Thank you so much, Ofelia, for having me as your guest again! I’m Ellie Thomas, and I write Historical Gay Romance. In this blog, I’ll be chatting about my latest story with JMS Books, released on August 21st. It’s a Hot Flash entitled Stage Struck.
As the Elizabeth theatre scene in London is one of my favourite periods of history, writing a story with that backdrop was sheer self-indulgence!
Although there were travelling players and makeshift theatres during Tudor times, it was only during the later years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558 – 1603) that purpose-built theatres were established in London. And demand for this type of entertainment was very high.
Literary historians have compared the actors and writers of the era to the Hollywood movie machine in the 1930s due to the sheer volume of plays produced and performed. Also, by the 1590s, some theatres were outside the city walls in the lawless suburb of Southwark. So there has been academic comparison to the New York rap scene in the 1990s, given the element of edgy danger.
I have to admit, the research wasn’t exactly onerous for this one. I happily scanned my bookshelves to find my three favourite books on the era and sat outside in the garden to re-read them.
To check Elizabethan clothing, meals and customs, I consulted How to be a Tudor by the inspiring “method historian” Ruth Goodman, who has spent most of her career as a historical researcher living as a 16th-century citizen. This makes her writing not only meticulously knowledgeable but full of enthusiasm.
As I couldn’t quite remember how much it cost to enter a theatre or rent a cushion for those hard oak benches in the upper galleries, that was the perfect excuse to consult Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe by Andrew Gurr. This remarkable book is a wonderful guide by the architectural historians engaged in excavating the original Globe theatre. They aimed to reconstruct Shakespeare’s playhouse on London’s Southbank, completed in the 1990s. So the book has fantastic illustrations that bring the Elizabethan theatre-going experience to life.
Finally, from my over-stuffed bookshelves, I could pick one of my very favourite books, Roaring Boys by Judith Cook. It is a fascinating and hugely entertaining insight into the writers, actors and managers of the London theatres of that time.
Whenever I have a student in their early teens who is utterly baffled by their first reading of Shakespeare in English class, this is my go-to resource. The Prologue has a colourful description of the bustling streets of Southwark in the 1590s. It begins with a depiction of the playwright Robert Greene, strutting along Bankside. He wears a doublet in the trendsetting colour of “goose turd green,” and sports a fashionable pointed beard. Despite his swagger, Cook portrays him trying to avoid bumping into Phillip Henslowe, manager of The Rose Theatre. Greene has tricked him into paying a sum for a play he promised was entirely new. As it’s already been performed, this explains the avoidance tactics. By the time I’ve read this vibrant extract out loud, then shown the student the drawings of a packed house at the original theatre in Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe, they are hooked!
In terms of characters for this story, it was easy to imagine a stage-struck Londoner in Stephen, using his spare time away from his humdrum work as a clerk to cross the river for the excitements of Southwark and lose himself in a play. As major actors were the equivalent of movie stars today, and beyond the aspirations of ordinary folk, it made sense to make his love interest, Ioan, a jobbing player and a newcomer to London and the theatre scene.
Ioan might be handsome and dashing but is attracted by Stephen’s genuine sincerity and steadiness. In this way, I wanted to focus on the growing connection between two young men who are slightly adrift until they find each other. It was such a joy to have the lively, rollicking, and sometimes risky background of the theatres of Southwark to contrast with the sweetness of soul mates as my two heroes meet and fall in love.
As a humble scribe living out a humdrum existence in the City of London in Elizabethan times, Stephen finds his escape across the river amongst the crowds of the teeming theatres where he is transported by the spectacle.
But poetry isn’t everything. When a young Welsh actor called Ioan catches his eye, he’s tempted to overcome his shyness and make his acquaintance. Is Stephen out of his depth in this colourful world with its undertones of danger? Or might there be a slim chance that Ioan can return his feelings?
“That’s my cousin Beth,” Ioan said in explanation. “I stay here with her and her husband, William.” He grinned. “I came to London to help out when William fell off a ladder and broke his leg and an extra pair of hands was needed urgently. Quite a few players drink here and I got to know them. Once Will had recovered, rather than going home, I got my chance to act.”
“How did that happen?” Stephen asked, intrigued.
“Oh, the usual thing,” Ioan said laconically. “One of the bit-players was in a drunken brawl and got himself stabbed. Not in here, thank the Good Lord,” he added quickly, “and not fatally either. The Lord Admiral’s Men needed a hasty replacement and since I was in the habit of hanging around backstage at The Rose when I wasn’t needed here, I had a good idea of what to do. So I got hired on the spot by Mr. Henslowe. Not that I have to say much, just get on and off the stage at the right time,” he added modestly.
“That sounds exciting,” said Stephen, wistfully.
“Beats helping my father sell leather goods in Abergavenny,” laughed Ioan. “I’ve had some good fortune, so I’m making the best of it while I can. What about you? What do you do?” He asked with genuine interest.
“Oh, I’m just a scribe,” Stephen said dismissively.
Those dark eyebrows raised, “Skilled work,” Ioan commented as if impressed. “Copyists are always needed.”
“I’m only a scrivener and not even apprenticed to a notary as yet,” Stephen explained, “although I hope to be, and then eventually be promoted as a notary in time, with luck.”
Ioan smiled, “A man with ambition.”
“A man with not enough coin to fulfil his ambitions,” Stephen said, grinning, starting to relax.
As Ioan opened his mouth to remark further, both men heard his name called across the crowded room and turned to see Beth beckoning.
“Time to earn my keep,” Ioan said with a rueful grin. As he rose, Stephen started to gulp down his ale, swallowing his regret that they could not talk further. He was surprised when Ioan laid a hand on his arm. “Don’t rush, unless you have to? The food’s good here and I can join you for supper later.”
Stephen looked up at him in surprise and saw warmth and a hint of promise in those dark brown eyes. “I can stay,” he said almost hoarsely and was awarded a dazzling grin.
Ellie Thomas lives by the sea. She comes from a teaching background and goes for long seaside walks where she daydreams about history. She is a voracious reader especially about anything historical. She mainly writes historical gay romance.
Ellie also writes historical erotic romance as L. E. Thomas.
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