Shakespeare in the Pit

In the latest installment of the ongoing series “Ways I Am A Parody Of Myself”, I was recently moping about never having had the opportunity to perform a Shakespearean play in the original manner, ie from cue sheets.

For those of you who have other things to do in your life than delving into the minutiae of Elizabethan theatrical performance practice: Actors in Shakespeare’s day didn’t perform from scripts as we know them today, with each actor given an identical copy of the whole play. Instead, they each got a customized cue sheet, which had their lines, entrances and exits, and the end of the last line before they were to speak. So if you were playing Juliet in the first performance of Romeo and Juliet, for the balcony scene, you wouldn’t see the full text of Romeo’s “But soft, what light thru yonder window breaks” monologue, you’d see something more like:

[touch that cheek.]
JUL: Ay me!
[bosom of the air.]
JUL: O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
[speak at this?]
JUL: ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

and so on. (Partly this was motivated by the sheer inconvenience of writing out multiple copies of an entire script by hand, but it was also motivated by the complete lack of copyright protection. If an actor had a copy of the complete script, there was nothing to stop them running off and selling it to another company; it’s considerably harder when all you have is one character’s lines.) One side effect of this is that any speech that repeats its last line somewhere earlier in its text was meant to be interrupted — since the the other actors in the scene wouldn’t know that there were more lines still to come — and there are numerous places where Shakespeare deliberately uses this for comedic effect. For added fun, rehearsals were kept to a bare minimum, usually not including a full run, so the actors would be experiencing the full play for the first time right along with the audience. (There were other Elizabethan staging conventions encoded in the text to make this process more automatic and reliable, but they’re rather beside the point as far as today’s post is concerned.)

This all sounds like a tremendous amount of fun. Chaotic fun, and fun that’s constantly on the brink of going disastrously awry, but tremendous fun all the same. Ever since I learned that this was how these plays were originally staged, I’ve wanted to try being involved in a production like this, but I’ve yet to have the opportunity.

As I thought about it more, tho, I realized that I have had theatrical experiences that are loosely analogous: Playing in musical pit orchestras.

When you get a pit orchestra part for a show, you get sheet music for your parts in the songs your instrument is playing in, and that’s usually pretty much it. Sometimes you’ll also get the last line of dialogue before those songs start, but even that isn’t a given. Until the first rehearsal with the actors (unlike Shakespeare, every musical I’ve been involved with has actually rehearsed everything beforehand), you usually have no real idea how much dialogue there is between musical moments. You have to just watch the conductor and wait. Eventually, you get your cue, and you start to play. When you get to the end of your part, you stop, and wait for the cue for your next entrance, which could follow almost instantly or could be only after a lengthy scene. Unless it’s a show you’ve seen before and know well, you don’t have any real way to tell.



Obviously, it’s not a perfect analogy. I’m not deciding myself when to come in, I’m going off the Music Director, who does have a copy of the complete script, and by the time the actual shows roll around, you do usually have a sense of where you have long vs short waits. It’s also not motivated by the difficulty of making new copies or fears of copyright infringement. It’s not even derived from some obscure continuity of performance practice — at best it’s a convergent evolution resulting in some incidentally shared features. But still, it’s fun to find these echoes and semblances, to see how the solutions to very different problems in the same general artistic field sometimes spur solutions that share surprising similarities. They do things differently in the past, but not always so differently as you might think.