I recently completed the Shakespeare: Print and Performance online course on FutureLearn (a website I’m now thoroughly addicted to). I learnt many fascinating things, but something that stood out in particular was the way that actors worked in Shakespeare’s day.
The repertory system
Firstly, actors and writers would typically belong to a company, which would be retained by a theatre or nobleperson to put on a season of plays. In the most prestigious case it would be a royal company who would play at the royal court. Here’s the thing… In a season (eg a few weeks over Christmas), they would commonly put on a different play every night. Think about it. Those actors knew their parts for every one of those plays. Only occasionally would a play be repeated during a season – usually only at the request of the person they were playing for.
Secondly, actors didn’t receive scripts as we know them today. They received only their part (which is how the word ‘part’ came into use in this context) in a cue script. This listed their lines, and the last few words of the preceding line – their cue. On stage they had to listen carefully for the cue, then speak their line. Here’s an example:
Mine honourable Mistress.
____________ are my daughter?
That I am not.
____________ am your Mother.
You can see a longer example of a cue script in page 8 of this Shakespeare resource (PDF).
This had a major implication for the actors – they had very little context for their role. They didn’t know what the other characters said about theirs until they came to rehearse. In scenes where they were onstage but not speaking, they couldn’t prepare in advance for what was being said – they didn’t know what reactions they’d need.
Cue scripts were largely used due to the cost and time involved in reproducing scripts back then, but it was also felt that it gave conversation on-stage a more natural flow. There would be pauses, and moments where people looked unsure about whether to speak. I Googled further on the subject and learnt that some playwrights would deliberately include ‘chaos cues’ – multiple characters having the same few-word cue, so they’d go to speak at the same time and have to work it out for themselves, on-stage. This could be used in scenes with heated discussion to add a further element of realism! I’m not sure how the actors felt about this practice…
A final note – cue scripts were the norm until the 1950s. It was only with the advent of method acting that actors started to be given the full script for the play/TV show/film in question.