It is difficult to say what many of the early theatres of the Shakespearean era (1500s – 1600s, give or take a hundred years) looked like for a very simple reason – theatres tended to be made of wood, and there was no electricity. For actors and theatre owners, fire was probably the thing that concerned them most during Shakespeare’s time, along with the dubious legal status of most actors.
Some actors were highly respected. These actors tended to have a patron, a wealthy person who liked theatre, and paid to keep the acting company on his property, where they would perform. Most performances during the 1300s and onward during the Renaissance were given under the patronage of a wealthy person. In that case, the play would usually take place in a room or hall in the patron’s house. The actors had fairly high status in this arrangement.
The other major type of acting company traveled and lived on the road. The company customarily consisted of four men and a boy who would play any female roles (women were not permitted on stage during Shakespeare’s time). These actors performed in village greens, inns, and churches (churches were often fined for permitting performances to take place in their rooms). Traveling companies had very limited sets, partially because they had to carry the sets with them and partially due to custom; instead of detailed sets, the location of the scene was announced as part of the play.
Traveling actors had a much lower status than did those with patrons, and it is these actors were looked upon as being one step up from prostitutes. Because of their low social status, these acting companies had more legal issues than companies with a patron did. For example, in the mid 1500s, vagrancy laws arrested anyone who was away from their hometown without a “legitimate” reason. For a while traveling acting companies confined their playing to inns, but by the 1570s permanent theatre buildings began to be built. (They did double as gaming houses in case the authorities objected to acting.)
One of the grandest playhouses of the era was the Swan. It was one of the largest theatres, with three stories of gallery seating and a yard, capable of holding 3000 people. The yard was where the “groundlings” stood or sat, depending on the accommodations. Interestingly, in public theatres with open roofs (more common), the groundlings consisted of the lower classes while the wealthy sat in the galleries. In private roofed theatres, however, the groundlings were the rich, and the less wealthy sat in the gallery. As explanation, England is rather damp, and while the view from the yard is always better, the view is only worth it when protected from the elements.