On the night before the dress rehearsal I nearly panicked. As the prompt
I'll be responsible for the smooth running - textwise - of the play! Oh help!
But on second thoughts I realized: No, that isn't right. That responsibility
is not mine - it belongs to the actors themselves. My task is just to be one
of the tools they use to fulfil their own task - and to make sure that this
tool is readily available to them at any given time.
I learnt a lot from my very first experience of working as a prompt. Working
with a Shakespeare text is interesting in itself, and The Tempest is a
fascinating play in many ways. But mainly I learnt about how to be a prompt.
Some aspects I learnt by trial and error, other things I learnt by doing it
right the first time and seeing how well it worked. I'll try to share some
hints on how you work as a prompt.
At first I thought that the disadvantage of being the prompt is that you won't
be able to see the play, you've got to have your nose stuck in the script
all the time. I soon realized I was wrong - I had to look at the actors just
as much as at the book. Rapid eye movement is needed - and you use your finger
for a bookmark, pointing at exactly the right part of the page. (I also found
the best way to turn the pages without making a noise - you close the book
and then open it again on the next page.)
There are various reasons why you need to see the actors. One is that you need
to know why there is a pause right now - is this a deliberate artistic pause,
or is the actor just stuck? You usually can tell by looking at him! You need
to remember where the artistic pauses are inserted, too - you might even mark
them in your script.
Another reason why you need to look at the actors, is that (during rehearsals)
they might want to catch your eye. Actors work with the prompt in different
ways. Most of them just say "Line!", and you give them their line - easy
enough. Others catch your eye and check with you - "is this the right line
now?", and you just nod or else give them the correct line. Others again only
need a reminder if they miss their cue. You need to learn how to work with
It's best to be present at every rehearsal, even from the very first one. The
actors don't need you at this stage, but you need them! (And if you can avoid
it, don't slip on the ice and sprain your knee on the first evening they are
off script - two weeks sick leave at that stage is not a good idea.)
As a prompt you are the tool that provides the text for the actors whenever
they need it. To be able to do this you need to know the play well enough to
know where you are in the text at any given time - and that is the easy part
of your task! You need not only know where the actors are - at times you have
to know where they ought to have been as well as where they actually are at
What do you do when they are in the wrong place? This depends on what
philosophy you've got (or your director has got, which is more important). The
philosophy we used for The Tempest (which I find a very reasonable one) was,
'The flow of the play is more important than the accuracy of the text.' It's
not a very purist point of view, but it works well during performances. If you
disagree with this philosophy, you'll probably disagree with most of what's
left of this article.
According to this philosophy, when the actors are in the wrong place, don't
tell them. NEVER correct them unless they specifically ask for the right
version. NEVER interrupt them - as long as they go along happily, it will
seem all right to the audience. Even if they skip several pages, don't worry.
But you need to know the play well enough yourself to know approximately where
they got to, so that you can find the right page fast - they may need you again
soon! It's useful to remember the overall layout of the pages in your script,
so that you can recognize the text quickly.
If the actors ask for a line two paragraphs into the page they've skipped to,
prompt them from there. Don't try to take them back unless they explicitly ask
you to. It's usually better to keep up the flow of the play. There won't
necessarily be a break that is noticable for the audience - except perhaps for
specialists who have worked with this play a lot - and even then they may think
that the director made a deliberate cut. Even at rehearsals there's no need to
break up the flow of the play. You get a better pace of acting if there are
no interruptions. They may, however, become so irrecoverably lost that even
you can't work out where they try to be - at rehearsals is the break
Then you get to the dress rehearsal, and your role as prompt is changed. I was
astonished to notice the change in the actors, too - now they seemed to really
get down to serious business. Suddenly they all knew their lines! - I mean,
in a sort. It's a new situation for the prompt. And the basic change is that
you're no longer a tool to be used liberally, you're the safety net to be used
only in emergencies (ideally not at all!) The actors should now use their
main tools instead - their own memory, and their ingenuity.
You still have to be ready to give them their line at any given time, should
they ask for it. Again - knowing the play well enough to give the right line
at the right time is the easy part of your task. (How loud, though? If the line
is loud enough for them to hear, it's usually loud enough for the audience
to hear, too. As long as you haven't got a proper prompter's box, there doesn't
seem to be much you can do about it.) The difficult part is to know what to
do when there is some sort of crisis - basically, do you leave the actors to
sort out things for themselves, or do you have to intervene?
This problem may occur not only when an actor is obviously searching through
his brain for a lost line, but even more so when he has missed his cue
altogether and is happily waiting for the others to speak. You have to use your
sensitivity - when does this pause become an awkward pause? At that point
I think you have to volunteer a line. But chances are that the brain-searching
actor has got the same feeling for awkwardness as you and chooses precisely that
moment to finally ask for his line.
For as long as possible, though, wait for the reactions of the other actors.
They are not advised to prompt each other, their best route of action is to
take over and skip the forgotten part (if it's not crucial to the context).
That's when they need their ingenuity most - to improvise and smooth things
out to make the break less noticeable.
Someone said to me that there becomes a camaraderie between the actors not to
use the prompt. Strangely enough, that camaraderie didn't make me feel left
out. I think the reason is that its purpose as such is not to leave me out,
it is to leave the audience out of what's really going on, and to make
them believe that everything is going according to plan. I rather feel part of
the camaraderie - my part in it is to keep my mouth shut for as long as
possible, and not to interfere too soon.
Prompting can be a rather self-effacing job. The ideal is that during
performances you should have nothing to do apart from being on the alert all
the time. We came very close to that ideal during The Tempest, and it made me
feel really proud!