Anyone who has sat in a rehearsal room understands that there is a fine art to prompting. The best advice I ever had was from a teacher, Australian theatre legend Terence Clarke.
‘Once, loud and enough’
This is what he would say to Stage Management students struggling with prompting.
That advice has stuck with me over the last 17 years, and I hear his voice saying it inside my head whenever I prompt.
What is prompting?
Essentially it is giving someone a line when it has been forgotten or the wrong line has been said. Usually prompting is required in rehearsals when actors are still learning lines, however on some occasions I have needed to prompt during performances.
Why do we prompt?
When a scene is flowing, lines are easily forgotten. There’s a lot going on for actors to think about in rehearsals and a forgotten line can break the momentum of the scene. A quick prompt allows the scene to continue without losing the flow and without the actor dropping character.
This depends on the composition of your Stage Management team. Teams vary in different organisations but prompting should be the responsibility of only one person (usually the SM or the DSM). The prompter should always sit in the same chair so the actors know where their line will becoming from. One of my pet-peeves is when unschooled assistant directors try to prompt over the top of me. I am sure to talk to them immediately about the reasons it doesn’t work.
In a large opera, there is a prompter (who is a member of the music staff) who prompts the spoken and sung parts, and in a musical, sometimes the conductor or other music staff will take over some of the prompting.
When do we prompt?
Most seasoned actors know how to ask for a line. They will call out ‘line’, or ‘yes’, or sometimes they will look at you. In the case where they look at you, you need to not have your eyes glued to the script so you can notice when it happens. Some actors have other methods. I once witnessed a director chastising a cast member for clicking his fingers at me (although I didn’t mind).
Sometimes an actor will dry and just pause. In this case you need to be able to read what is going on. Sometimes they genuinely need a line, and you can give it, but take care not to prompt unnecessarily. There have been times when I’ve prompted in a pause and the actor has replied ‘it was intentional!’ Fair enough. It’s sometimes tricky to judge but it’s not the end of the world, just let the scene carry on.
In a performance, I generally don’t prompt unless an actor specifically asks for it. With the adrenaline that comes with an audience, most actors will find a way out of it, sometimes with the help of the other actors in the scene. I have mostly prompted during performances when an actor has lost their train of thought in a Shakespearean soliloquy.
How do we prompt?
As I said earlier, Terence Clarke’s rule of three ‘once, loud and enough’ is the key.
Say the line once. If you have to say it again, the actor can start to feel exasperated. And the director.
The actor needs to be able to hear it, otherwise you will have to say it twice, which breaks the first rule. Being timid can mean that the scene comes to a grinding halt. Sometimes in a scene with a lot of tension or a loud sound track you may need to almost shout. Paying attention during the actor’s voice sessions can give you some good tips on voice projection.
Also, there are many actors with hearing impairments. Being loud is very important in these cases. People with hearing impairments find it particularly difficult to distinguish your voice over any underscore that may be playing so ensure you can get your voice over whatever is coming from live instruments or the PA.
This is the toughest one to master, but it is the difference between good prompting and poor prompting. An actor often doesn’t need the entire line. Usually they only need a key word, or the first few words. Knowing exactly how much they need to jog their memory allows the scene to continue more smoothly.
For example in Hamlet, the actor might not need the entire line ‘He would drown the stage with tears/ And cleave the general ear with horrid speech.’
Instead, enough might be ‘He would drown…’
The actor would usually be able to pick it up from there. However, if you were to say ‘He would’, it might not be enough to trigger the memory, and then again you would need to break the first rule and say it twice. The key word here is ‘drown’; it is an image that the actor is likely to be using in their mind and it is a word that is not used in the rest of the soliloquy.
Some more prompting tips
Stay focussed – have everything you need nearby, because that one moment when you need to lean over to reach your eraser is the moment you’ll be asked for a line. Some Stage Managers use their finger or a ruler to keep track of where they are in the script.
Learn the pauses – if you need to, mark them in your script so you don’t find yourself prompting and ruining those juicy pauses.
Keep your eyes up – often you’ll be notating blocking as well as prompting, so keeping your eyes up is needed anyway, but during a run, it is equally important. You often need eye contact with an actor to know if they really need a prompt.
Stay on the script in the theatre – once you leave the rehearsal room, it is equally important to stay following the script. As the technical elements and spacing are being sorted out, some well known lines may momentarily be lost. You need to be ready to prompt lines you have never needed to prompt before.
It can happen anytime – I’ve seen reliable actors dry in a soliloquy four weeks into the season. It can happen at any moment to anyone. Let them have a chance to find their way out of it, but be prepared to prompt if they ask.
Relax – prompting doesn’t need to be stressful. Just calmly stay on top of it. I’ve seen people tense up as they overthink it and worry they’ll get it wrong. If you get it wrong, it’s rehearsals and everyone makes mistakes in rehearsals. Just because you’re a Stage Manager with a perfectionist streak (most of us are), doesn’t make you a failure for making a mistake.
Finally a cautionary theatre tale
In my very early career, Stage Managing a co-operative theatre project, the script had a section that was repeated a couple of times within the play. One evening performance after a matinee (two show days are prime targets for forgetfulness), the actors skipped nearly seventy pages of script when they accidentally went from one of the repeated sections to a different one. They couldn’t find a way back, and I was inexperienced and was scared of prompting over the top of them to get them back on track.
That night the show was 20 minutes shorter than usual and the paying audience would have not understood the narrative at all. Looking back, I should have prompted or called a stop show to sort it out. In a commercial company, a producer would not have stood for such a mistake and the Stage Manager would have to explain why they did nothing about it.
The take away – don’t be shy or timid. Get out there and prompt with confidence; once, loudly and enough.