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Review: “Acting Companies and their Plays in Shakespeare’s London”

Siobhan Keenan’s Acting Companies and their Plays in Shakespeare’s London is a must-read for theater makers, Shakespeare lovers, and leaders of collaborative teams. The world that fostered Shakespeare’s plays comes to vibrant life; the audiences, economics, and politics are just as important as the companies themselves.

In the theater of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, new play writing was a deeply collaborative process. Writers (often working in groups of two or more) wrote plays to sell to specific companies of actors, while also balancing the heavy influence of the Master of the Revels. The institutional and legal realities of the world made any “pure” version of a writer’s play impossible. Even plays that were approved for performance might require significant cuts or revisions. Then, because there was nothing akin to our modern conception of authorship, once a play was approved and added to a repertoire, the intellectual property legally belonged to the acting company, not the playwright.

“Most acting companies were effectively actor-collectives,” Keenan writes, comprised of three tiers of members: sharers (like Members in a modern day LLC), hired men, and boy apprentices. Playwrights “could not ignore the wishes or needs of the actors to whom they sold their plays.” The 6-12 sharers (who “shared the investment and…subsequently shared jointly in the company’s profit”) commissioned, purchased, and controlled the plays they performed.

Because of this influence, many of the most influential actors in the period left a heavy fingerprint on their roles. Playwrights had to incorporate those actors’ skills, preferences, and unique individual voices to stay in their favor. Some actors may even “have contributed to the writing and revisions of their roles.”

Some other favorite nuggets of insight:

  • Theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe “deliberately chose to keep players and companies in his debt” in order to keep control of them financially and ensure that they played in playhouses he controlled: “Should these fellows come out of my debt, I should have no rule with them.” Sounds like a lovechild of modern university drama programs and every Improv theater ever.
  • Though Shakespeare’s output of often 2 and sometimes 3 plays in a year seems ludicrous by modern standards, Rowland Broughton makes Billy look downright lazy: Broughton was hired to write 18 plays over only 2 and a half years in 1572. Since apparently Broughton was a human, he failed to deliver and a formal complaint was lodged against him by his employers. (Contracts requiring an output of 3 plays a year seems to have been more standard for playwrights.)
  • The plays of the period were built on traditions of touring theatre. They had to thrive under extreme demands, similar to modern site-specific or environmental theatre: adapting to a wide variety of non-traditional venues, changing cultural and political climates, and rowdy audiences from all classes. Could those demands explain the enduring appeal of these plays to audiences and producers so many generations later?
  • It became “customary for playwrights to receive the profits from one of the early performances of the play” — a tradition that this playwright at least would love to see return to fashion.

And these comprise only the tip of the iceberg Keenan has compiled. Economic, political, and day-to-day details give a crystal clear picture of the world to which these companies held up their mirrors.

Have you read Acting Companies and their Plays in Shakespeare’s London? What were your biggest takeaways? Continue the conversation with us in the comments below.

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Sticks are Back June 23 at GK Arts Center

Our popular Stickwork training drop-in sessions are back: June 23, from 12-3pm at GK Arts Center. Register now — spots are limited! 

Have you ever had a director, teacher, or casting director say “You just have to get out of your own way”? You’re not alone! Getting out of your own way sounds good enough: but what does that mean, and how do you do it?

It’s as simple as playing with sticks!

Inspired by the work of Jacques Lecoq and Compicité, these simple but infinitely unique exercises free you from expectations to “get it right” and root you in the quiet chaos of the present moment. Stick work is a visceral, active, ensemble-based training technique that builds the same muscles as Meisner-based repetition or Viewpoints’ kinesthetic response–but without the traps that kick you back into your head, and in a fraction of the time. You become the actor they’re looking for, that is most castable and interesting to watch: You, as you are following your impulses with joy and fearlessness.

This is an open-level class, equally suitable for those new to the work or those who have been exploring it for years. Though this training is developed for actors, it also pays huge dividends as a personal or meditative training: You do not need to be a performer to participate.

Come play with us! Standard admission is only $35, with a reduced rate of $25 for students and participants under 25. Sign up now or email with any questions!

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ShakesBEERience of “The Shrew” in New Hampshire this weekend!

THE SHREW ShakesBEERience with Seven Stages Shakespeare Company in Portsmouth, NH

If you’re near the Seacoast this weekend, come join the Seven Stages Shakespeare Company at Portsmouth Book & Bar in Portsmouth, NH at 6:30pm on Monday, February 19 for the first public workshop of our new adaptation The Shrew, adapted by Montgomery Sutton from William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and the anonymous “The Taming of a Shrew.” Get your booze and your Shakespeare fix at the same time!

What is a ShakesBEERience?

Professional actors, script in one hand, beer in the other, present a reading of a different Shakespeare play each month. ShakesBEERience is FREE FOR ALL, Or Pay What You Will.

Since it’s creation in 2012, Seven Stages Shakespeare Company‘s ShakesBEERience play reading program has played to standing-room-only crowds one Monday night a month at The Press Room in Portsmouth, NH. The program has since expanded to happen quarterly in partnership with Buck Hill Productions in San Jose, CA, and in June 2017 launched in Brooklyn, NY! This sixth season of ShakesBEERience in New Hampshire will take place at Portsmouth Book & Bar at 40 Pleasant Street in downtown Portsmouth, NH!

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Big News: Sticks Day Jan 28 now Donation-Based!

BIG NEWS on our workshops next weekend — the Sunday sticks day is now 1-5pm, and completely donation-based! Throw in whatever you can afford, whether that’s $100 or a quarter, and come experience a deeper intensive afternoon exploring with the sticks.

Though this day is entirely donation-based, we do still require you to sign-up in advance. If you have not already, just click here and it to your cart before checking out as normal.

WHY THE CHANGE? We have been offered a fantastic deal by the amazing folks of Long Island City Artists at the Plaxall Gallery! A beautiful, expansive space beside a temporary working area for local visual artists in financial need.

Because of the communal aspect of the space and the significant reduction on space rental costs that we are receiving because of Plaxall’s generosity, we are throwing the doors open for our Sunday sticks exploration on a purely donation basis. This is particularly exciting for all of us, because we’ve found that the sticks not only bring a renewed vigor, spontaneity, and groundedness to our work as actors but have had a huge meditative and centering influence on our lives.

PLEASE NOTE: This day is not an introduction to stick work: it is an expansion and deeper exploration, so a familiarity & confidence in the fundamentals of the training is highly recommended. If you don’t have extensive experience with our ensemble stick training or the Lecoq and Complicité training that inspired it, we highly recommend that you come in for at least the $30, 90-minute “speed-dating” sessions on Saturday called “Grounding & Tuning with Sticks and “Kinesthetic Ensemble Training These sessions will introduce newcomers to the work, and give a focused deepening in the fundamentals to those with limited prior experience.