The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival is dedicated to performing Shakespeare's plays the way we believe they were performed in Elizabethan days.
The following is from the website of No Holds Bard, one of our sister theaters in Denver, CO:
We know that, in Shakespeare's day, plays were not performed for weeks at a time. Shakespeare’s actors performed ten to twelve different plays in any fortnight, and never performed the same play on two consecutive days. If a play was a hit it might return three times within a month; but meanwhile, to fill the theater, there had to be a different play in there every day. A modern company might produce five or eight plays in a season; Shakespeare's actors exceeded that by a factor of ten or twenty. When in the world could they have rehearsed all these plays?
The answer, we think, is that they did not. They prepared their "roles" (rolled cue scripts) on their own time, met together on the morning of a show, choreographed fights and music and dance, and performed that afternoon. By all accounts, the performances were magnificent— otherwise, the plays would not have survived.
Is it possible to do justice to a play by Shakespeare, without rehearsal?
In our experience, it is. The actors in our troupe receive their own lines and cues only, culled from the First Folio, published in 1623. These texts preserve the original spelling, punctuation, capitalization, versification, and other clues to actors. Thanks to the way Shakespeare coded these directions into the cue-scripts (directions which modern editions of his plays tend to edit away), their roles tell them everything they need to know to create a fantastic performance. Each actor learns two or three roles in each show, and we constellate the cast differently for each performance, so every day's show is unique.
Still, you might observe, modern actors are not used to performing without rehearsal. How do we make great performances happen? The answer is twofold. First of all, we prepare. Before our season starts, our actors train in the methods Shakespeare's actors used. Then we subject every line, nearly every word, to a rigorous process of unearthing meanings and stage directions. By the time the actor gets to the stage, s/he is able to live his or her part as convincingly, we hope, as those of Shakespeare's own company would have.
Next, and perhaps most importantly, we trust Shakespeare's texts to provide all the information we need to play well. We know that his actors were far more like our professional athletes than like our actors: they knew the rules and were virtuosos at PLAYING, whatever the situation of the moment. Audiences had to be lured from the bear-baiting and brothels down the street; Shakespeare wrote fun, bawdy, outrageous popular entertainments for the masses (that also happen to have astounding poetry), and the masses came to participate in every play--think Seahawks, not PCS. When we play Shakespeare, we play.
This trust in Shakespeare's original texts was pioneered by Patrick Tucker and his (now disbanded) Original Shakespeare Company, which was one of the first groups to perform at the new Globe Theatre in London. Many companies use these techniques and philosophies for rehearsal--Shenandoah Shakespeare, for instance, shares much of our approach--but very few companies are brave enough to use it for performance. In fact, besides us, the only active professional unreheased Shakespeare companies in the world, that we know of, No Holds Bard (Denver, CO) and Demitra Papadinis' New England Shakespeare Festival, with which many of our own company members have performed. Papadinis has refined and extended Tucker's work, always with an eye to recapturing the joyful, popular essence of PLAYING Shakespeare.
In Shakespeare’s day, admission to the first performance of a new play cost twice as much. Why? Well, it’s as close as theater gets to real life (or, for that matter, a great sports game): no one, including the players themselves, knows what is going to happen. What better way, we wonder, to “hold a mirror up to nature”?