Before Shakespeare: The Beginnings of London Commercial Theatre

Lead Research Organisation: Roehampton University
Department Name: English and Creative Writing


Before Shakespeare: The Beginnings of London Commercial Theatre is the first major project to ask how and why public playhouses came to open in London, taking seriously the often repeated but rarely interrogated claim that the playhouses that opened in the second half of the sixteenth century were the first purpose-built public spaces for performance in Europe since the Roman Empire.

We seek to answer this question through an innovative two-way conversation between archival research and performance workshops exploring the plays of this early period. Working alongside Shakespeare's Globe and the new company Dolphin's Back, specifically devoted to staging forgotten early modern plays, we are rethinking the earliest playhouses of this period to remember how pioneering, unusual and shocking these spaces were. This work will also take advantage of the archaeological remains of the original playhouses, which have been discovered in the last thirty years but remain surprisingly marginal to current scholarly stories about the period. We will thus explore not only new architectural experiments with single playhouses buildings but with the earliest creation of theatre districts.

This is also the first project to take seriously the mid-century beginnings of those playhouses, seeing them as mid-Tudor and early Elizabethan phenomena rather than becoming distracted by the second generation of people working in the playhouses, the most famous of whom was William Shakespeare himself. This project asks what happens if we privilege instead the beginnings of those playhouses, thinking about them as entrepreneurial, architectural and creative innovations and considering the changes they brought about in the way people wrote, performed, watched and (eventually) read plays.

Planned Impact

This project explores ways in which theatre history can inform the theatrical present. The early London playhouses were themselves experiments in audience engagement, early responses to the possibilities for public conversation represented by a rapidly growing and newly affluent urban space in a highly centralised state that was, in comparison to other West European states, comparatively unaffected by religious war. Playhouse managers and theatre companies believed in the cultural, political and economic value of saying and doing new things in front of new audiences. This project offers the granular or micro detail on the business and culture of a theatre history so often taken for granted or treated as a broad, unchanging period in which playhouses opened for a while and were finally closed. By insisting on the uncertain, fragile early period in which playhouses were entrepreneurial as well as theatrical experiments, we can provide a historical viewpoint from which to consider the place of live performance now. Our wordpress website will act as the public focus of our work, encouraging scholars, performers and general readers to make use of our material and engage with our ideas. Where possible we will disseminate images of important documents on the website and direct readers to any performance videos we or our partners create. A project Twitter account has already been set up and will be supported by the PI and Co-I's own professional accounts, both of which have been used to disseminate and challenge scholarly ideas.

Both PI and Co-I have worked extensively in the theatre where questions and conversations between scholars and actors can transform each other's professional practice, initiate new avenues of work and feed directly into performance or research discoveries. Our work will also be of immediate benefit to Shakespeare's Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company, both of whom have recently opened or re-opened theatres specifically devoted to Shakespeare's contemporaries and are therefore looking for new and exciting repertories. The two investigators on this project have an already long-established relationship with these companies and this project will strengthen and enhance that relationship. Additionally, our work in support of Dolphin's Back performances will enable a very small and young theatre company to stage their first season of plays, developing their earlier work producing two plays in 2014 which were extremely well-received and well-attended and ran with a minimal budget and in a small auditorium.

In bringing benefits to these companies, the project will of course bring benefit to the actors and other practitioners that they employ and the audiences they play to. The project will exploit the significance of 2016 as the four-hundredth year since Shakespeare's death to publicise and promote his contemporaries to theatres, audiences and the media and use the momentum generated by that year to publicise the five-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the first London playhouse in 2017. The PI already has an essay on Shakespeare's place in the early theatre in Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson's The Shakespeare Circle, a public-facing book published in 2016 and celebrating the Shakespeare anniversary. We hope to apply for funding to record open access, online documentaries with Illuminations film company recording the research process and outcomes, in conjunction with the resources available at Roehampton's film department for fully accessible film-making.


10 25 50
Description We have now completed the funded research project, and are in the process of taking stock of our discoveries. Our work on theatrical archives has shown us the importance of the earliest years of the London playhouses and how little those years are represented in current scholarly histories of the theatres. It has also shown us the playhouses' connections to other forms of leisure and commercial activities, evolving concepts of working or non-elite cultural lives, as well as the importance of gender and female identity to the earliest surviving plays. We are now working to write up our discoveries on the role of women and working people in building and running London playhouses, their place in a wider business and entertainment culture and the radical nature of the stories their plays told.
Exploitation Route Our website has attracted interest from theatre groups (Emma Frankland, the Blackfriars in Virginia), journalists (BBC/ PRI), blogs with wide readership, as well as fellow academics, and used to inform their theatre productions, broadcast interviews, blog writing and teaching. Our initial Pathways to Impact aimed not only to impact audiences but to be changed by them, and our work with Emma Frankland and Dolphin's Back is transforming our own research practice as well as the professional competencies of our theatrical collaborators. This work is ongoing, but an example of such transformations are the addition of transgender identity as a focus alongside our intended focus on cis gender, which has in turn extended the impact of our research on marginalised members of the theatrical community. Our PI has been invited to give several keynote papers and practice-as-research sessions in the wake of the project, and this will further disseminate our work to fellow scholars. In 2019 the MLA conference devoted a session to the 'Before Shakespeare' theme, increasing our visibility across North American humanities disciplines.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description There have been no new impacts since last year's report, though plans for future impact are in place. The project team will run an impact-focused event in April 2020 bringing together combat specialists working across different art forms and historical periods. The project PI, Kesson, has also just won funding as a Co-I on a project on animal baiting, and we await the AHRC's confirmation of funding details.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Box Office Bears: Animal baiting in early modern England
Amount £796,129 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/T006552/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2020 
End 10/2023
Description Impact seed funding
Amount £4,100 (GBP)
Organisation Roehampton University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 09/2017
Description Postgraduate/ early career bursary
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation Society for Renaissance Studies 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2017 
End 09/2017
Description Research and development
Amount £18,000 (GBP)
Organisation Jerwood Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 11/2017
Description Before Shakespeare website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Our project website launched on Shakespeare's birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, 23 April 2016. It has so far attracted 5737 visitors making 13,280 views, generated debate around Shakespeare and early theatre and resulted in the offer of a BBC/ PRI radio interview which was broadcast on 350 local US stations. We have invited multiple guest blogs, video diaries and films, hosted a Christmas quiz on early theatre and made available archival material and described research processes and findings in a way which is unusually open for a scholarly project. This has generated enthusiastic responses from scholars, students, performers, producers, journalists and members of the public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
Description Emma Frankland Galatea workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We staged John Lyly's Galatea at a Jerwood Space workshop with the theatremaker Emma Frankland and her group of predominantly queer, transgender or disabled performers, emphasising a diversity-positive approach to casting and performance styles that might serve as alternatives to mainstream classical theatre. This generated much interest from performance practitioners, producers and musicians, and attracted discussion on our project website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Performance workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We held several Dolphin's Back workshops in 2017 and early 2018, on the earliest playhouse and the earliest surviving play written for the London playhouses; on London immigrant communities living near the playhouses; on the first playhouse owned by a woman; on the first surviving playhouse repertory; and on the theatrical potential of archival material recording information about the playhouses. These workshops were hosted by members of the project and our project partner, Dolphin's Back, and resulted in several blog posts and photoblogs on the project. We have received many invitations to repeat and extend this work, and provided capital, experience and new audiences to the new fringe company. Dolphin's Back.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017