Switchboard at the prompter's corner
Switchboard at the prompter's corner

Historical SM Calling Technology: Telephone Switchboards

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

Over the course of 75 years, as cueing technology was continuously updated, it drastically altered how a show was called and how the audience perceived the performance. As noted in my article on bells and whistles, the prompter performed an aural role in the production, one that was noticed and acknowledged by audience members. With the invention of the speaking tube, and cue lights, the prompter’s role became increasingly quieter and more remote, gradually disappearing from the audience’s experience. Once electricity was installed in theaters, the telephone system followed shortly behind.

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Speaking Tube hardware including mouthpieces and whistles
Speaking Tube hardware including mouthpieces and whistles

Historical Calling Technology: The Speaking Tube

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

Before the mid-nineteenth century, prompters used aural methods to “call” the show. Prompters used bells, whistles, flags and call boys to signal a change in lights, scenery, or to cue a special effect. (See my earlier article on Calling Technology for more information on the different calling methods.) Over the next half century, calling procedures changed significantly. The audience heard and associated the bells and whistles as part of the performance, however, with new technology the prompter’s calling duties transformed into a silent, invisible activity. The first step towards imperceptible cueing was the speaking tube.

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Reading From a Manuscript Before him, He Continuously Whispers the Lines.  James O. Spearing. “The Prompter’s Art Lost to America.” New York Times, June 19, 1927. ProQuest Historical Newspapers
Reading From a Manuscript Before him, He Continuously Whispers the Lines. James O. Spearing. “The Prompter’s Art Lost to America.” New York Times, June 19, 1927. ProQuest Historical Newspapers

Historical Calling Technology: Bells, Whistles, Flags, and Call Boys

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

Tracking technological developments over time might be my favorite subtopic within the scope of stage management history. Calling technology predictably changed over time, however, it also affected how audiences related to backstage life. Before Clear-Coms and lightweight headsets, there were telephone switchboards and before that, there were cue lights. But let me tell you a little secret: before electricity, calling the show had an aural impact on the performance.

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The February 18, 1942 cover letter from Actors Equity regarding the "Committee to Consider Stage Managers’ Memo to Council"
The February 18, 1942 cover letter from Actors Equity regarding the "Committee to Consider Stage Managers’ Memo to Council"

Stage Management Grievances in 1942

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

Stage Managers Ban Together to Fight for AEA Stage Management Contract

On December 18th, 1941 and January 15th, 1942, a delegation of stage managers met with the “Committee to Consider Stage Managers’ Memo to Council” (yes, this was the committee’s official name), which was a special Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) committee specifically formed to consider their requests.

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Julia Morrison in street clothes. “Tragedy: Closed with a Speech by the Actress” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 11, 1900
Julia Morrison in street clothes. “Tragedy: Closed with a Speech by the Actress” Cincinnati Enquirer, January 11, 1900

Murder Onstage: An Early 20th Century Actress Kills Her Stage Manager Before an Audience

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

During a performance at the Chattanooga Opera House on Friday, September 22nd, 1899, Julia Morrison, the leading actress of the traveling show, Mr. Plaster of Paris, exited the stage in the middle of her Act II scene with Frank Leiden, leading man and stage manager.[1]  She seized the loaded revolver she kept between her breasts, reentered the scene, and shot Leiden three times, killing him. Fifteen hundred audience members looked on in shock until a call for a surgeon roused them. Morrison was immediately taken under custody by the local police and sent to the nearby jail to await the outcome of the coroner’s inquest. A few weeks later, the grand jury indicted her, and her trial was set for January 1900. By the beginning of her trial, Julia Morrison had become a household name and the event was covered across the nation, making headlines.

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Prompt Corner. Photo Courtesy of Archives.org THE THEATRE AT WORK A Glimpse Behind the Scenes by James Cleaver
Prompt Corner. Photo Courtesy of Archives.org THE THEATRE AT WORK A Glimpse Behind the Scenes by James Cleaver

Women in Stage Management: Revolutionizing History with Inclusion

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

Since I started compiling research on the history of the stage manager, I have run into at least 10 different claims for the “First Female Stage Manager.” In a 1987 obituary, the Los Angeles Times credited Phyllis Seaton as being “Broadway’s 1st Women Stage Manager” (around 1940’s), The Washington Post interviewed Maude T. Howell about her role as an American stage manager in 1928, and Maud Gill wrote her See the Players autobiography which includes a chapter about her experiences as Stage Manager in 1920’s London. Even before this, in the 1860’s we have Laura Keene stage managing her own theatre, Charlotte Cushman stage managing at the Walnut Street Theatre in 1842-1844, and Charlotte Charke takes up the prompting mantle in England in 1754.

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Part II A Crash Course in American Stage Management History

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

The term “Director” was introduced in the late 1800’s, although scholars continue to debate who was the ‘first’ American modern director, I attribute it to Augustus Daly. Augustus Daly (among others), changed the production process in theater. Daly expected more out of his actors, requiring attendance at all rehearsals, beginning the rehearsal process several weeks or months in advance and for several hours at a time. Prior to this, rehearsals for specific productions were sporadic, and totaled a few hours spanning over several weeks. He fined actors for lateness, absenteeism, and forgotten lines or blocking. Overall, he regimented the rehearsal process.

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The Martydom of St. Apollonia by Jean Fouquet. A Late 1400’s Painting that featured, on the right hand-side of the painting, a monk (prompter) feeding lines and actions to the "actors" onstage.
The Martydom of St. Apollonia by Jean Fouquet. A Late 1400’s Painting that featured, on the right hand-side of the painting, a monk (prompter) feeding lines and actions to the "actors" onstage.

A Crash-Course in American Stage Management History

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

Before the second Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, the prompter performed the duties commonly associated with the contemporary stage manager. Why do I say that? Because the prompter notated all blocking movements in the promptbook along with any special effect cues, scenic changes, and call boy cues. The promptbook served as a collection of paperwork that represented a production. Sound familiar? It stands to reason, that the historical bearer of such a book would be the predecessor to today’s SM.

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Welcome to the New Stage Management History Blog

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier

After posting two articles on SD’s SM Kit blog curated by David J. McGraw, I am incredibly excited to join the Stage Directions’ family, with my very own blog, SM History.  Check back often, as I’ll be posting information about the projects that I’m working on and other fun facts that I find along the way. But before we get to the historical stuff… let me introduce myself, my journey, and what information you can look forward to.

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