The idea of the “acting company” has evolved over the years since Shakespeare’s day, but the closest organizational method that exists today is the ensemble-based theatre company. Shakespearemachine is inspired by the Royal Shakespeare Company and other amazing ensemble-based companies of Europe, as well as American companies like the SITI Company. As part of its mission, Shakespearemachine seeks to build and maintain a permanent ensemble of actors, stage managers, designers, technicians, and musicians who all participate in at least one production per season. While everyone and anyone is invited to audition for each of our shows, we have a core group of ensemble actors who serve as our “company members,” involving themselves with artistic direction and the administration of Shakespearemachine, which creates a culture of democratic decision-making within the company. You may remember a bit about acting companies from your high school English classes, but if you don’t, read on for a little more information about how traditional acting companies functioned back in Elizabethan England.
Actors in England during the Elizabethan era primarily worked and performed through the company system. Around twenty companies of actors lived and worked in London alone between the 1590s and the 1640s, not including the numerous companies organized outside of the big city. Companies would typically perform in London during the colder months of spring and winter before travelling to the countryside to tour during the summer when city theatres were often forced to close due to the plague. Sometimes companies would also even travel internationally to perform in locations like Germany or the Netherlands. At Shakespearemachine, we try to produce two or three productions per yearly season, but historical evidence proves that in the Elizabethan era, a company might perform as many as forty new plays per year - which would mean they would perform three or four plays per month. It was a grueling performance schedule; for 40 weeks of the year, one company - the Admiral’s Men - performed for audiences six days of the week.
While Shakespearemachine does work under our board of directors, all of our company members have an equal status in the ensemble. Back in Shakespeare’s day, however, the companies were organized into hierarchies. Sharers were the actors who held financial stake in the company and took a share of the profits; apprentices were typically younger boys who worked in exchange for housing and training but didn’t receive any of the profits from performances; hired men (or “hirelings”) were paid a weekly wage for their labor and did not have a creative or financial stock in the company. In total, most successful companies might have around twenty members, with half of them being sharers and the other half being apprentices or hirelings.
Companies were all supported by a wealthy or noble patron who helped provide legal protection and served as a marker of the actors’ credibility; without a patron, they would not be taken seriously. The company patron also served as the inspiration for their name. The first organized Elizabethan acting company was formed in 1572 under the patronage of the Earl of Leicester, a favorite court member of Queen Elizabeth’s. James Burbage, later a famous actor in many of Shakespeare’s plays, funded the building of The Theatre in London to start staging their productions in 1576. William Shakespeare was a sharer in a company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the other few companies successful enough to own their own playhouse. In fact, by 1608, they owned two: the outdoor Globe and the indoor Blackfriars. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were taken under royal patronage by James I after his accession in 1603 and were then known as the King’s Men. Our company has no one specific patron, but we still pay homage in our name to our contributors with our Makers of the Machine program, all our individual donors who help Shakespearemachine run on a month-to-month basis. (If you’d like to serve as one of our “patrons,” check out the various ways you can support us financially by clicking here.)
The major benefit to being involved with an acting company was that assuming the company kept a secure patron, with the immense popularity of theatrical entertainment at the time, a company member would never be out of work. But additionally, the companies that rehearsed, performed, and travelled on tour six days of the week grew to be extraordinarily close-knit, resulting in more cohesive performances from the group of individuals. We hope that with our core ensemble of actors and technicians, plus the great new actors we add to each show, we can also achieve that same sense of closeness and community!
And there you have it - a brief history of acting companies, from then to now. For further reading, see any of the following sites: