A combination company was a theatrical touring company which performed only one play. Unlike repertory companies, which performed multiple plays in rotation, combination companies used more elaborate and specialized scenery in their productions. Repertory theatre had been popular in the United States through the 19th century, and it is not clear how the combination system originated. Combination companies contributed to the early success of Broadway theatre, as most combination companies began their tours in New York City.
Repertory vs. combination
Repertory companies, both those in resident and those on tour, featured several actors who rehearsed multiple plays which were performed in rotation, adding and removing shows from their repertoire over time. Repertory theaters, also known as stock theaters, generally employed generic theatrical properties for use in each of their productions. This system was popular throughout the United States in the 19th century.
Because combination companies only performed a single play, they were not restricted by the need to use generic properties. Combination companies took advantage of this fact by specializing each asset of the company—actors, rehearsals, scenery, properties, costumes and personnel—to tailor to the needs of the one play being performed. In particular, this enabled combination companies to use more elaborate scenery than their repertory counterparts.
It is not entirely clear how the combination system originated. American actress Laura Keene toured with a combination company as early as 1862. American actor Joseph Jefferson claimed that both he and Charles Wyndham independently established the combination system in 1868 with their productions of Rip van Winkle and The Lancers, respectively. The advent of the First Transcontinental Railroad may have contributed to the success of touring companies.
Many early touring companies found success by exclusively performing renditions of the immensely popular Uncle Tom's Cabin, an anti-slavery novel published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1927, 75 years after Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published, these renditions, known as Tom Shows, were still being performed exclusively by twelve combination companies worldwide.
Most of the combination companies in the United States rehearsed and began their tours in New York City, which contributed to the early success of what would eventually be known as Broadway theatre. The combination company system was so successful throughout the United States that Dion Boucicault, an Irish actor and playwright, brought it to England for the first tour of his play The Colleen Bawn in the 1860s.
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