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  You are in: Home > Theatre & Drama > Child Actors on the London Stage, circa 1600  

Child Actors on the London Stage, circa 1600
Their Education, Recruitment and Theatrical Success

Julie Ackroyd

Julie Ackroyd is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Honorary Associate of the Classics Department. She has also worked as an Assistant Producer with the BBC, and as a script reader for Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and the RSC as well as a judge for the Society of London Theatres Olivier Awards.


A legal document dated 1600, for a Star Chamber case titled Clifton vs. Robinson, details how boys were abducted from London streets and forcibly held in order to train them as actors for the Blackfriars theatre. No adults were seen on-stage in this theatre, which was stocked solely by acting boys, resulting in a satirical and scurrilous method of play presentation. Were the boys specifically targeted for skills they may have possessed which would have been applicable to this type of play presentation? And, was this method of ‘recruitment’ typical or atypical of Elizabethan theatre? Analysis of the background of the boy subjects of the legal case indicate that several had received grammar-school tuition and, as a result, would have possessed skills in oration and rhetoric. Indeed, a significant number of the grammar schools in London provided regular public disputations and theatrical performances which would have made these boys an attractive proposition for inclusion in a theatrical company.

The styles of play-texts which the boys performed and their manner of presenting characters helps to assess why child acting companies were commercially viable and popular. Their portrayal of all roles in a performance; young and old, male and female, clearly demonstrated their versatility and skill in mimicry and the adoption of other personas. Therefore the taking of grammar-school boys for re-training as actors was not opportunistic; their abductions were planned. The theatre owners undertook this method of recruitment as they felt that they were immune from prosecution due to holding royal commissions which they used to recruit boys. However, the Clifton vs. Robinson case clearly demonstrates that a determined parent whose child had been taken could challenge this and demand reparation.


Notes on sources

Professional Children’s Acting Companies in London c.1600

Chapter 1
The Clifton Star Chamber Case and the recruitment of boys
for the Blackfriars Company: Choristers vs Actors

Chapter 2
Grammar School Skills Transferable to the Blackfriars Stage:
The Influence of Rhetoric and Oration

Chapter 3
The Portrayal of Female Characters by Members of the
Boys’ Companies

Chapter 4
Age Transvestism and the Playing of Adult Male Roles
by Children

Chapter 5
The Exchange of Play Texts Between Adult and Child Companies:
Their use of the Induction and Prologue

Chapter 6
Play Text Exchanges between Child Companies and
Amateur Adult Companies: The Work of William Percy

The Place of the Child Actor in Society


“Julie Ackroyd’s fascinating, detailed exploration of professional child boy actors on the London stage of the late 16th and early 17th centuries opens an important window onto a little explored area of early modern theatre. All scholars of Renaissance drama will discover fresh, valuable insights in this absorbing study.” Tom Healy, Professor of Renaissance Studies, University of Sussex

“The cross-dressed boy players of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theatre have for two decades now attracted some of the most exciting scholarship in English Renaissance studies. Julie Ackroyd’s Child Actors on the London Stage both consolidates and extends this body of work, placing the phenomenon in its full social, cultural and educational context.” Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute


Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
February 2017
  Illustrated:   No
Hardback Price:
£55.00 / $69.95

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