Some things never change

By Bridget O’Reilly

With every aspect of our lives transformed by technology, it’s heartening that a tradition lying at the heart of theatre has changed very little

As in Shakespearean times, modern stage management staff and students at the Victorian College of the Arts construct prompt books by hand. And while video has become a valuable resource to complement the prompt book, it has so far failed to overtake ink and paper.

The role of the prompt book

Prompt books are considered the bedrock of theatre companies and, importantly, record a particular imagining of a play, at a particular time, by a particular creative team.

There are thousands of prompt books in holdings throughout the world, including those recording the stage management of Shakespearean classics.

The most common layouts feature the script on one side, with lines drawn out from the text. These lead to notations – on the adjacent page – explaining actor movements, technical cues for lighting, and costume reminders.

The stage manager’s notations tell the reader exactly how a production team imagined the script. Modern adaptations, such as the VCA’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, record contemporary interpretations while an Antony and Cleopatra prompt book now held in the Baillieu Library’s Special Collections, shows how R. W. Younge and his team of playmakers imagined Shakespeare’s classic tragedy for their 1850s audience. It includes set sketches with written notes produced in the 19th century.

Antony and Cleopatra prompt book
The 1856 Antony and Cleopatra prompt book is the centerpiece of the ‘After Shakespeare’ exhibition running at the Noel Shaw Gallery at the University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library from 14 July–15 January
Copies of prompt books
The VCA produces and files prompt books, captured in the time-honoured hard copy method, for all its productions

Prompt books and the modern theatre

Annie Reid, lecturer on production stage management at the Victorian College of the Arts and an expert in modern stage management, teaches her students to develop their paper work in the same way it was done hundreds of years ago.

“Exactly the same way”, says Ms Reid. “When I teach them blocking in their prompt book, they do it very lightly in pencil. Because tomorrow it’s going to change – completely.”

While modern stage managers add value and augment prompt books with video, Reid stresses that the tradition of using pen and pencil to mark up the script remains central.

“We use technology when it’s appropriate,” she says. “And will often upload a video recording onto Dropbox and send it to the actors so they can look at it overnight, but only when we deem it necessary.”

If process for creating prompt books hasn’t changed, what about use?

As a record of a particular production of a play, Annie Reid reckons a prompt book has everything you need to know to redo that production.

“Shakespearean theatre companies would have had a repertoire of plays they’d put on every other year,” says Ms Reid, “so they might do Twelfth Night this year, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream next year, but in five years time they might decide to do Twelfth Night again.”

“If not for prompt books, productions would have been lost for modern audiences.”

“Providing a faithful record of the production, the prompt book enables them to do it again.”

The significance of prompt books in creating a production company’s repertoire is the same today as it was in the age of the Antony and Cleopatra prompt book, Reid points out.

“The Melbourne Theatre Company recently did North By North West. And they remounted it six months later in the State Theatre, having done it before in the Playhouse.

“But it was essentially the same production.”

A glimpse into the past

Some old prompt books, including the version held in the University of Melbourne’s Special Collections, offers a glimpse into how classic plays have been presented to audiences over the centuries.

The Antony and Cleopatra prompt book is interweaved with an elaborate set illustrations, detailed directions for actors, and extensive interpretations of Shakespeare’s phrasing.

The origins of the prompt book are not known exactly, but Dr David McInnis, the Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies in the English and Theatre Studies program at the University of Melbourne, believes it was destined for performance in Melbourne around the 1850s. While he has not found evidence to indicate the production actually made it to the stage, the prompt book demonstrates how gold rush era audiences experienced Shakespeare’s works – right down to the grand opening procession and dance.

“Shakespeare’s plays are long,” says Dr McInnis. “Cuts and alterations are always required – if not for timing, then to suit the particular venue at hand. In the Antony and Cleopatra prompt book, we see examples of lines and partial scenes being cut, and of characters being doubled to economise in terms of the number of actors required.”

Set notations in the Antony and Cleopatra prompt book
Set notations in the Antony and Cleopatra prompt book held in the University of Melbourne’s Special Collections (detail)

Providing a wider historical perspective

The Anthony and Cleopatra prompt book has historical significance for what it says about the production’s intended audience.

“The Antony and Cleopatra prompt book includes alterations to specific words that may have caused offence to Victorian sensibilities,” says Dr McInnis.

“For example, Caesar accuses Antony of having given up his empire to a ‘wanton’ rather than a ‘whore,’ while Cleopatra is no longer a ‘Triple-trun’d whore’, but a ‘Triple-turn’d strumpet’ after the sea-fight.”

According to Dr McInnis, the University of Melbourne’s promptbook was copied from one by English theatre owner Samuel Phelps.

“Within a matter of years, Melbourne companies were trying to produce Shakespeare’s plays in their original form, at a time when most people were only familiar with [English playwright John] Dryden’s version.”

As Dr McInnis points out, these insights are only possible because of the detailed notations left behind in prompt books.

“As a modern society, we can understand what a Dryden version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is, and what a Younge version is, thanks to prompt books.

“If it were not for prompt books – these productions would have been lost for modern audiences.”

For further information, read David McInnis’ “Samuel Phelps’s Antony and Cleopatra in Australia: An Unrecorded Promptbook for Performance in Melbourne, 1856” recently published by the British Shakespeare Association’s journal, Shakespeare.

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