The Theatre of Yesteryear
Elizabethan theatres were built of wood and comprised of three tiers of seats in a circular shape with a stage area on one side of the circle. The audience's seats and part of the stage were roofed, but much of the main stage and area in front of the stage were open to the elements.
The stage was divided into three levels – a main stage area with doors and curtains, an upper canopied area, and an area under the stage accessed by trapdoor.
Performances took place between two and five in the afternoon, using natural light from the open centre of the theatre. There was very little scenery or props, leaving actors to rely on their lines and stage direction to convey the time of day and year, the weather, location and mood of the scenes.
Most plays required more roles than there were actors so the doubling of roles was a common convention. Costumes were usually sumptuous and were purchased by the acting companies from the estates of deceased nobility.
The actors used a presentational rather than representational style of performance - which means that the actors would address the audience directly.
Cross Dressing and the Renaissance Stage
As there were no women actors allowed on the Elizabethan stage, the female parts were taken by young male actors. Although this may seem odd to a modern audience, some critics argue that because the taking of female parts was universal and commonplace, it was accepted by the Elizabethan audience. The audience simply disregarded it, as we would disregard the creaking of stage scenery and accept the backcloth forest as ‘real'.
Elizabethan playgoers also tended to believe that you were what you wore. Therefore, a male actor who is wearing the attire of a female, is regarded as a female and not a male playing a female. However, not all Elizabethan's shared this same view, and the issue of cross-dressing in the theatre sparked public debate. Anti-theatricalists argued that it was dangerous for society to have males playing females because they feared that the male actor might turn into a female. After years of debate, women eventually were granted permission to act on stage after the monarchy was restored in 1660.
Stage Beauty is a movie about the emergence of the female actor and the decline of the cross dressing male actor. Please ensure that you preview this film before showing it to your class as it contains some nudity and adult themes. You may choose to show only pivotal scenes. Stage Beauty is available at most video outlets.
Going to a Play
The demographic of the Elizabethan audience has sparked intense speculation. It is estimated that between 15 and 25 thousand people may have attended theatre performances in any given week. It is most likely that both men and women of all different social classes attended the theatre, ranging from aristocracy to servants. These classes were probably divided into sections with a hierarchy of admission prices. Playgoers most probably ate, drank and smoked during the performance.