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The Playhouse Apprentice

by Jessica Swale

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Cast: Flexible, mixed cast (minimum 5f 5m, very large cast possible)

Performance fee: £70 per performance (plus VAT where applicable)

An exhilarating and hilarious story about theatre, bravery and how a little voice can make a big difference.

1597, the Globe Theatre. A crisis is underway. The Lord Chamberlain has closed the playhouses and banned the theatre company from the stage. The livelihoods of hundreds of artists are suddenly in jeopardy.

There’s only one thing for it: somebody must face the terrors of Blackfriars and travel through London to deliver a petition directly to the Queen of England herself. But who’d be brave (or foolish) enough to take on the task? Enter an unexpected hero…

The Playhouse Apprentice was first performed at the Globe Theatre, London, in a production by the students of Dulwich College

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About the author

Jessica Swale is an Olivier award-winning writer, director and film maker. She trained at Central School of Speech and Drama and the University of Exeter.


Jessica began her career spending a happy decade as a theatre director, during which she founded and Red Handed Theatre Company, with whom she won Best Ensemble in the Peter Brook Empty Space Awards and multiple Evening Standard Award nominations. She then began writing. Her first play, Blue Stockings, premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013. It is now one of the most performed plays in the country, and is featured on the GCSE Drama syllabus. She is currently writing the TV series.

Jessica’s next play, Nell Gwynn, won her an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and transferred from the Globe to the West End, starring Gemma Arterton. She is currently writing the screenplay for Working Title. Other plays include Thomas Tallis (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), The Mission and adaptations of The Jungle Book, Sense and Sensibility, Far from the Madding Crowd, Stig of the Dump and The Secret Garden.

Now working primarily in film and television, she both directs and writes for the screens – original works and adaptations. Screenplays include Persuasion for Fox Searchlight, Nell Gwynn for Working Title, Longbourn for Studio Canal and an original rom-com for Blue Print Pictures. Her first film, Horrible Histories the Movie, premiered in 2019 and was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Feature for Children. Her directorial debut feature, Summerland (also writer), starring Gemma Arterton, premiered in 2020. She also wrote and directed the internet hit Leading Lady Parts, a short film promoting equality in film, starring Arterton, Felicity Jones, Emilia Clarke and friends, for the BBC and Rebel Park Productions. You can watch it on YouTube.

Jessica is an associate artist with Youth Bridge Global, an international NGO which uses theatre as a tool for promoting social change in war-torn and developing nations. As such, she has lived in the Marshall Islands and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, directing Shakespeare productions including The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

She has written three titles in Nick Hern Books’ popular Drama Games series: for Classrooms and Workshops, for Devising, and for Rehearsals. She is also an active campaigner for greater equality and diversity across all dramatic media, and an active member of Times Up and the Me Too movement.

Photo by Michael Wharley

Interview with Jessica Swale

The Playhouse Apprentice is set in 1597 as the Globe Theatre shuts its doors. What drew you to write about this time period?


I have always loved writing about the theatre. Obviously, as a playwright and theatre director myself, the space where we create hold a great deal of magic for me- I still find it mesmerising, walking into an empty theatre- a space full of potential and aching for imagination. So as a place to set a play I think it's evocative, and of course, interesting in a meta way.... a play about a play in a playhouse! Regarding this play, this specific moment of theatre history got me particularly excited because it was a turning point and a moment of crisis. It's always interesting to look at culture at moments of great change.


The Artist, for example, is a film which brilliantly captures the moment when the Industry shifted from black and white silent films to 'speakies', and the huge effect on the actors who were working at that time. Society was moving forward but for those folk their profession was on the line.


Similarly, I enjoyed writing Nell Gwynn because it was set at the seismic moment when women were stepping onto the stage for the first time- which changed everything... and displeased a LOT of people! The Playhouse Apprentice is about a different sort of critical moment, when theatre was in peril because it was deemed a place of potential vice. The very value of a play was called into question- and it's power to shift minds. I find that fascinating- and also relevant now, in this post Covid era where the theatre has had to prove its worth again after a period of closure. Those moments raise the stakes and make us question everything- which lends itself perfectly to drama.


The play explores bravery and small actions having a big impact. Why do you think this is a good subject matter for young people?


Change always relies on individuals to make it happen- and often starts with the most lowly, most 'under the radar' grass roots people- not the great, the good and the powerful. I think that's a great lesson for everyone to remember, but I find it most important when writing for young people because it's our youth who have the greatest power to change the future, and to carve it into a shape that they choose. If this play reminds us all that you don't have to be the powerful figure, you can just be the young, hungry, dedicated kid who has the guts to throw themselves forward to make change happen, then that can only be a good thing. I love the energy and determination of the young and I hope this play harnesses that.


This play can be performed by a company of any size, but it was originally written for a cast of forty young actors. What opportunities does the play offer for larger and smaller casts?

This play has lots of fun parts for large and small ensembles- it could be performed by two hundred people and everyone could still have a speaking part because of all the group scenes. It could equally well be performed by a cast of 12 doing some acrobatic doubling. Anything's possible if you use your imagination. I recently saw Vanya, a usually large cast play, in which Andrew Scott played every part and did it brilliantly. So there you go, no excuses! 

Do you have any advice for actors performing the play, or for directors staging it?

It's a play about imagination and the importance of joy and playfulness. So play! Have fun with it, get creative with the design, enjoy the need to flip quickly from one scene to the next and see if you can achieve that through clever creative means rather than hefty scene changes. You can do this play with pretty much no props or furniture should you choose, and make everything using your own bodies. Or just use chairs. Or fabric. Or use dance. Throw in some music – it could be period, it could also be modern. Go for gold – as the players do in the play.... And enjoy it. I hope you enjoy performing it as much as I enjoyed writing it. 

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