Die Monosau, a play at Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre, is billed as “an evening free of direction”. But during a production earlier this summer, the controlled chaos briefly spiralled out of control. In the work, a dada cabaret by artist Jonathan Meese, seven actors switch between a staggering 66 different roles including Mao, Rasputin and Mike Tyson. When one missed their cue, for a few agonising minutes the actors stood huddled around a replica junction box, silently eating ice-cream and smoking cigarettes.
It was precisely the moment Elisabeth Zumpe had been waiting for. “I can usually sense when someone is about to freeze two or three lines before it happens,” says the 38-year-old, who had spent the first few acts leaning against a pillar by the side of the stage, holding a clipboard and dressed all in black. “There’s a change of voice, or an odd movement of the head. You learn to notice it.”
Zumpe pointed a finger at actor Kerstin Grassmann until the gruff Berlin theatre veteran muttered: “Ah, I see. It’s my turn.” Then Zumpe counted the actor down from three, so she could launch into a croaky-voiced rendition of Mr Paul McCartney, the cheesy 1970 schlager hit.
The prompter then strode across the stage for the rest of the show: a collection of deranged monologues delivered in no discernible order as the cast stripped naked and poured gold paint over their heads, fired confetti-loaded bazookas at each other or played air-guitar on an oversized Dungeons-and-Dragons-style battleaxe. The playwright occasionally joined the mayhem, his face projected on a floating egg, babbling cryptic missives such as: “We must become the proletariat of art.”
Prompters such as Zumpe are the unsung heroes of a German theatre scene that puts increasingly gargantuan demands on its performers, as it ploughs a path somewhere between the avant garde and the post-pandemic appetite for more traditional entertainment. In Britain and America, as well as in France and Italy, the profession of the souffleur, or prompter, is a thing of the distant past. In productions in London’s West End, cast members are expected to get each other out of a fix if they blank on stage. Exceptions are sometimes made for ageing actors, but even then the more popular solution is an in-ear device that keeps off-stage interventions undetectable.
In contemporary German-speaking theatre, however, every prestigious venue has a bunch of prompters on staff. Munich’s Kammerspiele has two, the four big Berlin stages (Volksbühne, Schaubühne, Berliner Ensemble and Deutsches theater) three each, Hamburg’s Thalia theater five, and Vienna’s Burgtheater no fewer than eight.
If anything, they are becoming more indispensable. “My role is a bit like the point guard in a basketball match,” says Zumpe, who has been a prompter at the Volksbühne for 11 years. “It’s my responsibility to make sure the right players get the ball at the right time.” A degree of emotional intelligence and a certain athleticism are key requirements, she says. “You need a basic level of empathy and a gift for quick thinking, which in my case means I absolutely have to have a proper night’s sleep before each show.”
We sometimes have 40 plays in our repertoire, with two months passing between performances of the same play
One explanation of why Zumpe’s profession has survived in Germany has to do with the repertory system that remains the norm at theatres in German-speaking and central eastern European countries. Actors have to keep a larger number of plays in their heads at the same time and don’t get to memorise their lines over the course of a run. “We sometimes have 40 plays in our repertoire, with two months passing between performances of the same play,” says Christine Schönfeld, a prompter at the Berliner Ensemble. Die Monosau, last shown on 29 June, won’t be back until December.
But the expectations that German-speaking audiences bring to the stage are also radically different to those of theatregoers on Broadway or in the West End. The German theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann, who died last year, coined the term “postdramatic theatre” for the approach to playmaking that groups such as Rimini Protokoll or Gob Squad pioneered on the country’s stages. “The idea that plot, character and text were central to a dramatic performance, all that was being questioned,” says Michael Wolf, a theatre critic for the review portal Nachtkritik. “There are no scenes as such, or dialogue. The idea was that the text would essentially write itself on the stage.”
Nowadays few theatres other than Berlin’s Volksbühne preach the postdramatic gospel in its purest form, but the movement has set standards that are still adhered to. Even in less experimental plays, smoothly polished performances are valued less than those that make spectators feel they are experiencing something that won’t happen on any other night.
“In German theatre, we are always on the look-out for something that is being created in the moment,” says Annedore Bauer, a prompter at Berlin’s Schaubühne, a theatre whose productions often contain elements of free improvisation, while not eschewing dramatic conventions altogether. “As a result, we’re quite relaxed about actors freezing on stage these days. It’s not a big taboo.”
The term souffleur comes from the French for “to breathe”, and there used to be a view that prompters should be neither heard nor seen by the audience, hidden away in a box underneath the stage. Nowadays, they sit in the front row or actually roam the stage. At the Schaubühne’s productions of Richard III, lead performer Lars Eidinger often breaks the fourth wall to engage with prompter Bauer. “The other night,” she recalls, “he said to me, ‘Why are you looking at me like that? Did I skip a line?’ The fact that there is someone in the front row who follows exactly what you say frees up actors to try something different on the night.”
Bauer was an actor at the same theatre before she became a prompter in 2017. She still has an onstage part in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which has been part of the Schaubühne’s repertoire for nigh-on 20 years. She sees her role not so much as a safety net but as part of the creative process, working with the cast to squeeze something authentic out of their lines.
“It seems to me,” she says “that the essence of the English is already on its surface. With German, you have to keep on raking to get to the truth. There’s something Protestant about that determination to knead the script over and over for years, to engage with language at this extreme level of exactitude.”
“When I see a play, I don’t want to have text wash over me,” says Zumpe. “I go to the theatre because I want to see real emotions. Having a prompter allows the actors to be more experimental, to explore something new on the night. It means the play doesn’t become a ritual.”
Zumpe’s countdown for Grassmann’s song was one of at least half a dozen prompts she had to issue to the elderly actor on the night. It didn’t matter. When the curtain fell, Grassmann got the loudest applause.