Elizabethan Playhouses and Performance Conventions

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When Elizabeth became Queen of England in 1558, there were no specially designed theatre buildings. Companies of actors (usually small, made of 5 to 8 members) toured the country and performed in a wide variety of temporary acting spaces, mainly in inn yards, but also in churches, Town Halls, Town Squares, great halls of Royal Palaces or other great houses, or anywhere else that a large crowd could be gathered to view a performance. 
It is true that they continued to tour throughout Elizabeth's reign (especially during the Plague in London, when theatres were closed or earned but little money). Nevertheless, given the laws passed by the Queen to control wandering beggars and vagrants - which implicitly affected the acting companies as well - many actors were encouraged to settle down with permanent bases in London. 
The first permanent theatres in England were old inns which had been used as temporary acting areas when the companies had been touring. E.g. The Cross Keys, The Bull, The Bel Savage, The Bell - all originally built as inns. Some of the inns that became theatres had substantial alterations made to their structure to allow them to be used as playhouses. 
The first purpose built theatre building in England was simply called The Theatre, eventually giving its name to all such building erected in the outskirts of London and functioning until the closing of the theatres in 1642 during the Civil War. 
The Theatre was built in 1576, at Shoreditch in the northern outskirts of London, by the Earl of Leicester's Men who were led by James Burbage, a carpenter turned actor. It seems that the design of The Theatre was based on that of bull-baiting and bear-baiting yards (as a matter of fact, bull baiting, bear baiting and fencing shows were very popular by that time, and they were often organized before the plays started.). The Theatre was followed the next year (1577) by The Curtain, in 1587 by The Rose and in 1595 by The Swan (to mention but the most famous theatres). In 1599, a dispute over the land on which The Theatre stood determined Burbage's sons to secretly tear down the building and carry away the timber to build a new playhouse on the Bankside which they names The Globe. By this time, the Burbages had become members of Lord Chamberlain's Company, along with William Shakespeare, and The Globe is famously remembered as the theatre in which many of Shakespeare's plays were first performed. (The Globe was destroyed in 1613 in a fire caused by the sparks of a cannon fired during the performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. Rebuilt, it was closed and demolished in 1644 during the Civil War. The modern reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London was completed in 1997.)
Before going into more details regarding the structure of the Elizabethan theatre, distinction should be made, however, between two categories of playhouses: the public (outdoor) theatres and the private (indoor) theatres. The former were amphitheatre buildings open to the air and therefore cheaper - The Globe, for instance, charged two pence for a seat in the galleries or a single penny to stand in the yard. The latter (e.g. Blackfriars; The Cockpit) were built to a hall design in enclosed and usually rectangular buildings more like the theatres we know today. They had amore exclusive audience since they charged considerably more - the cheapest seat in a private theatre cost sixpence. The adult companies did not start to use the private hall theatres until after Elizabeth's death, but they were used by the boy companies (made up entirely of child and teenage actors) in Elizabeth's reign and were used by Shakespeare's Company - by this time the King's Men - and other adult companies in the Jacobean period.
Structure and Design of Public/ Outdoor Theatres
Public theatres were polygonal - hexagonal outside and round inside ("a wooden O" as Shakespeare puts it in Henry V). An open-air arena - called "pit" or "yard" - had, at one end, a wooden stage supported by large pillars, with trap doors for special effects (to allow ghosts, devils and similar characters to be raised up) and was surrounded by three tiers of roofed galleries (thatched, later on tiled roofs) with balconies, overlooking the back of the stage. 
The rear stage was covered by a roof - which they called "Heavens" through which, by means of ropes, they could lower down the actors playing the gods/ angels, etc., for flying or dramatic entrances - held up by massive pillars and obstructing the view of audience members from various angles.
The stage wall behind these pillars was called "Frons Scenae" (taken from the name given by Imperial Rome to the stage walls of their amphitheatres) provided with doors to the left and to the right and a curtained central doorway - referred to as the "discovery space" - which allowed characters to be suddenly revealed or a play within a play to be acted. The rear wall of this inner stage was covered by tapestry, the only usual "scenery" used on the stage. 
Immediately above the inner stage, there was the stage gallery which could be used for multiple purposes: 
- as an acting space: on either sides, there were bow-windows used for the frequent window/ balcony scenes (e.g. Romeo and Juliet). Thus the arrangement of a front stage and two-storeyed back stage permitted three actions to go on simultaneously and a life-like parallelism of events. 
- another part of the gallery could be used as a music-room. Music was an extra effect added in the 1600's. The musicians started playing an hour before the beginning of the play and also played at appropriate moments throughout the performance. 
- when necessary, some of the boxes of the stage gallery were used for audience seating. They were referred to as the "Lord's rooms" and considered the best (and hence the most expensive) seats in the 'house' despite the poor view of the back of the actors. (Nevertheless, the audience at large would have a good view of the Lords and the Lords were able to hear the actors clearly.) There were also additional balconies on the left and right of the "Lord's rooms" called the "Gentlemen's rooms", also meant for the rich patrons of the theatres. 
As previously mentioned, the stage wall structure contained two doors (at least) leading to a small structure, back stage, called the "Tiring House" used by actors to dress, prepare and wait offstage. 
Above the stage gallery, there is a third storey connected with the "Heavens" extending forward from the tiring-house over the rear part of the stage, which was often used to represent the walls of a castle or a city. 
Last but not least, on top of this structure, there was also what might be called a fourth storey of the tiring-house, referred to as the "Hut" presumably used as a storage space and housing suspension gear for flying effects, while the third storey stage cover served as a loading room for players preparing to 'fly' down to the stage. On top of the "hut", a flag (a black one, if it was a tragedy, a white one, if it was a comedy, or a red one, if it was a history) was erected to let the world know a play was to be performed that day. 
The access to the playhouse was ensured by one main entrance, where playgoers had to put the admission fee - i.e. 1 penny, for those who watched the play from the yard, standing, called the "Groundlings" (shopkeepers, craftsmen, apprentices), or more, up to 4-5 pence for the gentry and the great lords sitting in the galleries. The galleries could be reached by the two sets of stairs in the structure, on either side of the theatre. The first gallery would cost another penny in the box which was held by a collector ("gatherer") at the front of the stairs. The second gallery would cost another penny. At the start of the play, after collecting money from the audience, the admission collectors put the boxes in a room backstage, called the "box office."


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