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Shakespeare & Beyond

Play scripts as you like them

Fittingly for an institution with both a library and a theater, the Folger collection includes a number of promptbooks. Today, to celebrate Folger Theatre’s production of As You Like It opening next week, we’re taking a look at two productions of As You Like It from the nineteenth century.

A lot of careful planning and coordination goes into a play, both during rehearsal and live performances, and it’s important for cast and crew to keep track of everything: which scenes need different backdrops? When does each character enter and exit their scenes? What props do they need? Were any lines cut or altered? What if someone forgets a line??

As You Like It Promptbook

Enter the promptbook, to help stage managers and actors keep their, er, act straight. A promptbook is a version of the play script that is marked up with cuts, changes, additions, entrances and exits, and other stage business such as sound and light cues, costume changes, and lists of props (often called “property plots”). Prompters (a person just off-stage who would feed actors a line if they forgot their place) and stage managers used promptbooks to keep the performance running smoothly.

The Folger’s collection of promptbooks includes both traditional promptbooks as described above—a master copy of the script with all stage directions—and also actors’ copies of plays, marked for a specific role. Some items are both, having been used in multiple productions by multiple actors and managers. (Tracing the history of these items can be fun but tricky!)

Many promptbooks were made from published editions of a play text, which were then edited and marked by hand for each production. Sometimes play settings (the total set of added or deleted lines, stage directions, etc.), or a promptbook itself, would be passed from stage manager to stage manager and used for multiple productions. Often they would see severe wear and tear, and would need to be re-covered, with blank paper or any scrap of paper that came to hand, including old playbills.