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Chances are, as a theatre-goer, you may never have heard – and you will certainly never have seen – a prompter.  A shy and quiet breed, we lurk in dark corners hoping to go unnoticed.  

Prompters are involved in a production almost from the start, usually attending rehearsals after the first week and being there until the final curtain. During rehearsals we sit alongside the director with a copy of the play, mark the pauses and get to know the play thoroughly so that we are aware of the difference between a pause for dramatic effect and a mind gone blank.

To begin with actors rely on their script but, all too soon for some, comes the dreaded day when the director announces, “Books down from tomorrow.” Then the work really begins. Was that a pause or has he forgotten the line? Should I let her struggle or give the line straight away so that we can all go home to bed at a reasonable hour?! 

It’s important to catch mistakes that crop up before they become ingrained but not always easy to prompt every wrong word without spoiling the flow so it is sometimes necessary to write a quick note to be passed to the actor concerned later. 

It is a job that requires great concentration. Chances are that if you look up from the script someone will hesitate and you won’t be ready to jump in with the line. Rehearsals are fun as everyone is working as a team to bring the production together. It’s interesting to see how the director envisages the play and how the actors shape the characters. It is nerve-wracking to wonder if they are ever going to get the words right! It is fascinating to watch the play developing and you are quickly able to tell a well-written play from a less carefully crafted one – the lines are so much easier to memorise in a well-written script. There are often hidden depths in a play that have not been obvious (at least to me!) on
first reading. 

The characters do not always develop in the way you thought they would – a bit like reading a book and then seeing the film.

Some actors have amazing powers of memory, quickly becoming word perfect (and, more to the point, remaining so).  Many struggle but get there eventually.  A few ignore the script and paraphrase like mad. As long as the cues come
in the right places things are fine. 
I am constantly in awe of the feats of memory shown by actors. Long speeches are difficult to learn but once learned are usually fixed fast. Short interchanges with just a few words present their own problems as lines can be confused or missed out. The real nightmare is when an actor misses out a chunk of the script on stage. Do you let them carry on and hope nothing vital to the plot has been missed, or take them back and risk creating more confusion? A bit of quick thinking is called for!

During rehearsals a prompter works with the actors, but during the run of the show we find ourselves amongst the backstage crew, usually squeezed into the wings somewhere, although we may be high up in the slits or even in the dome, above the heads of the audience.  The slits and the dome involve climbing ladders so are not to everyone’s taste.  It can be disconcerting to have an eerie voice calling out from roof-level. A voice from the wings is less likely to be heard by the audience. A reliable torch and spare batteries are essential, although a “blue” is usually provided as well. 

I always feel that the prompter’s job is done by the time the play is staged.  The level of professionalism of the actors at the Little Theatre means that we are rarely called upon to prompt during the run. This doesn’t mean that everything has gone according to the script, rather that any bloops have been sorted out and covered up by the cast without the prompter having to intervene. Having said that, a prompter can never quite relax, just in case!

There are funny moments in prompting. The prompter in the dome who knocked over her bottle of water (another essential tool of the trade) which dripped down onto the audience below!  The prompter who fell asleep during a matinée performance and was only awakened by the clatter of his torch falling to the floor! The prompter who, during a frantic farce, was heard to mutter “I haven’t a clue where we are!”

Prompting is a satisfying job. For an actor, especially a newcomer, it is a way to be involved in a play whilst “resting”.  For a non-actor, it is a chance to see at first hand the amount of care, attention to detail and sheer hard work that goes into getting a play on stage. The cast are always very grateful for your efforts and surprisingly anxious to check that you are in place at the start of each performance. It must also be one of the few jobs where you can feel very happy to have done nothing at all! 

Judith Andrew