Elizabethan Theatre Scene Techniques

Written by bob leggett
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Elizabethan Theatre Scene Techniques
Early Elizabethan performance of Shakespeare. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Much has changed since the days of Elizabethan theatre -- not only in language, but also in casting, props and stages. The type of actor who performed on the Elizabethan stage has evolved as well. Actors in Elizabethan times by necessity had to be more flexible, more versatile and more thick-skinned than today's actors.

The Evolution of the Stage

The first permanent stage wasn't constructed until the late 1500s. Before that, plays were performed by bands of travelling rogues and held in the courtyards of various inns around the country on makeshift stages. In 1576, local theatrical entrepreneur James Burbage built one of the first permanent stages, affectionately called "The Theater," in Shoreditch, London. A total of nine stages emerged between 1576 and 1642, with the most famous of them being The Globe, The Fortune and The Swan.

Elizabethan Theatre Scene Techniques
Elizabethan theatres evolved from travelling stage companies. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Props and Costumes

Since many of the troupes travelled from town to town and had to carry everything with them, small and simple were the buzzwords when it came to props. Set pieces were the exception, rather than the norm. On the other hand, costumes were very important. Many times, the only way the audience knew that the actor had changed roles was by the difference in appearance in their costume. Costume pieces were contemporary, unless used to convey a historical purpose.

Acting Techniques

Unlike today, when doubling up on roles is rare, the Elizabethan actor had to be versatile enough to portray multiple roles. In addition, since only men were allowed to act, female roles were given to young men, partly because their voices were still in a higher pitch. It was not uncommon for a cast of 10-15 players to portray upwards of 40 roles in a Shakespearean production. Most companies performed in a repertory fashion, that is, they did a different play each night of their six-day work week.

Elizabethan Theatre Scene Techniques
A scene from Shakespeare's Othello (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Heroes of the Stage

Although the personal lives of most Elizabethan actors are lost to history, two of them did become quite famous: Richard Burbage, the lead actor in Shakespeare's Company, and Edward Alleyn, the lead actor of the Admiral's Men. Alleyn, the more well-known of the two, gained his fame through his portrayal of characters penned by Christopher Marlowe. His most famous roles were Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus and Barabas. In fact, he made so much money that he was able to buy the Manor of Dulwich and establish Dulwich College.

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