Original Practice is the process of performing plays according to the conditions Shakespeare himself would have used in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. Given that modern theater directors have learned a few hygiene lessons since Shakespeare’s time, the process often allows modern conventions like air conditioning or indoor plumbing, but does come down to 6 main ways they try to re-create Shakespeare’s plays.
Early modern theater did not use a Director the way modern plays do today. Instead, the production was largely improvisational with the actors themselves leading and guiding the performance from the stage.
Each player had one part to play and learned only his part. Due to the repertory theater format, players were often cast in roles that were similar from play to play, thus making it easier for them to perform a large number of productions each year since each part they played was a type of reprisal of their previous role.
3. All male cast, with female roles being played by young boys.
Perhaps the most well known of the early modern theater conventions is that theaters in Shakespeare’s day had acting companies made up of only male players. There were not women or girls allowed on stage. Women’s parts were played by young boys whose softer features and higher pitched tone lent itself to believability as a woman on stage.
4. Daytime lighted stage (no modern lighting, spotlights, or electric stage lighting)
Electricity was invented in the 1800s, a full two hundred years after Shakespeare died, so it goes without saying that electric lighting was not only not used, it was unavailable to Shakespearean theater. Theaters in London were built with a giant hole in the ceiling of theater. That’s there to allow daylight to stream into the theater and light the stage. Plays were often performed around 2 in the afternoon allowing for optimal stage lighting.
5. Standing Room and Gallery Seating
Early Modern Theater in London, England was subject to the same class rules and sumptuary laws as anywhere else in the 16-17th century, so it’s no surprise that theater seating is divided into upper and lowerclass seats by having a groundlings or gallery seating in front of the stage that is standing room only, separate from the upper gallery seats where the upper class audience members would observe the play from provided chairs and seats.
6. Use Cue cards, not full scripts.
In early modern theater, paper was in short supply and the modern printing press was just coming of age, so whenever something had to be written down it was largely done by hand. That meant that making many copies of one production was streamlined. For players, they worked from cue cards instead of the full script. During performances, they would follow the cue cards instead of performing the entire play from memory.
Each of these conventions are employed in different ways by different theater companies, with each one deciding exactly how authentic they want to be with each aspect of early modern theater.
For example, modern theater companies no longer divide audience members by class distinction. Having progressed socially beyond such conventions, modern Shakespearean theaters seeking to recreate the authentic Shakespeare experience will divide the theater into two seating options (including groundlings vs gallery) but will leave the class distinctions for who is allowed to sit where in the past.
Other companies, like Ben Crystal’s Passion in Practice, use some of the early modern theater conventions but focus primarily on attributes like the language of Shakespeare. Passion In Practice performs Shakespeare’s plays using original pronunciation; the linguistic equivalent of what modern researchers believe would have been Shakespeare’s accent.
However you study or experience Shakespeare, the goal of any original practice technique is to help Shakespeare enthusiasts experience the plays in a new way, and to be given the opportunity to step back in time as far as we can to explore a world we enjoy.
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Have you produced or attended a Shakespeare play in original practice conditions?
What was your biggest obstacle as a director? What was your favorite part as an audience member?
Tell me about your experience with original practice in the comments!
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