* Note on spelling: These buildings for the performing arts in colonial America are spelled “theatre” because they were built before the Revolution and therefore spelled in the British way.
Theatre has been important to English society since… well, at least Shakespeare… I assume. I didn’t go that far back in my research. But I can tell you that once the English set down roots in the American colonies, actors began performing.
The First Theatres
In the early years, actors performed plays and operas in taverns, barns, and warehouses. By 1716, professional actors from England had arrived, and Williamsburg, Virginia built the first theatre solely committed to performing. It was called the “Play House.” Actors put on English plays, frequently Shakespeare, until 1745 when the theatre was demolished and its frame was used to construct a town hall.1
New York’s first theatre, a small, two-story wooden structure, came a little later in 1732 on Nassau Street. It found its largest competition in the Royal Oak Tavern on Broadway, near Bowling Green.
Interior of an American Theatre
A typical colonial theatre was shaped like a large rectangular room. The stage, a platform about five feet off the ground, took up one third of the room. Benches, known as the pit, filled the rest of the floor.
It cost four shillings for the middling class to sit on the hard benches of the pit. They were allowed to bring their own cushions and foot warmers to make their experience more comfortable. The pit never permitted women.
Along the sides of the theatre, wealthy patrons paid five shillings to sit in boxes, much like the second Theatre Royal in Covent Garden (1674-1791).
And the last seating area, the gallery, students, sailors, and slaves watched the performances from above for two shillings each.
The Playhouse Experience
Eighteenth century theatres were surprisingly loud and bright. Chandeliers and oil lamps illuminated them, offering the same level of brightness to both the performers and the audience. This made the space less dramatic and intimate, which lent to exuberant chatting.
A typical evening at a theatre lasted five hours. There was continuous entertainment, from Shakespeare plays, ballad operas, to musical performances.
The John Street Theatre
The John Street Theatre is commonly referred to as the city’s first permanent playhouse. It’s also considered the birthplace of American theatre because the first American-born playwright staged his play there.
The theatre was active from 1767-1798. It had two tiers of box seats, a pit, and a gallery. The dressing rooms were located in a shed at the back of the building. It sat 750 guests, which was far larger than the Theatre on Nassau Street.
This is the theatre the British took over during their occupancy of New York in 1777. They renamed it “Theatre Royal” for the Covent Garden theatre. The British wanted to keep morale high for their soldiers living far from home. Major John Andre, hanged for spying and his dealings with Benedict Arnold, directed extravagant performances there. Not only did he act, he also painted his own scenery.
Six years after the British evacuated New York at the end of the war, in 1789, President George Washington enjoyed performances at the John Street Theatre. A few years later, Eliza Arnold took the stage as a cast member. She was Edgar Allan Poe’s mother.
- The City Performs: An Architectural History of NYC Theaters
- E. Singleton, (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902).
- John Street Theatre
- Theatre in NYC: A Brief History I
- The Thriving Theatre in Colonial America