Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 4: William Shakespeare: Owner

Christmas 1598 found the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s theater company, in a desperate situation. For two years, they had been unable to perform in their usual venue due to a dispute with their “prickly” landlord, Giles Allen, from whom they had leased the land upon which they built The Theatre. Their lease there had run out, with no hope of renewal. They had been performing in another theater, but because they were renters and did not own the performance space, half of the receipts went to the landlord, severely cutting into their income.

To make matters worse, James Burbage, the patriarch of the Burbage family who formed the company and built the Theatre, had invested a considerable sum in building an indoor stage in the wealthy neighborhood of Blackfriars. His idea was to provide a second space where the company could perform year-round for a more upscale audience. But, as James Shapiro vividly describes in his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, “influential neighbors who were worried about the noise and riffraff the theater might attract, succeeded in having playing banned there.” To top it all off, James died shortly thereafter, dividing his estate between his two sons, Richard and Cuthbert, who were also central members of the Chamberlain’s Men: one inherited the Theatre, the other Blackfriars. As it stood in 1598, both were virtually worthless.

Shakespeare was a Shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. A Shareholder was part owner in the theater company, which meant he was involved in all artistic decisions, and responsible for all expenses associated with the production of plays (e.g., buying plays and having copies made for the actors, buying costumes and props, and so forth). In exchange, the shareholders divided the net revenue according to their shares.

The other category of ownership was Householder. These were the men who owned the building itself, and they received 50% of the ticket income minus the amount paid by the groundlings. In the case of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Burbage family (father James, and sons Richard and Cuthbert) were the original Householders. With the death of James, however, the remaining sons were severely strapped for cash, and had no permanent place to perform. Things didn't look good.

Eventually, they found someone willing to rent them some land south of London that was very near another theater, the Rose, which was owned by their primary rivals, the Lord Admiral’s Men. The Chamberlain’s Men quickly negotiated a 31-year lease at a reasonable price. They now had land, but no building to put on it.

It was early December 1598 when Richard Burbage approached five of his fellow actors, including Shakespeare, with a plan. “They would secure the building materials for a new playhouse” James Shapiro writes,

worth roughly seven hundred pounds, if the five actor-shareholders would each cover ten percent of the remaining construction costs as well as the expenses of running the theater....In exchange, and for the first time in the history of the professional theater in London, actor-sharers would be part owners of the playhouse as well as partners in the company, the five men each receiving ten percent of the total profits. The potential yield on their investment would be great, over a hundred pounds a year. Still, that initial investment—roughly seventy pounds each—was considerable at a time when a freelance dramatist earned just six pounds a play and a day laborer ten pounds a year. The risks were also great. Few had that kind of cash on hand, which meant taking out loans at steep interest rates (the Burbages later complained that it took them years to pay off what they borrowed to cover their share).”

Nevertheless, Shakespeare and the other Shareholders bought in. What happened next isn’t relevant to the point I will make, but is funny enough to be recounted here. Basically, a few days after Christmas, when they knew that their old landlord Giles Allen had gone out of the country for the holidays, the Chamberlain’s Men borrowed stage weapons from the props warehouse (in case any of Allen’s friends tried to stop them) and descended on the Theatre to, well, steal it.

James Burbage had savvily built into their lease with Allen that, whereas Allen owned the land, the Burbages owned the building. So aided by carpenters supervised by a master builder, the group dismantled the building and transported it to a neutral site, to be rebuilt later on their new site on the banks of the Thames. Allen returned after the holidays, took one look at his now-empty land, and hit the roof. He took the Burbages to court, but lost. The Chamberlain’s Men had pulled it off. They were back in business!

But they were back in business with a brand new business model: the actors owned the means of production. They owned the place (now called the Globe), they owned the technology (the costumes and props), and they owned the materials (the plays).

For Shakespeare, the company’s resident playwright who also acted and co-managed the affairs of the company, his financial future was tied to the success of the company. If it failed, he could continue to write as a freelancer, but as noted above, theaters paid freelance authors a flat fee that was comparatively little, which is why most freelance playwrights collaborated together to generate as many plays as they could manage, splitting the proceeds accordingly. It was not a way to get wealthy, or even to support a family.

Compared to other companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was very stable—by 1599, they had been together for five years. According to James Shapiro,

There were considerable advantages to a company’s longevity. Since its formation in 1594 it’s likely that the Chamberlain’s Men had collaborated on close to a hundred plays, almost a fifth of them Shakespeare’s. When Shakespeare sat down to write a play, it was with the capabilities of the accomplished group in mind. Hamlet would not have been the same if Shakespeare had not written the title role for Richard Burbage....The degree of trust and of mutual understanding (all the more important in a company that dispensed with a director) was extraordinary. For a dramatist—let alone a fellow player, as Shakespeare was—the breakup of such a group would have been an incalculable loss.

As an owner, Shakespeare’s financial, professional, and personal futures were tied up in the success of a company that was on the brink of collapse. So how did Householder/Shareholder (i.e., Owner) Shakespeare respond? He wrote plays for them, great plays, popular plays, and lots of them. He had to—as a playwright, he was their biggest draw, and he needed to keep them coming as quickly as possible. In 1598-99, he wrote Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing; he followed these the next year with Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night; and then Hamlet and The Merry Wives of Windsor. This was an incredible output of high quality work in a short amount of time.

That is how an owner responds.

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