A Love Triangle

But how did the Queen’s Men do it?

The rehearsal techniques discussed in this module derive from approaches to acting common today. Not all actors work in this way but most know the language and have adapted it for their own uses. As you will have noticed, the process is time consuming. The increasing dominance of Stanislawski’s rehearsal techniques coincided with an increase in the amount of time given to rehearsal in Western theatre. The actors in early modern London did not dedicate nearly as much time to rehearsal. In fact, evidence suggests that actors would prepare their roles on their own congregating as an ensemble only for four hours before the first performance of a play. The London companies performed a different play on every day of the week barring Sunday and brought a new play to the stage as often as every second week. They could not have possibly dedicated as much time as modern actors do to the preparation of their roles.

Early modern actors did not rehearse together as modern actors do today; they “studied” their “parts” alone.1 The principal goal of such study was memorization but actors would also work on establishing the correct emphasis for the words and finding the physical actions that best suited those words. As Hamlet most famously puts it in his advice to the players: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (3.2.16-17). The principles of oratory taught in English grammar schools provided clear guidelines on the correct pronunciation and emphasis for different rhetorical tropes and the appropriate actions that should be used to support the words. It is likely that the early modern actors when they had grammar school educations drew on this knowledge when studying their parts. Master actors likely trained their apprentices in the arts of rhetoric and oratory. Given the speed with which new plays were prepared for the stage, there could have been little time for the kind of psychological analysis that is the focus of the modern actor’s process.

The SQM rehearsal schedule increased the time pressure on the actors and Paul Hopkins found that it was impossible to follow his usual preparation process. The actors discovered that the discursive and exploratory rehearsal practices that we use to deepen our understanding of character and text had to take second place to the simple but urgent imperative of memorization.

Does this mean that, in comparison to modern performances, the early modern actors’ performances were superficial? Were their performances repetitious renditions of correct pronunciations performed with overly familiar gestures and action? The popularity of the theatre in England at this time suggests not. Eyewitness accounts of actors’ performances usually praise them for their life-like quality and for their emotive power.2 So how did the early modern actors create compelling, life-like performances while working alone and within relatively rigid rules of oratory? And how might their process relate to the modern actor’s process?

There is in fact a strong connection between modern actor’s process and our understanding of an early modern player’s process focused on rules of rhetoric and oratory. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive writing; oratory the art of persuasive speaking. Rhetorical language is designed to affect the listener, to move them to change their opinions or their course of action. Rhetorical language is thus active language and has great affinity with the modern actor’s techniques, explored above, which are focused on turning text into dramatic action. The modern actors’ exploration of given circumstances, objectives and obstacles reveals what the characters are doing to each other with their words. The difference is that Stanislawski was largely working with naturalistic text where the dramatic action is sub-textual, operating beneath the surface of the dialogue, whereas the early modern players were working with poetry whose figures and conceits were specifically designed to actively affect the listener.

Peter Higginson felt that the very structure of the SQM process necessitated an increased application to and reliance on the text. The details of the character and clues to his performance could all be found in his part. In theory, applying yourself to the rhetoric of the text can activate a performance as much as a detailed study of the given circumstances, objectives, obstacles and actions. John Barton in his famous video series Playing Shakespeare makes this connection between rhetoric and Stanislawski’s theory of the objective, and most Western classical actor training is now text-centered and focuses on releasing and channeling the active power of the words.

Such a rhetorical approach works well when working with Shakespeare and plays written by similarly skilful rhetoricians and dramatists but the Queen’s Men plays are not always so skillfully written. The verse of King Leir proved to be the best of the three. In comparison to Shakespeare, there is a scarcity of concrete images and multi-syllabic words which makes it very difficult to memorize but we found that following a regular iambic rhythm would lead the actor to stress the words that made most sense of the lines. The verse in Friar Bacon more closely resembles Shakespeare: it is full of complex images and classical references but working with this text proved problematic. The actors discovered that many of the clauses and sentences were incomplete. Often the sense and intention was apparent but not supported by the grammar. In these instances, actors had to establish their characters’ intentions and attempt to play those intentions rather than following the structure of the verse. Famous Victories was a challenge of an altogether different sort. The play is written in loose prose throughout and the rules of rhetoric would be little help deciphering the characters’ intentions. The actors were forced to look at the circumstances of the scenes and their characters’ backgrounds to bring the dramatic action to life.

The psychological techniques of the modern actor and the rhetorical technique of the early modern actor can result in comparable effects when working with high quality dramatic verse. But the early modern actors must have had other resources to draw on when working with texts such as Famous Victories.

Time Pressure and Character Development

Observing the SQM company working under the time pressure of our rehearsal process, I was able to watch the actors develop their facility to quickly turn text into action. As they became increasingly familiar with the material and the world of the original company they were able to transfer lessons learnt in the early plays onto the later plays. Distinctions between different classes became automatic and actors playing more than one character in the play made simple bold choices to distinguish between them. The master actors took more control in the rehearsal process, quickly establishing the feeling of a scene based on their interpretation of the circumstances. Paul Hopkins playing the prince in Friar Bacon called for a locker room atmosphere for the opening scene where he describes his encounter with Fair Margaret. Once this basic context was established each actor was able to develop his performance in line with that context. This interpretation was also a development of the relationship Paul had developed between his Prince Henry in Famous Victories and his side-kicks Ned, Tom and Jockey.  The similarity between characters and relationships in the different plays accelerated the development of the action during the rehearsal of Famous Victories and Friar Bacon. Discovering connections between the plays allowed the company to develop a short-hand when preparing scenes, as repeating familiar patterns saved precious time allowing the actors to focus on memorization rather than discussing interpretation.

As they spent more time working together the company also developed the ability to find new interpretations on their feet. The rehearsals took on an improvisatory feel. Once the lines were in place and the actors had a basic grasp of their characters’ circumstances and intentions, they were able to respond spontaneously to each other, developing the dramatic action and new stage business as they played through their scenes. This playful quality carried over into the performances and was a major factor in their success. The performances sustained a live quality throughout and as they grew in confidence actors started to invent new business in front of the live audience. A modern approach to acting can also generate these qualities but I would argue that generally it is inclined towards fixing a theatrical performance by opening night and then repeating it. The very nature of the SQM rehearsal process encouraged an improvisatory approach to performance.

Given the fact that early modern actors spent even less time rehearsing together than our company, it seems likely that their approach to performance was similarly spontaneous. We know that their clowns were famous for improvising, but this improvisatory quality impacts the performances of all the characters. The very uncertainty of the lines increases the sense of contingency that gives performance its live quality. There are negative consequences to this uncertainty as actors’ nerves can get the better of them, lines can be lost and so on, but as our company grew in confidence we started to see the advantage of such a system. The performances became living, breathing organisms that developed in new ways each night through the dynamic interactions of the actors with each other and with the audience. All theatre is like that to some extent, but the SQM process seemed especially attuned to creating such theatre.


1   The following description of the process is derived from Tiffany Stern’s Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford Clarendon Press, 2000), 61-76.

2 John R. Elliot’s analysis of Medieval Acting takes evidence from the early modern period. “Medieval Acting” Contexts for Early English Drama (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). The responses are consistent throughout, indeed, this is true of eyewitness accounts in most periods of Western theatre history. It is one of the curiosities of theatre history that each new generation of actors is praised as natural in comparison to the formal performances of their predecessors. What seemed natural to an early modern theatre-goer may seem highly artificial to us today.