Monday, September 10, 2012


If not for the persistent (and persistently loathsome) meme about Obama and teleprompters, I wouldn’t give teleprompters a thought in the world.

But this persistent (and persistently loathsome) meme does manage to hang on, and on, and on. I suspect this is in large part because it’s a cagier, more sophisticated way of delegitimizing the president than the thousands upon thousands of blatantly racist and/or just plain moronic ones circulating out there.

Although I haven’t given much thought to teleprompters – other than being irked (and bored) by the Obama meme – the folks at The New Yorker have given it a bit of attention, with a recent “Talk of the Town” entry on those who operate what Herbert Hoover dubbed “that blasted contrivance.” (Hoover was one of the first politicians to use one. He did so at the 1952 Republican National Convention.)

Because I’ve never thought about teleprompters in general, or about how they work in particular, I was a bit surprised to find out that there are actually operators who push the scrolling along. Apparently you can automate it, but the “pro’s” – news anchors, actors, and politicians – use manual prompters who “turn a knob” – I’m envisioning an Etch-a-Sketch  - “that scrolls the text on the monitor.” Automation would obviously not work if you wanted to put in a few unscripted riffs. (At the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton’s off-script flights apparently doubled the word count.)

Anyway, prompters come from “the New York production scene” – which I take it is folks who make a life for themselves in the arts.  One of the two prompters mentioned in the article is an Off Broadway actor, who was headed to Tampa to prompt for the biggest speeches delivered at the RNC (both Romneys and Paul Ryan). As the actor, Michael Barringer, noted, he had no intention of doing what his friends suggested, i.e., sabotage the event. Whatever comes out of those prompted mouths was going to treated fairly and squarely.

“Maybe there will be some terrible things that they’re going to say but I still have to twiddle the knob, because it’s paying for me to do weird downtown theater.”

If it ain’t one weird theater, it’s another, I guess.

I’m not especially familiar with the “production scene”, but I am somewhat familiar with the “theater scene” and very familiar with the “writing scene”, so I know that people for whom asking their parents is not an option do what they have to do feed their creative habits.

A few years ago, I saw a guy wearing paint-splattered overalls and hefting a ladder gonig into a building in my neighborhood. It took me a minute to realize I’d seen him a few nights before in a play.

The writers I know mostly eke it out as adjunct writing instructors, but one of my writing friends worked the cheese department at Whole Foods for a few years and another is currently working in a bakery.

You do what you have to do.

Barringer found his prompting gig through the Flux Factory, an artists’ collective in Long Island City (Queens). One of the co-founders, Morgan Meis, was also an RNC prompter – she drew doing the honors for Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie, and in the past had done Rudy Giuliani.

The Flux Factory “supports and promotes emerging artists through exhibitions, commissions, residencies, and collaborative opportunities.”

Among other things, it offers gallery rental, a silk screen studio, and co-working space with wi-fi, lockers, a kitchen, and:

…proximity to a multi-talented group of ambitious and creative people including coders, painters, and social changers.

Which, as a long-standing member and (gulp!) current president of The Writers’ Room of Boston, I get entirely.

Although I can’t imagine I’d be much good as a prompter – I’d probably find myself scrolling ahead, or accidentally putting it in reverse, then overcorrecting, or getting distracted or bored or annoyed or tempted to applaud (although that would be unlikely during a Paul Ryan or Newt Gingrich speech), or just plain feel that the pressure wasn’t worth it – I think it’s great that actors and other artists have the chance to make a little scratch by “twiddling the knob”.

It’s a tough job and, despite the Obama meme which might lead one to believe that he’s the only teleprompted politician, there are apparently a lot of somebodies who’ve got to do it.


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