The Death Of The Theatre Program
January 8, 2009
Amanda Ameer's terrific post about classical music concert programs and related resources that may or may not help concertgoers get a handle on what they're about to experience in the concert hall recalled a similar conversation I had with a director friend a few days ago regarding theatre programs.
Until this friend asked me for my views about what constitutes an effective program, I hadn't given the idea much thought. Which is kind of embarrassing, considering the fact that I attend several theatrical productions a week and must have read and amassed thousands of programs over the years.
So what kinds of information should a program for a play contain beyond the usual cast list, biographies, roster of sponsors, ads by local restaurants and call for donations? And, while we're on the subject, should all of these standard elements be included at all? Is a program in the traditional sense of the word even relevant today?
One thing that theatre programs tend to include and which strikes me as totally unnecessary, is a letter from the artistic and/or executive director of the producing company. These letters are meant to be welcoming and informative, but they're usually completely dull, being loaded with panegyrics and generalizations. The AD/MD thanks the donors (do donors need to be thanked in the program? Surely a nice dinner / free theatre tickets / a brass nameplate on a seat-back says it all?) and pays bland lip service to the artistic team. Even worse, he or she might take a stab at summarizing the Big Themes of the play and talk about how they relate to the world we live in. It's all a bit of a waste of space really.
Then there's the production director or playwright's essay about the play. Some directors/playwrights choose to leave this out entirely while others like to spell out their thinking in detail. If the director/playwright has done her job well, then the play should really speak for itself. Program notes that go to great lengths to underline the main themes and metaphors etc. seem pointless to me, though it's always interesting, as an afterthought, to see to what extent the play fulfills the intentions written down in the program.
On the other hand, it can be useful and entertaining to have some pointers as an audience member. This is where dramaturgical research can come in handy. I like to look at tangential material such as paintings and photographs, websites, newspaper articles, poems, essays by philosophers/scientists/sociologists etc that went some way towards informing the production. These "third party" sources provide theatregoers with the tools to make the thematic connections themselves. They also provide some insight into the production process.
Which leads me to my next question: How much of this kind of information should -- or even can -- be delivered in the form of a traditional, stapled, paper program? Different theatre companies are experimenting with alternative ways of imparting information that might help enrich a theatregoer's experience. At Shotgun Players in Berkeley, for example, the lobby is transformed for each production. Before the play, during intermission and afterwards, audience members can wander around the building, enjoying the "exhibition" of fascinating visual and written materials related (albeit often in a tangential way) to the spirit and substance of the play.
Companies are increasingly putting information of this type online, going well beyond the remit of traditional paper-bound program notes. Web-based video/audio interviews with the main artistic collaborators, blogs, production photographs and other materials provide a valuable resource for theatregoers.
The more I think about it, the more programs in the traditional sense of the word, seem obsolete. I like the idea of enabling audience members to upload podcasts with useful information such as interviews with the lead actor and director to listen to on their way to the theatre, or partnering with local radio to deliver this information over the airwaves.
Better still, wouldn't it be great to receive an email from a theatre company the morning of the day I'm going to see a play, with all the useful information mentioned above included in it? That way, I could peruse and listen to the program notes on my laptop (Kindle, iPhone, Blackberry or whatever) at my leisure prior to and after attending the play.
Upon final analysis, maybe it would be a good thing if paper programs disappeared altogether. A simple one-page cast/production team list handed out at the start of the show to those that really want it should suffice. We'd save lots of trees, for one thing. Interns wouldn't have to spend entire days collating and stapling pages together, for another.