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touring

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance
Author(s):

John Barnes

touring 

Moving a show from one venue to another, generally over a planned route. Despite its tendency to move into permanent playhouses, the acting profession is essentially mobile, requiring only ‘two boards and a passion’ for performance. We know that ancient Greek actors journeyed widely throughout the Mediterranean under the protection of the Artists of Dionysus, and professional players of all types in medieval Europe lived a life of continuous travel. Within easy distance of any location there is a fixed population, of whom only some will be interested in seeing the performance. In a modern commercial setting, when the long run is the economic norm (as opposed to repertory playing), once the local audience is exhausted the company must mount a new play if it wishes to stay in business. One way to evade this constraint is to tour, taking the production to fresh audiences. The decision to tour will probably be made on narrow but precisely calculated margins; for example, the effective addition of something like a 25 per cent greater population in the New York area, due to the commuter railways, appears to have doomed the ‘road’ in the twentieth century, while nineteenth-century managers calculated to the day when to pick up a show from a major city and tour it in the provinces.

When the decision to tour is not economic, it is often political: it might be wise to get away from the politically volatile capital, as French royalist actors (1791–5) and Jacobin actors did (1795–8), and theatre companies sometimes left London for months to avoid association with endemic rioting. Or touring might be a career move, as Molière's company allowed the memory of its first disastrous Paris performance to die, or as some Chinese companies would tour extensively while another company's actor was the Emperor's favourite. Technologies of transport are clearly relevant. The extension of the railways to most parts of Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century vastly increased the economic viability of theatrical touring, and rock shows at the start of the twenty-first century can tour extensively by relying on large motorized trucks that are effectively houses on wheels, which carry all the equipment needed and are comfortable for the performers.

Whatever the cause, touring has had profound effects upon the theatre. First and foremost, by broadening the scope of competition, it forces improvements in quality and the rapid transfer of artistic techniques and of technology. If the provinces receive tours, they become more capable, as provincial technicians and actors measure themselves by higher standards. Henry Irving's first tours of the United States (1883–4), for example, had to travel with nearly every piece of equipment, but by the time of his last tours (1903–4) he could count on finding most of what he needed, and the technicians to operate it, in almost any large city. Even today, many young theatre technicians get their first look at new innovations by working as casual labour for touring musicals or for rock concerts. Secondly, in many parts of the world, touring encouraged the emergence of professional theatre; the economic advantages of touring were enough to allow full-time performers to make a living and the professional theatres of many European and Asian nations have their origins in touring. Finally, touring has fostered a tradition of portability, reusability, and flexibility in theatrical equipment which persists to this day; much of the way that things are done backstage is predicated on the assumption that everything must be packed up and moved soon, whether this is true or not.

John Barnes