outlined above.

5 King, 7-9 and David Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 6

6 For a recent and detailed analysis of this plot see: David Kathman, “Reconsidering The Seven Deadly SinsEarly Theatre 7.1 (2004).