A Crash-Course in American Stage Management History

by Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier
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.

As we head into the new year, the Stage Direction's Stage Management History blog is coming fully online. Here's the first installment, Part I of A Crash-Course in American Stage Management History from our resident Stage Management Historian, Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. We hope that you enjoy these excerpts and findings from her PH.D. studies in the history of Stage Management. - Michael S. Eddy, Editor-in-Chief of Stage Directions.

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.

William John Lawrence argues in Old Theatre Days and Ways that the position of the prompter dates to the 15th century, using Jean Fouquet’s late 1400’s painting The Martydom of St. Apollonia to illustrate his point (please see photo). At the time, only the extremely wealthy and clergy could read and/or write, which meant someone needed to explain the text on the page to the performers. He notes that on the right hand-side of the painting, a monk stands, feeding lines and actions to the actors onstage, arguably performing the prompter’s role for the production. In his book, he also remarks that the oldest known prompt-book still in existence is Le Mystère de la Passion from a staging of the play in 1501 C.E. at Mons.

In 1576, the first playhouse was built in London, shifting theater from a recreational or religious pastime to a professional event. At that time, theater companies performed a different show every night. Continuous runs (meaning same production night after night) began in the late 1800’s, and only for as long as people bought tickets. Because of this, the actors always had at least 30 plays roughly memorized and relied heavily on the prompter in performance. Compared to today, there was little design work, as set and props were taken from storage every night, and costumes were provided by the actors. Keep in mind that electricity hasn’t been invented, so lighting is primarily daylight or candlelight, (neither of which can dim!), and was eventually extended to include oil lamps (late 1700’s), gas lamps (early 1800’s) and calcium lamps (mid 1830’s, also known as limelight), which could be manipulated manually, but only a little. For an overview on the history of theater and design, I recommend reading an introduction to theater history textbook, for example the Brockett and Hildy version which focuses on the history of theater and stage craft.

The prompter recorded everything into the promptbook, set the stage, and called the show using flags, whistles, and eventually bells. (Consider the opening credits of Downton Abbey where there is a snapshot of the servant bells in a row. However, in a theatrical setting, the bell pulls were in the prompter’s box, and the bells were dispersed throughout the theater). At various points and in different locations, the prompter was also known as the Ordinary, Bookholder, Conveyour, Régisseur, or Souffler. Diaries and ledgers from eighteen and nineteenth century theater companies demonstrate the records kept by their prompters. Prompters used these journals to record overtime, payment, benefit performance information, a complete list of plays performed in a season, and the list of actors employed. Interestingly, the prompter also recorded a primitive rehearsal and performance report each day, recording who was absent, who went on, and any notable events that occurred during the performance. For more information about the early modern rehearsal and acting process, I recommend Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan by Tiffany Stern.

So, if that was the prompter, what did the stage manager do? Before 1870, the stage manager performed the role of what we would consider the “Director,” and dates back to Shakespeare’s time. The term “stage manager” was interchangeable with the term “Actor-Manager.” For simplicities sake, I will use “Actor-Manager” when referring to the person historically called the stage manager. The actor-manager oversaw casting, decided on entrances/exits and important blocking (which was minimal, as it was mostly systematic gestures and actor motivated). They chose the scenery and props from storage, and overall managed everything onstage. The actor-manager, as the term implies, also acted in the performance.

So, what changed in American Theater between 1870 and 1930? How did the director take over the stage manager’s role, how did the stage manager take over the prompter, and where, oh where, did the prompter go? It is precisely these answers which I hope to uncover during my dissertation research and writing process. The good news is: I already have a few theories on the how’s and why’s.

[Be sure to come back next week for Part II of A Crash-Course in American Stage Management History where we learn more about directors entering the picture and the beginnings of stage managers as we know them today.]

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.