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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.


  • I now feel compelled to quote at length from Alan Bennett's essay "Going Round" about his experiences as a civilian at the theater (not necessarily endorsing all his sentiments, but it still makes me laugh):

    "Theatre programmes haven't yet got into two volumes but they're well on the way, and it can't be long before they come with an index. As it is, one searches among advertisements for low-level bathroom suites and clinics anxious to remove one's unwanted hair, and nowhere is there a list of who's in the play. Instead there is a lengthy essay on the issues purportedly touched on in the production. If it's a revival of an unpretentious domestic comedy from the thirties there is likely to be a photomontage of the dole queues to emphasize The Other Side of the Picture, and any play that uses words (and some of them still do) is as like as not accompanied by a thumbnail sketch of the life and loves of Wittgenstein, just to put the critics in the proper frame of mind. And, worst of all, the actors themselves are nowadays encouraged to set down their thoughts not only about their roles but also about Life in General. I love the company of actors, but reading these effusions it's hard not to feel that when they are not required on the stage actors should be kept in their place -- namely a locked wardrobe, and ideally with adhesive tape over their mouths."

    By Blogger Kerry, At January 8, 2009 at 8:58 PM  

  • Kerry
    Thanks for this. The passage makes me laugh too. I'd be interested to hear your actual opinions about theatre programs....

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 9, 2009 at 9:32 AM  

  • Okay, but first you have to translate for me: what is a "bathroom suite" in this context?

    I'm pretty meh on the program topic. I do think it's helpful to provide context for the audience for more difficult plays, those derived from historical record, but as Bennett's quip about the thirties comedy points out, not everything requires deep background.

    Currently, I'm mentoring high school girls in a theater criticism and arts journalism program run through the education department of the Goodman, and for certain shows, the articles in the program or the theater newsletter are really helpful. For example, the Goodman just premiered Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," about women in the Congo, this past fall, and the interviews with Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey about their trips to refugee camps to interview women who had survived assaults, as well as the historical thumbnails about the colonial and post-colonial events in the region, were tremendously helpful for the girls, and I assume other audience members as well.

    As for limiting that material to online-only, I'm not sure that all audiences, especially older ones, would go to the computer before or after to read up on a play.

    But I am all about creating wonderful lobby displays, and I wish more theaters would do so. I'd also like to see more articles about the design process, rather than the usual gab-fest between playwright and director.

    By Blogger Kerry, At January 9, 2009 at 9:45 AM  

  • "bathroom suite" = a matching collection of bathroom furniture ie toilet, sink, tub etc. "Furniture" seems like an odd word to use, but I can't think of another. Perhaps "units" would be better. Hence, a "low level bathroom suite" = a tacky/cheap or otherwise shoddy matching collection of bathroom furniture.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 9, 2009 at 10:01 AM  

  • Thank you!

    By Blogger Kerry, At January 9, 2009 at 2:03 PM  

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