16th Century London Theatrical Venues: Stages for Touring Theatre Companies Developed at Inn Yards

Queen Elizabeth fully supported the theatre but the London politicians did not, so traditional venues were utilized by acting companies.

The Queen enjoyed the plays and pageants and encouraged new English playwrights. She was patron of an acting company that comprised the best actors from several troupes.

Acting Companies and London Theatres

Performers were considered evil by some and untrustworthy by others as they moved from venue to venue. The Vagabond Act (1572) restricted their movements and required actors to find patrons.

The companies that received sponsorship of royalty, the aristocracy, or the gentry gained a measure of respectability. They were to perform only on the premises of their patrons who held their license. That rule was not strictly enforced. When not required at official events, the actors travelled from town to town and performed wherever they were welcomed.

In 1574, puritanical factions within the City of London’s Council succeeded in restricting theatrical activities. Council refused to sanction professional acting, and banned theatres within the London wall.

Innovative Solutions and Venues

A great theatre tradition began with performances in the courtyards of taverns and inns. When touring theatre companies stopped at inns for lodging, they would negotiate with the owners. When an agreement was reached, the company set up a stage. The earliest inn-yard theatres consisted of makeshift, temporary platforms on trestles.

Some locations were more suitable than others. The small inns with open yards attracted fewer people. Larger inns had two or three levels with balconies and enclosed cobblestone yards. Frequently, a balcony was utilized for part of the performance.

Audience members were charged a fee to enter the inn yard. Those who wished to go up to a balcony were charged an additional fee. ‘Groundlings’ could stand for a penny to watch.

Boar’s Head Inn

The first known inn-yard theatre was at the Boar’s Head Inn in Whitechapel, just outside Aldgate. It was first used as a playhouse when A Sackful of News was performed there in 1557.

The Boar’s Head was the first in the London area to be renovated to accommodate performances. A permanent stage with a partial roof was constructed, and a tiring room for the actors (where they waited for their time to appear on stage). Spectator stands were also provided. The theatre was fully licensed and available for occupation in 1599.

Designed for year-round performances, it was the venue favored by actor Robert Browne of the Worcester’s Men acting company (later named Queen Anne’s Men). Through the years, other companies that included the actors Richard Burbage, William Shakespeare, and William Kempe performed on its stage.

When permanent theatres were built, many of the innovative ideas developed at the inn yards were utilized. The Boar’s Head inn-yard theatre was only one of many. In 1618, it was closed and replaced by several tenements.

After Parliament closed the theatres in 1642, many of the inn-yard theatres illegally and intermittently opened for performances. Several of them reopened as legitimate venues after Restoration.

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