The Blog

The Overnight Success of the Bard

It's understood that he started as an actor, learning his craft as an unknown. What he did next was extremely canny, and something somewhat outside the realms of possibility for writers, producers, or actors in this modern world.

I read in the paper yesterday that authors often earn less than the current minimum wage in the UK. I can vouch for that. I've been writing (relatively successfully) for the last 15 years, and am just starting to break even.

The idea, originally, was that it would underwrite my main career: acting - which isn't exactly renowned for bringing fame and fortune to all and sundry. Both careers, wedding-cake-like, have crowded tiers, where you're either parachuted to the top as an overnight success, or spend years climbing head over hand up and up. But either way, your time at the top is usually limited, before you tumble back down.

The article was topped with a picture of JK Rowling, famed for her sudden apparent success - much to her annoyance, having worked hard as a single mother before going interstellar.

'Overnight success' is a misnomer. Being thrust into the public eye is more often than not preceded by years of graft. The Orlando Blooms of the world, plucked from drama school and catapulted into stardom can be more susceptible to a firework career, not having the experience, the deep-rooted skill, or - in this day and age - the mental strength to put up with the magnifying glare of the media.

Anthony Hopkins and Patrick Stewart (Sirs, both) were relative unknowns outside of Stratford-upon-Avon until they were into their 40s. Years at the Royal Shakespeare Company are ignored, but their 'overnight' success has continued through these last four decades thanks to years of treading the boards, speaking the Bard's works.

Shakespeare too, seemed to burst onto the theatrical scene in the early 1590s with a string of provocative hits, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet.

There are a few records of Shakespeare the Actor, and a few of Shakespeare the Youngling, but nothing in between. Theories abound with what he did in those so-called Lost Years, from the more left-field (going to war in Holland), to living in Lancashire for a while, before drifting down to London, and into the theatre profession. The next we hear, is that of the young upstart crow Shake-scene, and ba-BOOM, the future Man of the Millennium was bestowed on us mere mortals.

It's understood that he started as an actor, learning his craft as an unknown. What he did next was extremely canny, and something somewhat outside the realms of possibility for writers, producers, or actors in this modern world. Doing something original these days is hard. Having it noticed or attended, even harder. Indeed, so full to the brim are the tiers, the hangers on are hanging on to the hangers on for even the slightest finger-nail of purchase.

But this is what it seems he did: he became an actor; he learnt from those above him. He studied the Elizabethan theatre system; saw the metaphorical gaps on the shelf. He understood the market; and then he cornered it.

Actors came and went between different companies: Shakespeare worked with the same actors (for the most part) for much of his career.

Play-wrights would write their plays, and sell them to the acting Company that would perform them. The copyright would then pass to the acting Company - so if they decided to perform it again, or publish it, any and all profits would pass to the Company.

Patronage (being kept under the wing of a noble) was the key to longevity in such a small market, and very quickly Shakespeare's Company become patronised, first by Queen Elizabeth, then by King James. Not a small change deal.

Soon after that, Shakespeare became a share-holder and then co-owner of their theatre. This canny movement that when he sold a play to the Company, a cut of any profits they'd make came back to him.

Meanwhile, he was reinventing the way plays were written, while stealing theatrical fire from the Gods, and changing forever what theatre had the potential to be, and raised the bar of his audiences' expectations of a sunny afternoon out in London.

I've been forming an ensemble over the last few years, based on what we understand Shakespeare's Company's working processes might have been. Next week we perform at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, some of the first actors to speak Shakespeare there, and the very first to speak his works in Original Pronunciation, the accent they spoke four centuries ago. My colleague-in-arms, one of my oldest friends, calls this explorative process the Shakespeare Original Practice Ensemble.

I don't expect to make bags of money from my professions. I don't expect Charles to become patron one day. I'm certainly not the businessman Shakespeare was. But when you're standing on stage, or writing, and (hopefully) entertaining someone - who cares?

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