Cartoonists have often depicted a performance in progress with a kind of repetiteur’s hood in the centre of the front of the stage (what used to be called ‘the floats’, from the days of footlights). The prompter is beneath the hood, apparently shouting a line at a forgetful cast. It is of course easier to get everything into a sketch this way than depicting who and where such a functionary traditionally would really have been: the ASM — Assistant Stage Manager — in the corner (the prompt corner, to the actors’ left) and ‘on the book’. That is to say, following the script and giving cues for lighting and other effects. Originally verbally — “Go Elex Fourteen!” — when the lighting board and operator used to be right behind the prompt desk and later as things developed, using cue lights.
The cartoonists clearly considered prompting a routine occurrence, but I have known very little. Many a moment of muddle, but actors usually get themselves out of it. The worst (completely) missed entrance I have known was due to a girl being fractionally late and so missing her entrance cue — but the entrance was across a complex revolving set. Although on the prompt side, she was isolated from anyone to resolve her hesitation — “You’re late on! They’re filling in! Go on!” — as I have known happen on other occasions.
Comparatively little prompting — but having someone who had followed the script could be invaluable.
In my first rep job, at Barrow, I amused the actor Kim Pears in the almost two-handed “Rattle of a Simple Man” when his character came off for a moment and I, on the book, got the chance to speak to him. “Kim — you and Pat skipped the bit about [going to university, or whatever it was]” which was picked up later. “See if you can slip it in somewhere.” Yes, of course I was rather overdoing my monitoring the performance, and treating the script as entirely flexible! Not my job to rewrite the play. But I meant well.
Coming nearer the present by a good few decades, the layout of many theatres, and the shape of the team operating them has changed a good deal. More modern venues tend to have one person operating a lighting board, and them only ‘on the book’ so far as following the play for cues goes. A problem arose for a while in a dramatisation of Trollope’s “The Warden” at a theatre where the ‘corner’ is many feet above the cast or audience’s heads. Though still, come to think about it, on the prompt side, there is no question of the operator giving any prompts, indeed they tend to be entirely technical and pretty separate from the production. This one was, anyway. I can’t remember his name or exchanging a word with him. He hadn’t been with us in the rehearsals — which makes an enormous difference.
Now you may have gathered that I don’t have a great problem with improvising — when the moment calls for it. But I am not a “gagster”, as older performers spoke of irresponsible ad libbers, especially in comedy.
One of my key scenes was with a very nice actor called Tim — Kim was in the last story, Tim in this one, its kind of corollary. He was the Warden of the title, and I was Sir Abraham, the Attorney General, whom the humble and gravely troubled Mr Harding beards in his lair.
Something started going wrong with the scene. I had to fire questions at Tim, and we would suddenly run out of lines. Now I had to keep saying — something. The point of my character was that he was a fluent and confident barrister. But Tim was somewhat deaf — fine with rehearsed dialogue, but of course if a scene went off the rails, he could be lost. This happened several times and I was getting desperate. For some reason I just couldn’t work out what was causing the hiatus. There was simply nobody whose business it was to check the scene out! And I have never met this particular situation before. It was a complete combination of circumstances. Oh for an old-fashioned ASM on the book. We tried to talk it through, but Tim got agitated and was convinced I was just elaborating my part.
Well, long story short — the scene settled down somehow. It usually happens.
I can’t resist a story of one actor — a knighted one — who did require, and get, a prompt from a long way above his head. He got stuck in a Shakespeare speech, and bad-temperedly appealed to the ASM halfway up the promptside arch of the set. “YES?” he openly demanded. She called the prompt down to him.
He next demanded “WHAT?!?”