The SQM Process
For the first two plays, in the absence of the playwrights, our director/facilitator, Peter Cockett, read the plays to the company. King Leir was read in a rehearsal hall; Famous Victories in a tavern. For the third play, the company read through the play together.
An actor’s ‘part’ contains all their characters’ lines and brief ‘cues’ consisting of three or four words from the speeches preceding their own. Only one professional part has survived from the period: Edward Alleyn’s for the role of Orlando in Greene’s play Orlando Furioso i. The parts used by our actors are available for download.
When actors work with parts, they cannot prepare by reading the lines spoken by the other characters in the play. In fact, the parts often do not clearly indicate to whom their characters are speaking or who is addressing them. The original players would get some sense of a scene from the playwright’s reading, if they were in attendance, or from the company reading that usually took place once the parts had been distributed. They may also have chosen to refer to the ‘book’ of the play — the one full copy that was kept safe in the hands of the company book-keeper. However, in comparison to modern actors, early modern players would have had a much less clear idea of the relationship between their characters’ words and the words of the other characters, and the significance of those words in relation to the play as a whole. The evidence suggests that players most often learnt their parts alone and only gathered together for a brief company rehearsal on the day of the first trial performance. The implication is that actors may well have walked out on stage having never rehearsed the scene together. In front of a live audience, they would have heard the speeches of the other characters for the first time, delivering their own lines whenever they heard their cue.
It was important to the SQM team that the company was given every chance to succeed while experimenting with early modern rehearsal techniques. The original Queen’s Men would all have been familiar with the process, adept at both learning their lines alone and performing in front of an audience with minimal group rehearsal. Our actors were not. The SQM company therefore worked with parts in the rehearsal room, but were given full copies of the plays for reference at home. While we did not run the entire play from beginning to end until the first trial performance, the actors did rehearse the individual scenes together several times before that performance. The SQM process was an approximation of early modern practice designed to accommodate the knowledge and experience of modern actors. Working with parts proved a useful tool in our speedy rehearsal process and affected the way many of the actors approached their roles, as their comments below will attest.
In our experiment we created a hierarchy in the company that reflected the structure of Elizabethan theatre companies. Three actors were employed on full equity contracts as master actors, eight non-union professionals were employed as journeymen actors, and three students as apprentices. Our decision-making here was determined by financial considerations as much as our theatre history research goals. The distribution of roles did not reflect Elizabethan practice as we felt it would be unwise, in a modern context, to cast inexperienced students in the female roles. Furthermore, the Queen’s Men were formed by amalgamating two established companies, Leicester’s Men and Sussex’s Men, and had an unusual predominance of master actors in their ranks; especially in their original composition, they may be thought of as a company entirely made up of masters and apprentices. Our company structure therefore was only a very loose approximation of the structure of the original troupe. Establishing a hierarchy in the SQM company allowed us to explore the rehearsal dynamics that are created when one actor is given authority over another. Since this is extremely uncommon in modern theatre, but was unexceptional in Elizabethan ensembles, it was a fruitful avenue for exploring historical difference, as the actors’ responses to the experience make clear.
The director in the SQM process was responsible for maintaining the historical groundedness of the research experiment. He worked as advisor and facilitator on all issues related to the cultural and political contexts of the plays and the working practices of the company. Since the original company did not have a director figure, a central goal of the project was to create a company that could direct itself. While the role played by the director was key to the project’s success, one of the signs of its success, paradoxically, was that as the process advanced the director became increasingly redundant.
The Queen’s Men were a touring company and it is highly unlikely that they travelled with a portable stage. At some venues their hosts would mount a stage for them, perhaps in the council chamber of a town hall, or in the yard of an inn, but they could not rely on such a structure being built in every venue. The company did not have control over the spaces in which they performed and the size of their income depended on their ability to play as often as possible. They therefore needed to adapt their staging to a variety of performance conditions.
The two basic stage configurations used in the SQM project were designed to test the adaptability of our company. In addition, on our short tour the company had to perform without any kind of stage in a variety of venues. From the outset of rehearsals, the company knew that their blocking had to be adaptable. Rather than finalizing blocking through the rehearsal process we tried to develop blocking protocols that would work for different spaces. Were there basic staging principles that could be applied to any space and stage configuration? Was there a standard style of blocking we could use for court scenes? Did we need different blocking protocols for our two basic stages?
The company’s response to these challenges was one of the more fascinating elements of the production. Anticipating the difficulties they would face, the director established a basic blocking protocol for all the plays: actors entered stage left and exited stage right. The consequence of this decision was that the company could only play if they had a performance space that was accessible from two different directions and if the two entrance/exit ways were accessible to each other. If those conditions were present then the SQM company could perform their plays anywhere.
The actors found this element of the experiment challenging for a variety of reasons and their responses shed light on some important differences between modern and Elizabethan stage practice.
In place of the modern standard of four weeks of rehearsal, the SQM company had an average of 8 full rehearsal days to prepare each play for performance. Due to fact that they could work independently of a director, they were able to rehearse scenes simultaneously in small groups, which to a certain extent increased the amount of time each actor could spend on any scene. But the increased time pressure still forced many of the actors to adapt their working practices. These changes had positive consequences as well as some negative effects. All seem to agree, however, that by the end of the experiment, the company was working far more efficiently than in the first two weeks
The first performances of each play were creative adventures that demanded great courage and resourcefulness from the cast. They had never run the scenes together in sequence, nor had they performed any of the play in front of a live audience. Their lines were often only loosely lodged in their heads, and the basic principles of the blocking were only sketched out roughly. Actors had to improvise quick changes, and call for lines if necessary. The director Peter Cockett and members of the cast here discuss the experience of those first performances.
Before the advent of stage lighting, actors and audience were lit by the same light source, and with the audience visible to the actors on the stage, theatre was a far more interactive experience. But what was the nature of that interaction?
When the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London first opened in 1996, performances were preceded by a short speech that encouraged the audience to vocalize their reactions to the action on the stage. We tried a similar technique in a preparatory public workshop, the “Experiment in Elizabethan Comedy,” but the research team felt that this pre-conditioned a modern audience to a kind of deliberately unruly behavior that was likely not the norm in the Elizabethan theatre. There are examples of audiences responding strongly to actors’ performances, even ending performances and demanding alternative plays; but at the same time, plays of the period are heavily dependent on language and could only succeed with an audience that on the whole was inclined to listen.
The preparatory address to the audience was dropped for our main productions but the actors were still encouraged to engage the audience as much as possible from within the action of the play. This proved crucial to the plays’ success. The actors’ first-hand descriptions of this part of the experiment should make it clear that certain kinds of audience interaction are ingrained in the structure of the Queen’s Men plays and that there are numerous and subtle ways in which this interaction can occur.
What Did the Actors Learn?
We asked the actors for their final thoughts on the process, anything they would like to share, and for any lessons they had drawn from their experience.