The life of a travelling player was an exceptionally difficult one, particularly as a member of a small troupe. Actors had to rely on the goodwill of local innkeepers and business owners to provide them with premises, as well as the funds of the villagers to attend their performances.

Players were required to obtain a licence from the local magistrate, set up their own stage, and provide the costumes and accompaniment for the production — in addition to all their subsistence wages.


Theatre bill

The type of plays that would be put on varied; in the less cosmopolitan Grasmere, the Dean’s company performed Bombastus Furioso, a burlesque tragic opera with farcical, comic songs and broad humour, whereas Joseph Budworth records viewing Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice in an open -roofed theatre establishment near Windermere.

Purpose built theatres did begin to appear; however, they tended only to be used by larger companies who could afford to perform in them. Small companies tended to stick to outlying villages, unable to compete with the larger, better-equipped companies performing in towns.

There was, unsurprisingly, a huge amount of rivalry between travelling troops of players.

In an attempt to draw an audience, players often turned to members of the gentry for patronage. They also invited gentlemen with a fancy for the stage to take a part and act with the company for an evening. The attendance of the gentry not only helped to draw an audience but also lent an air of respectability and morality to proceedings.
The fortunes of the players still varied dramatically from place to place, depending on their reception and the amount of money at the townspeople’s disposal; sometimes their Lake District arrivals coincided with “the (half-yearly) payment of wages, or the advent of summer visitors”. In her journal, Charlotte Deans records, “From Cockermouth we preceded to Keswick for the Regatta, which generally drew together a great concourse of genteel company, here our stay was but short though our business was very great”.

Poster for a travelling theatre company, photographed with the kind permission of The Keswick Museum.