Whispers Offstage? Could Be Actor’s Next Line

I highly recommend reading this article:

Whispers Offstage? Could Be Actor’s Next Line
By Patrick Healy
Published: October 28, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/theater/29actors.html

Trigorin in The Seagull

Trigorin in The Seagull

I read it on the way into the city today and could not believe what I was reading. Calling for a line during a performance? Someone in the audience ready to give an actor lines? Earpieces? Getting fired for lines taped inside a hat?

What is going on? It’s the way it was and maybe, just maybe, it is becoming a thing of the present.

Actors are people and they forget lines but audience members pay, sometimes, extremely high prices for tickets to see the ‘big stars’ on stage. But those stars are sometimes given new version of scripts the night before or the same day of their performance. Sometimes they are on the older end of the scale. When you’re 80 will you be doing the same job you’re doing now? As proficiently?

When I started my training at 3rd Act in Cheshire, CT many years ago I was under the impression that lines were learned, if you forgot a line you or your fellow actors got out of it in whatever way you could. That’s just the way it was done. Today I learned differently.

“In the early days of theater, there was a ‘prompt corner’ with a person ready to throw the line to any actor,” Ms. Lansbury recalled. “In the electronic age, some 80-year-old performers wear earpieces. And all of us lose ourselves in a play at moments. Laurence Olivier did at the height of his career. This is part of theater.”

Have I ever forgotten a line? “You betcha.” What happened and what’d I do?

Well, I had a ‘near death experience moment’ – the kind where everything seems to happen in the blink of an eye – and then… Did something. Once I held a stare for a moment longer than I had normally, turned in disgust, turned back and let loose on them. Why? I remembered my line. The audience thought it was part of the play.

Another time, recently, I blanked on the exact same line in two performances. The issue with this situation was the scheme. What scheme? The rhyming scheme of the lines. Right. So, I had to, in the moment, figure out how to rhyme two lines of dialog to get back into the correct text. I did it twice and nobody in the audience – a scholastic theatre crowd – asked or laughed with me about it.

So… Here’s are some questions I’d love to hear your feedback on:

  • Have you ever seen an actor miss a line and known?
  • What do you think of the idea of a line prompter?
  • Actors… Share your stories. I know you have stories.
  • Is this mind blowing to you or is it just me?

Please feel free to chime in on any point related that I may have missed too.

Visit My Acting Page to see my resume, photos, and videos of shows and films I’ve done.

Original Article:
October 29, 2009

Whispers Offstage? Could Be Actor’s Next Line

Ticket holders at this week’s first previews of Matthew Broderick’s new Off Broadway play have been privy to a second drama: watching the veteran theater actor try to learn his lines, with help from a prompter sitting in the front row.

The play, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Starry Messenger,” has been undergoing rewrites amid preview performances, and Mr. Broderick has struggled so much that he called out for lines multiple times on Monday and Tuesday nights. His offstage helper is expected to be on hand at least until this weekend.

The problems have led the show’s producer, the New Group, to delay opening night for a week; at the same time some audience members have complained about paying to see a star who has not memorized his part. Mr. Broderick was not available to comment, but Scott Elliott, artistic director of the New Group, said there was no shame in using a prompter. “It happens now and then,” he said, “but people simply don’t know about it.”

The stage and screen legend Angela Lansbury, for instance, said in an interview this week that she used an earpiece to stay on cue during her Tony Award-winning turn in “Blithe Spirit” on Broadway last season.

“It’s not something you ever want to do, but if we’re going to play important roles at our age, where our names are above the title on the marquee, we’re going to ask for some support if we need it,” said Ms. Lansbury, 84, who is set to star this winter in the Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music.”

But now the use of prompts has become a matter of inquiry for the Actors’ Equity union, which is investigating a recent dismissal by the Hartford Stage theater of an actor who peeked at bits of dialogue that he had taped inside his character’s hat for a difficult scene.

While opera companies have long had hidden prompters at the rim of the stage, many theater actors shudder at the idea of needing help with lines during performances. For them, mastery of a script is a benchmark of professionalism. Still, acting fallbacks have a long but largely unnoticed history in the theater. During the national tour of “Legends” in the 1980s, Mary Martin, who was in her 70s at the time, used an earpiece that also picked up taxi signals, according to published accounts.

In the Hartford Stage incident, the fired actor, Matt Mulhern, 49, was appearing in Horton Foote’s “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” a series of three plays over nine hours. Mr. Mulhern said he never received any warning from Hartford Stage that his job might be in jeopardy; “Orphans” is a co-production with Signature Theater Company in New York, where it is transferring next month.

In an interview, Mr. Mulhern described the prompt in his hat as a “crutch” that he relied on because of script changes during rehearsals. He said he had been “emotionally devastated” by his Sept. 22 dismissal, the first of his 27-year career. He also acknowledged he had “ruffled feathers” among colleagues for a variety of other reasons after rehearsals began in July.

Michael Wilson, the artistic director of Hartford Stage and director of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” declined to comment, saying the theater did not discuss employment issues. Maria Somma, a spokeswoman for Actors’ Equity, also declined to comment.

Hartford Stage has yet to give Equity a formal reason for firing Mr. Mulhern, according to the actor. Ms. Somma again would not comment on the matter.

“Actors being fired for this reason vary by the situation,” Harry Weintraub, general counsel of the League of Resident Theaters, which includes Hartford Stage, said in an interview. When asked if the production created hardships for actors because it spanned nine hours and included script changes, Mr. Weintraub said, “I wasn’t aware that Mr. Mulhern had nine hours of lines to learn.”

Actors’ Equity contracts do not forbid actors to use prompts, though directors sometimes fire actors who have trouble learning their lines. Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, said he had done so in the past. But he has also made adjustments, he said.

In 2002, for instance, Vanessa Redgrave was having “a stressful time learning the lines” for the role of Mary Tyrone in the Goodman’s production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Mr. Falls said. When previews began, she asked the producers and Mr. Falls if she could have a prompter in the front row with a script. Ms. Redgrave never called for a line, he said. She went on to win the Tony Award for best actress when the production transferred to Broadway in 2003.

“The prompter was more of a security blanket for Vanessa than anything else,” Mr. Falls said. A representative for Ms. Redgrave said she had no comment.

In the Broadway production of “The Gin Game” (1977-78), the characters played by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn spent stretches of time playing gin rummy. The actors at first used randomly dealt cards with numbers that, naturally, did not match the dialogue. While the two spent extra hours drilling lines for the gin rummy sequences, they were both nearing 70 and had memory lapses.

“The initial solution for this was to pare down each scene, then write notes on the top of the card table” for the actors to refer to, said Nina Seely Sommer, the production supervisor for the show. “This was difficult, because the stage was raked so that the audience could see the top of the table, so these notes had to look like player graffiti.” Eventually the faces of the playing cards were sanded off, so the actors would not get confused.

Although prompters once played a part in theater, audiences are no longer accustomed to them. And with Broadway producers now charging $125 for orchestra seats, ticket buyers expect at a minimum that actors will know their parts. New wireless technology has made it easier for actors to mask, say, flesh-colored earpieces. Ms. Lansbury recalled that when she and Marian Seldes were on Broadway in Terrence McNally’s “Deuce” in 2007, a tiny speaker was behind their chairs in early performances to pipe lines to them if needed.

Ms. Lansbury emphasized, though, that neither the “Blithe Spirit” nor “Deuce” prompts diminished the productions — or audiences’ apparent pleasure.

“In the early days of theater, there was a ‘prompt corner’ with a person ready to throw the line to any actor,” Ms. Lansbury recalled. “In the electronic age, some 80-year-old performers wear earpieces. And all of us lose ourselves in a play at moments. Laurence Olivier did at the height of his career. This is part of theater.”

This season “A Steady Rain” is one of the most dialogue-driven plays on Broadway, with the actors Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig — who have extensive experience in the theater, not just movies — shouldering all 90 minutes of dialogue. A spokesman for the show said this week that neither man used prompts. Still, Mr. Jackman said in an interview in August that the amount of memorization was a tall order and that he and Mr. Craig even tossed a ball back and forth while running their lines.

“I hope we won’t have to use cue cards,” Mr. Jackman joked, then added, “It’s a slog to learn the whole script, but there’s no other way to do it.”


Gary Ploski is an actor, blogger, and instructional technologist living and working in the CT and NY area.

1 Comment

  1. I have seen actors go up in performances. It is a terrifying and awkward thing. I have worked with actors who go up and after they are terribly embarrassed and usually all they can say is “It just went away”

    Prompting happens, a lot more then you would imagine. Especially with older actors. I am not surprised by that at all.

    I did King Lear last year with Dakin Mathews. Dakin dramaturge the show as well as worked with the director to make edits and cuts to the script. He knew it inside and out. He went up several times during the run. He is a class act. Trained to the beyond but at 70 years old his memory just isn’t always there. We weren’t able to have a prompter for him but i kept poster board and big markers in the booth in case of an emergency. I used it twice during the run.

    I’ve worked with a French director a few years ago and he insisted that we have a prompter for the actors off stage, so my SM intern became a prompter for the show.

    I just wished my company could afford those ear pieces. That would be awesome!!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 2009 October 29 | Gary Ploski - [...] Read the blog here: http://garyploski.com/whispers-offstage-could-be-actor’s-next-line [...]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *