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"A Brief, Personal Case of Guilds and Early Modern Theatre Companies as Models for Pedagogy in Contemporary Theatre Management"

By Prof. Jeremy Fiebig, Fayetteville State University

(December 2019 Issue / PDF)

If there is a vogue in the current moment in Shakespeare and early modern pedagogy, it is the sense that we ought to be putting the work into the body and its faculties. Characters should be embodied by actors. Props should be handled by hands. Texts should be voiced. Stage directions should be enacted. Led in part by the work of Jacques Lecoq, the learning that stems from “these phenomena include[s] imagination, memory, empathy, emotion stimulation and regulation, interpersonal awareness, and narrative, linguistic, and psychological analysis among many other activities. It is these cognitive activities, in addition to the more easily recognised aspects of speech, voice, facial expression, gesture and movement, that comprise an actor’s technique” (Kemp 94). This is something of a departure for teachers of English, a marriage of skills from departments of theatre meant to enliven and engage new generations of schoolchildren for whom close reading is, perhaps, boring. In an age of collective attention deficits, perhaps boring is code for disembodied. At the same time, our new pedagogy manifests the skills of close reading, the prized token of English teachers and scholars, in the bodies of those theatre people and their courses and productions. In fact, embodiment work is a bridge between the English and Theatre departments. Performance scholars like Julie-Ann Scott offer us embodiment as a kind of research – an autoethnography – that may benefit both pedagogy and artmaking, a “reflexive performance of self,” that maps “how meanings and understandings surrounding identity surface” (Scott 3). The idea here is that when our students or actors treat text as embodied text, there are ideas revealed about the text that reflect deep knowledge of both text and body, object and subject, Shakespeare, for example, and self. This embodied work is therefore mutually and comprehensively beneficial, offering ways of learning that are sourced outside and inside our students’ and actors’ lived experience.

While we are recognizing the virtues of embodiment in classrooms, rehearsal rooms, and in scholarship, we have done much less work on thinking of the body beyond the level of the individual student or artist, and certainly not much above the level of scene work – say, in pedagogical trials in our classrooms – or the temporary ensembles generated when we do a show. While we might consider some productions as a body of work, our focus is primarily on the embodiment of texts and artistic practices. It is much rarer that we will consider the corporation behind those productions as a body that can enact practices including and beyond the artistic scope. In other words, theatre management practice offers us ways to embody pedagogy just as do the practices of the stage or page.

Here, I’ll be looking at the theatre management practices of medieval guilds and playing companies of the early modern period, exploring how they may serve as pedagogical and company management models for us today. Guilds and early modern theatre companies offer anti-authoritarian organizational models requiring deep investment among collaborators. These models are the same time capable of generating teachers and experts by creating motivational hierarchies that incentivize and, in modern terms, incentivize the acquisition of professional skills, content learning, and both personal and corporate values like reliability and accountability. By embodying guild and early modern theatre management practices, classroom settings and theatre companies alike may learn what it is to be themselves to an even greater degree, self-reflexively creating deeper knowledge in the collective, collaborative body.

Medieval craft guilds were trade “groups of men, pursuing a specific craft, [who] joined with their fellows in exclusive associations which were designed to protect their interests against competition as well as to provide mutual support and friendship” (Swanson 30). Additionally, these craft guilds, along with merchant guilds that represented areas of industry like fish, cotton, served regulatory functions on behalf of civic authorities, such as policing trade policy (31). The guilds, unlike today’s corporate business models and many professional theatre models, required complete personal commitment, “investing all their resources, by bringing their personalities in toto into the guild” (Kieser 540). Unlike modern corporations and businesses, a primary function of the guilds was to facilitate a lifestyle of sustainability, welfare, and camaraderie, not just product, creating systems of “economically highly dependent homeworkers” (540).

The guilds emerge within and alongside the medieval theatre tradition in Europe, where it was longstanding practice for these guilds to produce plays as part of religious festivals in something of an annual (or more frequent) indulgence paid to keep them in favor with the church and its considerable budget and influence. When professional theatre companies developed in England, they lean heavily on the guild model of making plays and doing business. Early modern theatre companies are, in essence, craft guilds for actors, playwrights, and theatre entrepreneurs who engage their work in highly invested, highly dependent fashion. This cooperative approach is anti-authoritarian in nature and stands in opposition to more capitalistic and profiteering models offered both today and in Shakespeare’s time (Gurr 88). The King’s Men, at times comprised of as many as fifteen sharers (company stakeholders) and eight housekeepers (company landlords), operate essentially as democracies, preferring to retain “the old collaborative [i.e., medieval guild] system” (87).

In addition to sharing risk, buffeting themselves against competition, providing opportunities for fraternity, and democratizing governance, the guilds structure themselves in a way to produce experts by exposing junior members to the work of more senior members and, ultimately, to the work of the masters over a matter of years. Simply, there were three ranks in the guild: (1) apprentice, an entry-level, probationary labor class doing much of the mundane work while acquiring skills to become a (2) journeyman, a more skilled laborer who could work directly under the eye and instruction of a (3) master, senior members of  the guild with high skill and possession of trade “secrets,” which might be best described as both a set of best practices in the given trade and a signal of elite social status within the group, for “it was they who set ‘standards’ of practice, the competencies of a craft, and it was they who taught, mentored, and trained journeymen who in turn did the same for the apprentice. It was the Master who evaluated worker progress. It was the guild which included and excluded workers and regulated the occupational ladder” (Baizerman 187).

In early modern playing companies, a similar ranking system applied, as did some of the labels. In an archetypal company, the masters were either highly skilled actors, playwrights, or financial investors, each known as a sharer. A bit unlike their medieval predecessors, these shareholders earned their status as a modern shareholder would: by purchasing a share in the company and therefore agreeing to take on its liabilities and potential profits. Theatre companies filled out their labor needs with journeyman actors, perhaps part of the permanent ensemble but not expressly shareholders, and with boy actors who both played women characters and frequently were elevated to adult company membership at a later point (Kathman 246). The companies used the model for playwrights as well, bringing in less-established writers to work with and under head playwrights, as in the example of Shakespeare’s own company, the King’s Men. In the King’s Men, there are examples of company members being invited to invest at the sharer level, especially upon the death or retirement of another sharer, signaling that the person had achieved the skills, fame, or temporal investment necessary to be considered a peer, with money that “identified his commitment to the enduring good of the company” (Gurr 89).

By now, it may be obvious that in nearly all material respects, the guild is an embodiment of a motivational hierarchy and a training ground and “are often seen as synonymous with human capital investment, as many of them operated training systems” (Ogilvie 181). In Maslow’s sense, the guild meets physiological needs as it provides economic security, belongingness, and individual and collective esteem. The guild also self-actualizes, “becoming more and more what is idiosyncratically is” (Maslow 22). Guilds and early modern theatre companies provide an environment for the fulfillment of needs – individual and collective – so that the work of that community may continue. Members – fed, secure, and belonging as organs of the guild – are in a constant state of evaluation (apprentices and journeymen) or evaluating (journeymen and masters). In the motivational hierarchy, members see incentive to improve, to meet standards, and to further objectives, both personally and in terms of the corporation. The motivational hierarchy also provides the fraternal support for this improvement by providing peers and making a long-term commitment to the learner or member. If you have not yet picked up on the language of standard, objective, improvement, and the underlying idea of developing professionals suited to the mission of a given organization, here you go. Guilds are faculties or, perhaps better, ensembles of people – corporate bodies – working to enact and engage in growth, development, and professionalization.

Strangely, modern classrooms and theatre companies – even many attached to MFA programs or other educational apparatuses, including their own education programs – often do not show any intention in commitment to the ensemble over the very long term. Much of my experience as a high school student, undergraduate, graduate student, and occasional artist in professional and community theatre companies is that they move in the exact opposite direction, in fact. Each show has new cast, a new contract, a task that may be in service of larger goals, but which is nonetheless an answer to the question: what can we get done with our skills now? Next month, it’s a new contract, with new hires, and we start the process over. The companies may have people they call apprentices or interns, but the professionals under whom they work disappear at the end of a few weeks. The fraternity is temporary and the improvement over time is nil except as it happens among individual artists. And those masters are there to display their craft, not monitor the progress of the craft in others.

While there are plenty of ensemble-based theatre companies the world over that are exceptions to this, the idea has largely fallen out of the mainstream. There are reasons. When you commit to someone long term, for instance, you have to worry about health insurance and pensions – Maslow’s second level motivational needs. That leaves the artist out there, alone, detached, without fellowship, to use the medieval term, or belongingness, to use Maslow’s, and with an individual practice but no committed corporate one. In other words, neither the individual nor the corporation can self-actualize. The actor is disembodied, except for, but also including, the duration of a contract. Membership in the body is limited, insecure. We might even say this disembodiment invites trauma as, too often, the contract approach toys with financial and psychological security, stability, and well-being. Even in small budget, community, and educational settings where individual financial security is arguably less consequential, the clan of a theatre production is ephemeral.

I founded Sweet Tea Shakespeare (STS) in 2012 with a notion to push against this kind of insecurity and dismemberment I’d encountered in educational, professional, and community theatre settings. In our second year, I quickly noticed that the company’s body was mostly my own – and I looked quickly to add new members as a matter of sustainability and shared ownership. At that point, I invited several promising cast and crew members from that summer’s productions of The Seagull and Romeo and Juliet to join as company members. Almost immediately, the group took on additional planning, staffing, and labor commitments. Shortly thereafter, we scheduled our first winter production, which was followed by our first spring production. In 2014, the group – now impossibly overworked – discerned the need to stratify company membership into what it termed full members and associate members. Since then, the company has formalized a structure that includes probationary members it calls Wrights, permanent members it calls Fellows, and permanent members who are also lead teachers and de facto staff members it calls Masters. There’s also a rank for company members who’ve made a lasting impact but who move out of the area or who step back from the company called Journeymen. In 2017, when the company moved from being an internal operation of Fayetteville State University to establishing itself as its own non-profit corporation, the Masters became the initial board members of the corporation.

STS sees its company membership structure as a division of labor, a partial decentralization of leadership from a single artistic voice to leadership by those at the Master rank, an educational endeavor mirroring, very modestly, a graduate school or community studio approach, but perhaps most importantly as a place to belong. While actors and artists do come and go, there is a continually offered invitation to stick around and contribute to the work of the whole body. STS is, in part, a guild in this way, a theatre fraternity that has at least the option of producing show after show together. Accordingly, the company teaches itself how to complete its long-term mission; it self-actualizes. As it adds new members and elevates them in its ranking system, it strengthens its individual members over time as and if they seek achievement. As the Master of Play who specializes in Shakespeare directing and text work, I am teaching our members how to engage in our core enterprise. Meanwhile, our masters who specialize in music, company management, costumes, or fundraising do likewise. Several years ago, I introduced a company mantra: “train your replacement.” This mantra is a direct reflection of the guild structure itself, an internally articulated will and testament for the body to regenerate. Over time, years, at this point, members learn Shakespeare, how to play an instrument,and vocal training. They become organs of the body. The body, in turn, matures as a function of its parts belonging to and learning from itself.

What I describe about STS is undoubtedly romantic. After all, businesses, churches and other religious bodies, martial arts studios, and social clubs do a version of what I’m describing, some as organizational descendants of the medieval guild or its equivalents in monastic traditions, and some as expressions of the latest best practices in corporate training. My romantic take on the STS approach is, however, also a sign of the way belonging works when collective embodiment happens. The guild model offers us just one example of a collective body in which to live, work, learn, and want in an increasingly dissected world. And while I certainly think it has helped me self-actualize on a personal level, I think the lessons of medieval and early modern management practice are particularly useful for students, teachers, producers, and artists in more traditional settings, where such embodiment is rarer to find among the dismembered parts of segmented school days and learning outcomes and contracts and attention.

We know embodied Shakespeare, and drama more broadly, serves as a suitable basis for “active management learning and personal development” (Beirne 591). Incorporating guild and early modern theatre management practices, like other “radical theatre traditions[,] hold[s] the promise of a more immersive learning process that can be grounded in the personal experiences and concerns of the student population, thereby increasing the likelihood of critical dialogue, mutual exchange and reflective engagement” (595). While this much is apparent in the bevy of corporate leadership trainings and workshops offered by Shakespeare and other theatre companies, it is much rarer that we will use embodied theatre management practice as a basis for any type of classroom pedagogy. We can imagine that the guild cooperative model offers some anti-authoritarian, collaborative approaches for contemporary classroom and theatre management practice as it de-centralizes power, creates buy-in, and works to build trust and security among its collaborators. But is it also possible, for example, that embodying guild practice enlightens the text or empowers the performance? Does it matter that the actor playing Rosalind helps write grants for the company? Or that the actor playing Juliet cut the script? What does this look like in under-resourced classrooms with under-prepared students where “wealth” has to be created from the collaborative work of the assembled minds and bodies? Behind these questions is another, deeper one: to whom does Shakespeare, and do we, belong? For me, the broader and more collective our answer, the better.


Works Cited

Baizerman, Michael. "The Quest for (Higher) Professional Status: Second Thoughts." Child & Youth Services, vol. 34, no. 2, 2013, pp. 186-195. ProQuest,, doi:

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Kathman, David. "How Old Were Shakespeare's Boy Actors?" in Shakespeare Survey 58 (2006), p. 246.

Kemp, Rick. “The Embodied Performance Pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq.” Connection Science, vol. 29, no. 1, Mar. 2017, pp. 94–105. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09540091.2016.1233521.

Kieser, Alfred. "Organizational, institutional, and societal evolution: medieval craft guilds and the genesis of formal organizations." Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 4, 1989, p. 540+. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.

Maslow, A. H. Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

Ogilvie, Sheilagh. "The Economics of Guilds." The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 28, no. 4, 2014, pp. 169-192. ProQuest,, doi:

Swanson, Heather. “The Illusion of Economic Structure: Craft Guilds in Late Medieval English Towns.” Past & Present, no. 121, 1988, pp. 29–48. JSTOR,

Scott, Julie-Ann. Embodied Performance As Applied Research, Art and Pedagogy, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central,

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