Many outstanding performers revered to this day began their stage careers as strollers. According to mockingbird stroller review, Some started as children acting with their families that toured the rural circuits, while others chose to join the companies as adults. Among those, the names Kemble and Kean are prominent.
Travelling Performers Set the Stages
Strollers travelled in all kinds of weather, usually in rough wagons and sometimes on foot, with their belongings. Accidents were frequent on the rough rural roads.
To attract attention in villages and towns, the performers called out or played music on fiddles, drums, or other instrument. They always wore clothing accessorized with colourful braids or ruffles. Even the more destitute managed to attach some remnants of lace or fancy trim to their tattered garments. Children of one acting family wore scarlet outfits, and Irish actor Jimmy Whitely donned a pink and white silk suit.
The first order of business was to acquire the necessary licence to perform, which authorities grudgingly provided, and occasionally refused. In their lives of degradation, many strollers arrived without provisions or money. If their shows were not profitable, the actors resorted to stealing food in desperation.
Performers in the travelling companies announced their productions, and handed out playbills. They set up makeshift stages in inn yards, barns, market squares, or on village greens. The strollers occasionally provided pieces of furniture on the ‘stage’, which was often muddy ground or uneven planks. The curtain they used was always green. Well-established, prosperous strolling companies presented more elaborate props and scenery.
Stroller Managers Kemble and Jerrold
Typically, the lead actor was the company manager who selected productions, handled finances, and made business arrangements. Sometimes, unscrupulous managers took the proceeds and deserted their destitute company players. Performers of one company stranded in a rural village sent a note requesting money from the local cleric. The churchman could not refuse assistance, as it was Christmas day.
Among the honest, decent managers were Roger Kemble who travelled the Western Midlands with his large family, and Samuel Jerrold whose company toured the Dover circuit.
Strollers’ Costumes and Performances
Prosperous acting troupes usually had ample wardrobes, but in the poorest companies, performers had to improvise. To demonstrate a royal costume, one actor painted black ink dots on paper to represent ermine trim.
There were travelling troupes with as many as twenty performers who were frequently members of one family. Smaller companies required that a single actor/actress portray two or three characters in one piece. In one company, “Romeo tolled the bell for his own death, and dead Juliet sang her own dirge”.
Shelter and Money for Acting Companies
Perpetual victims of rudeness and intolerance, strollers frequently struggled to find shelter. Accommodations were usually meagre tents, barns or coach houses.
Occasionally an innkeeper who allowed strollers to perform in the courtyard, and gave them overnight accommodation, did not charge them. Generously, he considered the entertainment they provided for his guests was payment enough.
By mid century, large companies abandoned the system of players being sharers in profits on a scale determined by position in the troupe. They adopted the method of paying salaries. Companies that maintained sharing occasionally employed salaried actors in addition to their own players.
Strollers often earned extra money by teaching music or presenting lectures. Some had trades such as barbering that they counted on for additional income.
Strollers Travelled Theatre Circuits
By 1800, with new theatres built in many towns, and touring circuits organized by the owners, the strollers dispensed with makeshift arrangements. Companies often remained in a town for several weeks or months if citizens and officials thought their conduct and performances were favourable.
Travelling performers were classed as vagrants by the law that regarded them shiftless, mean, and dishonest. Knowing that, actor Elrington proposed donating all receipts from his company’s first performance to Manchester’s new hospital. For “daring to insult the subscribers to that institution”, he and his strollers were chased out of town.
Kemble, Siddons, and Kean
Sarah Kemble Siddons and her brothers John, Stephen, and Charles, and sister Frances spent their childhoods acting with their family troupe and rose to prominence in the theatre.
In 1814, the great actor Edmund Kean arrived at Drury Lane Theatre, the “very model of a strolling player, shabby, almost shoeless”, and hungry. Having served an apprenticeship with travelling companies, he became extremely famous and wealthy through the power of his performances.