LINE - !!

Experiences on how to work as a prompt
By Anne Kari Sorknes

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 each actor.

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 the moment.

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 unavoidable then.

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!

Copyright © 1997 Anne Kari Sorknes
First published in The Player, the newsletter of The Oslo Players.


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