Early Modern Rehearsal

Evidence about Elizabethan rehearsal practice is scanty and little can be ascertained with certainty, but what is clear is that the Elizabethan rehearsal process was strikingly different from that typical today 1. A London professional company might spend anywhere from five to nine weeks preparing a new play, but during this time they would also be performing at least six days a week and preparing other new plays for performance.

  1. The process began with the playwright reading the play to the assembled company. It is not certain who would be present for this occasion - certainly all the sharers in the company, but possibly all the actors that would be performing the play. The company would decide at this point whether they wanted to take on the play.
  2. The play would then be divided into 'parts.' A part was a scroll of paper containing the lines of all the characters one actor would play with the last few words of every preceding speech to serve as cues.
  3. Once the actors had their parts the company would assemble to read their parts together. It seems likely that the principal purpose of this meeting was to establish that the parts had been copied accurately.
  4. The actors would then study their parts, committing the lines and the cues to memory. Apprentices might work with the master actors to prepare their parts and different groups of actors may have assembled to prepare scenes but the evidence suggests that most of this work was done independently. The main focus at this stage was to memorize the lines so they could be recited perfectly and to choose suitable actions to match the words.
  5. Once the company had learnt their parts, the full cast would reassemble for a morning's rehearsal, lasting two to four hours. It is not certain what happened at these rehearsals, but common sense would suggest that the company established basic blocking on the stage, coordinated entrances and exits, planned fight scenes or other complicated business and ran through the lines of the play from beginning to end if time allowed. The company book-keeper would have created a "plot" of the play that detailed all the characters' entrances and exits to speed this process along.
  6. In the afternoon of the same day the company would perform the play for the first time and the audience response would influence whether the company chose to make the play a regular part of its repertoire.

1 In developing our working practice we relied heavily on Tiffany Stern's book Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Oxford, 2000). She collects evidence concerning rehearsal practice from across a wide time period, from the early sixteenth to the eighteenth century. The emerging picture, however, is surprisingly consistent and Stern argues with good reason that rehearsal practice likely did not vary much, especially in the first century covered in her study.