At Luella Massey’s funeral service today, Professor Domenico Pietropaolo spoke of a dream near & dear to both of their hearts.
Pietropaolo is a former Director of the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, and is now Principal of St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
Massey & Pietropaolo had hoped to create an archive of the prompt books (click here for more about the prompt book) for all the shows created at the Centre in the almost 40 years of its existence: a time when Massey had saved prompt books for countless shows presented at the Centre. Pietropaolo reminded us in his eulogy that prompt books are an important resource for scholars, even though they don’t get the same kind of respect as the printed texts.
Are prompt books the Rodney Dangerfield of theatre scholarship?
Perhaps at one time, but the times they are a-changin’. When I first took a course at the Drama Centre, the discipline was almost exclusively focused on drama in books. As I understood it, Ryerson had the theatre school –where you went if you wanted to work as an actor or theatre practitioner—whereas students at the Drama Centre understood their school (which also had an active theatre) as a place to study the nature of drama & its theories. Pardon me if i oversimplify, because even then the focus had begun to change, in the world at large and at the Centre. At one time they didn’t want to allow opera or ballet to be included within the framework of “drama” which i suppose was understood as Shakespeare or Moliere, but not Wagner or Stravinsky; but i said “at one time”, because of course the boundaries are all changing. Drama & theatre & performance aren’t even limited merely to the stage anymore.
And decades later, they’ve changed the name of the place. It’s now Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, a shift away from a pure emphasis upon drama on the printed page. One still studies the theories, but they’re including Theatre & Performance Studies in recognition that it’s not just the book, and never was, come to think of it. A play-script is only a beginning, especially from those centuries when we had little or no secondary text to tell us what else to put on the stage besides the personages & their words.
The prompt book is really a sum of all the many details that go into a performance, not just the lines of the actors. While the words coming out of the mouths of the stars have garnered the lion’s share of attention, there’s so much more to it than that. That’s really what I was thinking when I spoke of what’s “under the radar”, because stage managers and technical staff in the wings & backstage don’t get the kind of attention actors & playwrights receive.
Thank goodness for media such as video & film, where the scholar now has the ability to study the complete work. The disparity between a screenplay and a film is so huge –especially from my perspective as a composer & musician, just to speak of one of the many disciplines comprising the finished work—one can’t mistake the screenplay for the film. A video or film of a live theatre performance contains different information than a prompt book, of course, but in each case they point to the many dimensions of a performance that aren’t in the original text.
A prompt book comprised of playtext and the many marginal notes from stage management –blocking, sounds cues, lighting cues, and more—is an unwieldy thing as far as archiving is concerned. They can be big heavy things to lift. For most of history they’ve been analog documents, although I am intrigued at the prospect of increasing digitalization. I would assume that in the realm of musical theatre for example, where MIDI rules, that the notation & recording of information for stage management has progressed far beyond the realm of penciled notes on a script, that the prompt book isn’t just on paper anymore. With the ongoing convergence of digital media, this too should be expected, first on laptops and then maybe on smart-phones (and whatever comes after these ubiquitous devices). As with so many of the topics I write about in this space, I have to confess I am not up on what’s newest in the practice of the discipline. But I would think that—as everything becomes more and more digital, and therefore inter-connected –digital prompt books will become more and more accessible, and therefore be a more central part of scholarship & research.
Hm, as a kind of final thought I googled “digital prompt book” and saw some intriguing things come up. Not everyone is digital yet, but I would assume –given the advantages—that this is where it must be going.
I only wish I could have asked Luella about it. I’m sure her opinions & comments would have been entertaining.