A wandering minstrel I, a thing of rags and patches, of ballads, songs, and snatches of dreamy lullaby...
–Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado
Another op'nin, another show, in Philly, Boston, or Baltimore; a chance for stage folks to say hello, another op'nin of another show.
–Cole Porter, Kiss Me, Kate
The actors are come hither, my lord...The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet
No one knows for certain where or when theater began, but from what historians can tell, touring was a part of theater almost from the beginning. Theater has always required an audience, and it's still true that if the audience can't get to the theater, the theater will go to its audience. And though working in the theater is often full of uncertainties, anyone who does is sure to travel, and likely to tour. Tours can be as large as productions like The Phantom of the Opera, or as small as a juggler who wanders around the city, clubs in hand. The traveling lifestyle is so strongly associated with actors that many of them refer to themselves as gypsies; the word fits them as they wander about from show to show, going wherever their work takes them.
As early as the second century BC, companies of actors traveled the Roman Empire, setting up temporary stages at carnivals or in market squares. Audiences circa 190 BC were apparently just as particular—or perhaps more so—as those today: if the performance did not live up to the audience’s expectations, they would simply wander away. The following excerpt from Plautus’s prologue to the play Poenulus is more than 2,000 years old, though some of it is still considered proper “audience etiquette” today:
Let...the usher [not] roam about in front of people or show anyone to a seat while the actor is on the stage. Those who have had a long leisurely nap at home should now cheerfully stand, or at least refrain from sleeping...And let the nurses keep tiny children at home and not bring them to see the play, lest...the children die of hunger or cry for food like young goats. Let matrons view the play in silence, laugh in silence, refrain from tinkling tones of chatter.
As time went on and the Catholic Church became more powerful, plays were forbidden—especially Greek or Roman ones that the Church felt promoted pagan beliefs. Eventually the only professional performers left were minstrels wandering from town to town. Acting was equated with sin, and actors were outcasts from society. But the desire to engage in performance seems to be a universal one, and soon enough the Church itself instigated the creation of a type of play that contemporary scholars regard as a basis of modern theater: the medieval miracle play, or mystery play (from mystère, the French word for miracle). Based on the Bible, the plays (most often done in a cycle) depicted such famous stories as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, the Nativity, the Loaves and Fishes, and, finally, the story of Jesus' death, called the Passion Play.
Versions of the medieval Passion Play are still performed today. The mystery plays were a part of church ritual and reinforced its teaching. The players would set up stages throughout a village; the townspeople would wander from stage to stage until they had seen the whole cycle. With some cycles, this could start early in the morning and last until it was too dark for the audience to see. As time went on, the sets became more elaborate. Many were placed on horse-drawn wagons, so that they would not need to be reconstructed in each town. Some wagons carried structures of two or more stories, and required four horses to pull them!
The mystery plays (with a few exceptions) did not have developed characters or plots, but their popularity led to stagings of new works, called "moralities," which depicted the common man in allegorical situations ranging from religious to political to comic. Characters in these plays had names such as "Despair" or "Divine Correction." The moralities made way for new theatrical forms, and once again small companies of actors wandered about Europe, performing for anyone who could pay.
The stigma of sin that the Church had placed on secular entertainment was a long time in wearing off, and even in Shakespeare's day Queen Elizabeth declared all actors to be vagabonds (and thus without civil rights) unless they had a patron in the nobility. Shakespeare's company was known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and during King James's rule (Elizabeth's successor), as the King's Men. These sponsored companies performed at the courts of their patrons, at the new public theaters such as the Globe, and, like companies today, did tours of the country.
The very real threat of plague—associated at that time with large gathering places—closed the London theaters for weeks and sometimes many months on end; during these periods, the acting companies simply packed up and returned to the road. Traveling from town to town, the troupe would pull its cart into a town square or the courtyard of an inn. Their wagon transformed into a set, the actors performed to all who gathered around the makeshift stage.
With theater's resurgence in the Renaissance came many great playwrights, such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and Molière—men who wrote plays whose popularity long outlasted their own lives. Theater was again a vital element of culture, so strong that when the Puritans shut down the theaters in the seventeenth century they stayed closed for eighteen years—as opposed to the six centuries accomplished by the Church's opposition in the Middle Ages. Although touring companies were still popular in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, especially in Italy and Spain, some plays could not tour because of the fast-growing taste for elaborate sets that could not easily be moved. Directors and designers experimented with realistic design elements that were, at the very least, impractical for touring—real sheep in a pastoral play, for instance, or rain falling on stage in a storm scene.
Shakespeare's works delighted directors and designers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the plays were full of shipwrecks, apparitions, battles and country scenes, which gave them opportunities to create larger and more complicated sets and special effects. The results must have been astounding, but it was not unusual for the plays to be cut, rewritten, or rearranged to suit the needs of the set and the demands of the audience. Romeo and Juliet, for example, was rewritten by at least four different people in different ways. In some versions the lovers did not die, in others they exchange last words as they died; there were some versions that created lengthy funeral processions at the end of the play. More elaborate sets required more time to move, and so "two hours' traffic of the stage" could easily become much longer as the audience waited through the set changes.
The move back to Shakespeare's text as written was a gradual one, and it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that attempts were made to stage his plays as they are thought to have been staged during his lifetime. An English director named William Poel was instrumental in this "back to basics" Shakespeare. The emphasis in Poel’s directing was on language, and on simple staging, which allowed the plays to emerge through the language rather than the scenery. Poel encouraged his actors to speak Shakespeare's language conversationally, as they spoke in modern plays. He moved away from the declamatory style of nineteenth-century productions—in which the delivery of the lines could be as plodding as the long set-changes—and created instead simple, elegant Shakespearean productions.
The new emphasis on language rather than spectacle gave the audience much more of a stake in the work being performed. Their feelings for the characters and situations in the play were reliant on how well they understood what was going on, and thus by how well the actors did their jobs. Will an audience understand that Phoebe in As You Like It is a shepherdess even if she has no sheep with her, or is not dressed in a traditional shepherdess costume? In King Lear, can the actors playing Lear and the Fool be at the mercy of the elements even if the storm is evoked only by the occasional sound of thunder? That, of course, depends on the skill of the actors and director—and the audience's willingness to use their imaginations.
Every year, Chicago Shakespeare Theater also goes on tour. More in line with the traveling acting troupes of Shakespeare's day and not as elaborate as a national touring show, our abridged Shakespeare production tours for five weeks around the tri-state area. The full cast, accompanied by a crew of light and sound operators, a dresser, and stage managers, brings Shakespeare to dozens of communities, giving them the opportunity to share in this centuries-old part of the theater experience.
The last century has seen glorious achievements in movies and television, but going to the movies is a purely reactive experience for its audience: even if everyone in the cinema leaves, the film continues to play. Theater, however, is impossible without an audience, and no matter how many times one sees the same production, no two performances will ever be the same. The excitement of theater lies in that indefinable connection between playwright, director, actor, and playgoer. This sense of connection is vital to touring productions, which typically rely on less elaborate sets, lights, and costumes. Actors in touring productions have nothing up their sleeves; they must use the play, themselves, and the audience to create magic.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department