As a response to Michael Crick’s criticism of actors’ biographies in show programmes, both Mark Shenton and Lyn Gardner have discussed the future of theatre programmes in The Stage this February. Why respond a few weeks later? Well, as a smaller company, we make our programmes in-house, which I feel gives an insight outside of the West End bubble. Furthermore, programmes are on my mind, as we’ve just finished another one.
I’ll preface this by admitting that Programme Week is a week I dread. A horrible combination of my own time management and relying on sponsors/advertisers/actors for content, whilst battling an old version of InDesign is not how I’d choose to spend my day. The constant proofing, the fact that all actors format their credits differently, worrying that I’ve forgotten someone and then the growing fear that when you see the finished programme it will be in some way horribly wrong; all in all, it’s not the most entertaining part of my job.
Worst though, is that show after show, we find programmes left on chairs, and are frequently left with unsold boxes at the end of a run. We clearly have more programmes than demand, yet programmes are like all other forms of print – it’s far cheaper to order loads. Here at Creation, we’re trying to reduce our printed marketing materials (see Arts Marketing: A Critique for more on this), yet programmes seem to thwart all attempts to reduce waste. I can’t speak for larger theatres, but I’d like to know how many programmes are thrown away over panto season, or after each show of Les Miserables. They seem like one of the most wasteful parts of the industry.
Why do we continue to make them? The combination of leftover stock and a low price means that for us, programmes aren’t the “cynical revenue generator” that Gardner describes. However, we know that a large proportion of our audience enjoy a programme; it’s part of the theatre-going experience, or an added perk of buying the best seat in the house. Therefore, we’re concentrating efforts of making our programmes better – as interesting and imaginative as the show that the audience are watching.
Frankly, the cast list is (to me) the least important part of a programme’s content, quite simply as that information is most easily accessible. Both Gardner and Shenton praise a cast list being provided for free, which is useful if you’re a reviewer (not if you’re attempting to work out whether that guy on stage is that guy from, you know, that thing). However, the credits of cast and crew are all accessible online. Furthermore, nowadays it seems that a cast list is quite frequently used within the marketing of a production; in West End shows, audiences are familiar with “big names” within the cast, whilst for smaller companies, returning actors are always popular (in September 2017, we emailed our returning cast for our Christmas show to audiences who’d seen the same actors the previous year – those who received this email accounted for 10% of the show’s total sales). Using a cast list for marketing means that by the time the show is up, the cast aren’t new information – programmes need more interesting, different content as well.
Before going further, advertising must be mentioned. Being bombarded with adverts is horrible, and I agree with Gardner when she criticises the price of a West End programme whilst they’re being subsidised by advertising – especially when you’ve already paid for your ticket. From a less artistic and more corporate angle, however, programmes provide some form of leverage for smaller companies; our sponsorship packages include programme adverts, we’ve traded an advert for a prime location for a banner, for printing, for bus passes, for a room in a pub for a press night party (okay, so that’s less corporate, but still important).
They can also be used to advertise the company themselves, rather than outside investors/sponsors/pubs with rooms to hire. In today’s technology-led times, more and more people are choosing not to opt in to emails in case they get spammed, or those conscious of their eco-footprint choose not to receive our postal mailings; for us, a programme can be a great vehicle to let our audience know about our upcoming shows and our Education programme. Here is where creating valuable content is important. Yes, our Christmas audiences might want to know all about our Drama Club, but we respect them more than just showing them an advert; instead, we’ll interview the Christmas Youth Chorus, or run a “review the show” competitions.
Ultimately, I do agree with Gardner, when she says that “paid-for programme should always add value to the experience of going to the theatre.” We aim to create programmes that aren’t solely a mix of adverts and a list of credits (cast and crew fit onto around four pages for a big Christmas show). From interviews with the creative team, design sketches, games, relevant historical content, we’re always trying to find a different angle for a programme. Frankly, it makes it more motivating for us; if I’m going to proof it umpteen times, I’d rather re-read something interesting.
What’s the future hold? The idea of tailoring a programme to the production is fundamental to the evolution of the theatre programme. Gardner uses The Royal Exchange’s programme for The Almighty Sometimes as a perfect example, as it included information about support organisations for children’s mental health, reflecting the subject matter of the show. However, this tailoring doesn’t necessarily need to be the content of the programme – it could be the medium used. I can imagine more companies creating digital programmes; as a Nokia brick user, the idea of a digital programme terrifies me but there’s certainly a role for them in tech-heavy shows. Certainly, it would be something that we at Creation could peruse; our upcoming production of Brave New World uses wireless headphones, so we could tie in some form of podcast-based programme (you heard that here first).
For this year’s production of Dracula, we’re trying something new. As we’re staging the show in Blackwell’s Bookshop, we started by thinking we could make a book; however, Bram Stoker had already done that, so we’ve made our programme into a notebook. Whether audiences will bite, we don’t know yet, but it’s certainly more interesting and valuable, as the audience can make their programme useful to them in their own way.
P.S. Mark, Lyn – if you’re reading this, and want your own Dracula notebook, come and see the show.