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Elizabethan Theatres

Picture of the Globe Theatre

Picture of the Globe Theatre

Elizabethan Theatres
The Elizabethan Theatres started in the cobbled courtyards of Inns - they were called Inn-yards. As many as 500 people would attend play performances. There was clearly some considerable profit to be made in theatrical productions. James Burbage was an actor, who at one time would have played in the Inn-yards and, no doubt , negotiated a high price with the Inn keeper to perform on his premises.

It was the idea of James Burbage to construct the first purpose-built theatre - it was called 'The Theatre'. It was based on the style of the old Greek and Roman open-air amphitheatres. 'The Theatre' was to be the first of many Elizabethan Theatres. However, profit dropped in the winter as people would not venture to the cold open arenas of these massive Elizabethan Theatres. Playhouses were therefore used for many winter productions. Many of the playhouses were converted from the old coaching inns or other existing buildings - all productions were staged in the comparative warmth of these indoor Elizabethan Theatres. Most people associated Elizabethan Theatres with those built in a similar style to the Globe Theatre - the massive Amphitheatres.

Elizabethan Theatre facts

  • Amphitheatre facts: Open arena - the actors would also get wet if it rained.
  • Size of amphitheatre : Up to 100 feet in diameter
  • Varying Shapes : Octagonal, circular in shape having between 8 and 24 sides
  • Building materials: Timber, nails, stone (flint), plaster and thatched roofs. Later amphitheatres had tiled roofs
  • Building Duration: 6 months
  • Overall design: The open air arena, called the 'pit' or the 'yard', had a raised stage at one end and was surrounded by three tiers of roofed galleries with balconies overlooking the back of the stage. The stage projected halfway into the 'pit'
  • Audience Capacity: 1500 plus. Up to 3000 people would flock to the theatre and its grounds
  • The Grounds of the theatre: Bustling with people. Stalls selling merchandise and refreshments. Attracted non playgoers to the market
  • Toilet Facilities: None . People relieved themselves outside. Sewage was buried in pits or disposed of in the River Thames. All theatres closed during outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague - disease would have spread via the rats & fleas
  • The Entrance to the theater: Usually one main entrance. Some later theatres had external staircases to access the galleries
  • Access to the Balconies & Galleries: Two sets of stairs, either side if the theater. The first gallery would cost another penny in the box which was held by a collector at the front of the stairs. The second gallery would cost another penny
  • The interior design: Design was similar but far smaller version (1500 -3000 crowd capacity) than the Coliseum of the Roman period (50,000 crowd capacity) allowing the maximum number if playgoers in the space available
  • Lighting: Natural lighting as plays were produced in the afternoon. However there was some artificial lighting mainly intended to provide atmosphere for night scenes
  • Heating: There was no heating. Plays were performed in the summer months and transferred to the indoor playhouses during the winter
  • Stage dimensions: Varying from 20 foot wide 15 foot deep to 45 feet to 30 feet
  • The height of the stage: A raised stage - 3 to 5 feet and supported by large pillars or trestles
  • The floor of the Stage: Made of wood, sometimes covered with rushes. Trap doors would enable some special effects e.g. smoke
  • The rear of the Stage: A roofed house-like structure was at the rear of the stage, supported by two large columns (pillars) 
  • The 'Herculean' columns or pillars: The 'Herculean' pillars were made of huge, single tree trunks. These were drilled through the centre to eliminate warping of the wood
  • The 'Heavens' - a roof area: The pillars supported a roof called the 'Heavens'. The 'Heavens' served to create an area hidden from the audience. This area provided a place for actors to hide. A selection of ropes & rigging would allow for special effects, such as flying or dramatic entries
  • The stage wall called the 'Frons Scenae' taken from Latin: Behind the pillars was the stage wall. A doorway to the left and right and a curtained central doorway from which the actors made their entrances. Above the door area was a highly decorative screen called the 'Frons Scenae' (taken from the name given by Imperial Rome to the stage walls of their amphitheatres)
  • The Stage Gallery above the Stage Wall - The ' Lord's rooms': Immediately above stage wall was the stage gallery that was used by actors (Juliet's balcony) & the rich the nobility -  known as 'Lord's rooms.' The stage wall called the 'Frons Scenae' taken from Latin: Behind the pillars was the stage wall, covered by a curtain. Above the curtain was a highly decorative screen. The 'Frons Scenae' was the name given by Imperial Rome to the stage walls of their amphitheatres
  • The Balcony above the Stage Wall - The ' Lord's rooms': Immediately above stage wall was a balcony that was used either by actors (Juliet's balcony) or the rich the nobility -  known as 'Lord's rooms.'
  • The 'Lord's rooms': Considered the best seats in the 'house' despite the poor view of the back of the actors. The audience would have a good view of the Lords. And the Lords were able to hear the actors clearly. The cost was 5 pence & cushioned seats were provided
  • The 'Gentlemen's rooms': There were additional balconies on the left and right of the 'lord's rooms' which were called the 'Gentlemen's rooms. For rich patrons of the theater - the cost was 4 pence & cushioned seats were provided
  • The 'Tiring House': The stage wall contained at least two doors which lead to a leading to  small structure, back stage, called the 'Tiring House'. The stage wall was covered by a curtain. The actors used this area to change their attire
  • The 'Hut': Above the 'Tiring House' was a small house-like structure called the 'hut' complete with roof. Used as covered storage space for the troupe
  • The 'pit' (also referred to as the 'yard'): The stage projected halfway into the 'pit', also called the 'yard' (if tiled or cobbled) where the commoners (groundlings) paid 1 penny to stand to watch the play. They would have crowded around the 3 sides of the stage. 
  • Access to the Galleries: Two sets of stairs, either side if the theater. The stairways could also be external to the main structure to give maximum seating space
  • Seats in the galleries - Three levels: The seats in each of the three levels of galleries were tiered with three rows of wooden benches, increasing in size towards the back, following the shape of the building. The galleries were covered affording some shelter from the elements. 
Elizabethan Inn-Yards
Bull Inn
Bell Savage Inn
Cross Keys Inn
Bell Inn
White Hart Inn
George Inn
Elizabethan Playhouses
Paul's Playhouse
Blackfriars Playhouse
The Cockpit
Salisbury Court Playhouse
Gray's Inn Theatre Playhouse
Whitehall Playhouse Theatre
Whitefriars Theatre Playhouse
Middle Temple Inn Theatre Playhouse
Elizabethan Amphitheatres
The Theatre
Newington Butts Theatre
Curtain Elizabethan Theatre
Rose Elizabethan Theatre
Swan Elizabethan Theatre
Fortune Elizabethan Theatre
Boars Head Elizabethan Theatre
Red Bull Elizabethan Theatre
Bear Garden
Bull Ring
Hope Elizabethan Theatre
The Globe Theatre
Globe Theatre History
Globe Theatre Facts
Globe Theatre Interior
Globe Theatre Design and Structure
Elizabethan Theatre
Elizabethan Era Index

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