This article is about the Prompt Book. There are two sections: the first describes the prompt book and its use, the second is a Q&A with Maegan Alyse Passafume, Stage Manager for Native Gardens, and Nicole Kutcher, Stage Manager for Murder for Two at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
What is a Prompt Book?
The prompt book, or cueing script or calling script, is often referred to as “the bible” of the production. Books discussing the how-to’s of stage management very clearly emphasize the importance of this document. It is the official record of the production and is archived at the end of the run. It contains information necessary to recreate the production: the script marked up with blocking and cues; scenic design plan; costume design sketches; list of props; and lighting, sound, and special effects cues. During the production, the prompt book is in a three-ring binder.
If anything happens to the stage manager (SM), the prompt book can be used by another stage manager, or assistant stage manager (ASM), to run the show. I read where a stage manager became incapacitated during a show…we all know “the show must go on”…and it did.
During performances of Native Gardens at MRT from September 27 through 30, including the roll-out of open captioning, Nicole Kutcher filled in for Maegan Alyse Passafume, Stage Manager for Native Gardens. I was in the audience for the performance on September 27 and failed to notice any indication there was a substitute stage manager, and I was watching for it. See the comments on that transition in the Q&A below.
Photographs of pages from the prompt books for Native Gardens (final version) and Murder for Two (rehearsal version) accompany this article. In each photo, the page on the left is from the script (and/or the music for Murder for Two). The page on the right contains sections for notes on Blocking (movements of the actors), Scenic (layout of the stage), Lights, Props, Costumes, Sound, and Transitions/Miscellaneous/Other Reminders. To conserve space, abbreviations are used. The circled numbers, in pencil, on the lefthand page are references to the blocking notes with the same numbers on the facing page.
In place of a single script, musical theater has two documents: “Book & Lyrics” (the full script) and a “Book & Music” (all the music). The “Book” (script), “Lyrics”, and “Music” may each be written by a single person or a by a collaboration. The prompt book contains an interleaving of pages taken from the “Book & Lyrics” and the “Book & Music”. The interleaving of pages is crucial. During the read through for Murder for Two, I tried to follow along using the two as separate documents and had trouble on a few occasions, as did others including the actors.
There are three stages of production at MRT: rehearsals, previews, and the run. During rehearsals the prompt book is annotated in pencil by the stage manager. During the run, when the play is being performed for an audience, the stage manager uses the prompt book to call cues and monitor for performance issues. Previews are the transition between rehearsals and the final run; the stage manager is calling the cues but the director may make minor revisions based on the audience reaction and their own observations.
By opening night, the director has settled on the blocking and cueing to be used throughout the run. Small adjustments were still being made for Native Gardens on the afternoon of the opening night.
After opening night, no further changes are made and the stage manager finalizes the prompt book, as shown in the example for Native Gardens. Later in the season there will be three world premieres, so we’ll see whether there are any changes following opening night for those productions.
Q&A with Nicole Kutcher (NK), Stage Manager for Murder for Two and Maegan Alyse Passafume (MP), Stage Manager for Native Gardens.
Q: During the run of Native Gardens, Nicole Kutcher (NK) filled in for Maegan Alyse Passafume (MP) for five shows. Can you comment on this transition, in particular with respect to use of the prompt book, or calling script?
MP: All stage managers are taught early on that your paperwork and your book need to be clean and legible enough for someone to come in and call the show without ever having seen it. Obviously this is only in case of emergency, which does happen. But I told MRT when I was offered Native Gardens that I would need that weekend off and they would have to find me a sub. Because every stage manager sets up their book in different ways, anyone coming into sub will usually watch that stage manager call the show before they try to call it themselves. That way they can see how the book is set up, and ask any questions they might have.
NK: As Maegan mentioned, every stage manager has their own method of setting up their prompt book—they all contain the same essential information, just set up in different ways according to what works best for them. Knowing this and knowing that I would be covering for her, Maegan sent me a digital copy of her calling script ahead of time to give me the opportunity to study her system and be prepared for when I stepped in. I was able to watch the archival video of the show and follow along with the calling script to ensure that I was familiar with the show itself and how the cues fit in.
[Ed. Note: MRT makes a single archival recording of each play. For Native Gardens and Murder for Two that archival video was recorded on opening night. This video is for archival purposes only and, for contractual reasons, is not publicly available.]
Q: Have you experienced a time where the stage manager became incapacitated during the show? Was the audience aware of the issue while it was happening?
MP: The only time I’ve ever seen someone incapacitated was an ASM I was working with backstage about 6 years ago. Thankfully we were in tech and not performances, so we were able to stop and take care of her.
NK: Fortunately I have not had this experience during a public performance. I did, however, have an experience during a tech rehearsal where the stage manager became ill and as the ASM, I was asked to step in to keep the rehearsal moving while the stage manager received medical attention. At this point, the cues were still being written into her prompt book so after a quick crash course on her particular process for marking them, I jumped in.
Q: Maegan, you are listed as one of two stage managers for the 2017 production of Chill by Eleanor Burgess at MRT. How did that transition play out?
MP: Casey needed someone to take over for her on Chill so she could move on to her next production. So over the course of three days I saw the show, I watched her call the show, and then she watched me call the show to make sure I understood it. Then she stepped away and I took over for her.
Nicole Kutcher was the stage manager for last year’s world premiere of Little Orphan Danny at MRT. For Little Orphan Danny, the “Book, Music, & Lyrics” were all authored by Dan Finnerty.
Q: Was there a “Book & Lyrics” and “Book & Music” for Little Orphan Danny during the MRT production?
NK: There were both “Book & Lyrics” and “Book & Music” for Little Orphan Danny. However, because it was a brand new musical, the script and the music were constantly changing and new edits passed out to the cast & band members almost every day. In the end, those final versions were preserved to be passed on to future versions of the show. For a musical, it is essential to have both a script and music so that the band can smoothly follow along with what is happening onstage without missing a beat.
Q: What changes were made to Little Orphan Danny after opening night?
NK: Usually the show is “frozen” after opening night for shows that have been previously licensed, printed and copywritten. In this particular case, Little Orphan Danny was the world premiere of a show that was still in the workshop process. This, combined with the fact that the lead performer was also the creator/playwright meant that he continued to tweak lines here and there, trying out new jokes and maximizing his time in front of an audience to see what worked. Most of the changes he made fit within the technical elements that had already been established before opening.
[Ed. Note: In Murder for Two, Joe Kinosian, the actor playing The Suspects, is also one of the original authors and performers. As a result, there was additional flexibility during rehearsals, a couple of lines were removed from and added to the script, but the show was still “frozen” after opening night. One of the characters presents differently every performance but that is explicitly allowed in the script.]
Q: Were there differences in how you developed and used the prompt book for Little Orphan Danny and for Murder for Two?
NK: Yes, in fact. My personal philosophy is to constantly adapt my system for what will best serve my current production. In this case, the hyper-specific nature of the Murder for Two blocking, and subsequently the cueing, lead me to adapt my method to allow for the notation those elements in a more detailed manner. It meant tweaking the way the book was set up, the symbols used for notations and layout of the cues in the finalized calling script.
Q: JC Clementz, Director for the MRT production of Murder for Two, also directed the production at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Was the prompt book for the Milwaukee Rep production used at all for developing the MRT production?
NK: It was not. Because JC and the cast had just recently completed the same production, they did occasionally reference what they had done before. However, when you’re putting up the same show in a new space, inevitably things will be need to be adjusted to better suit the new space, new ideas will be discovered and improvements will be made. In this case, it best suited to production to pull together a new prompt book from scratch.
Q: Any other things you want to share about the prompt book, or calling script?
MP: Once the calling script gets to the theatre for tech, it never leaves. It doesn’t go home with you, it doesn’t stay in your car, it’s left somewhere in the theatre until closing. That way if something happens to you, your replacement knows where to find it.
NK: When you’re putting together the calling script for a musical, it can end up as a combination of script pages, pages of music and sometimes lists of step-by-steps of actions (used most often for sections involving movement/dancing without spoken lines). This is all determined by what allows for the clearest and specific documentation, as well as the needs of the stage manager.
–Cynthia McLain, Cohort
Murder for Two runs October 17 – November 11, 2018.