Are theatre programmes ‘the great publishing rip-off of our times’?

In Features, London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Plays, Quotes by Debbie GilpinLeave a Comment

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time, but (as ever) other things have managed to get in the way. However, a couple of interesting tweets popped up from Channel 4’s political correspondent, Michael Crick, that seemed to get people’s juices flowing – one of which makes a rather pertinent point.

What do we buy programmes for? What is the point of them? Are they an incredible waste of money and resources?

“Theatre programmes are the great publishing rip-off of our times. Nothing more than two or three articles, a spread of rehearsal pictures and masses of ads. A child could do better” — Michael Crick (@MichaelLCrick) 11 February, 2018 [https://t.co/XTJvUoGDju]

Don’t shoot me, but I think he’s on the way to being right… If a tad exaggerated and melodramatic. There are quite a few occasions where I’ve looked in a programme and wondered what I bothered to spare the change for.

A good example is Trafalgar Studios 2 – I think all but one of the programmes I’ve got from shows in that theatre have long articles about the space (particularly since it moved out of ATG’s hands), a couple of pages on cast and creatives, a page of photos and the rest is made up of adverts.

For £2.50 (cost the last time I bought one) I’d expect it to at least have some sort of introduction to the show in there, to jog your memory on the subject matter or give you a bit more of a hint about what to expect.

Really, I think there should be enough in there to keep you occupied in the half hour before the show starts (presuming that’s when the doors open) and possibly a little bit more for the interval, if there is one.

The National was always pretty good at this, with several in-depth articles on related topics and a comprehensive biography section for everyone involved – for £4 I was quite satisfied.

The Bridge Theatre has followed this mould, thankfully retaining the original size; since Follies, the National has almost exclusively opted for giant programmes, which are a pain in the arse to fit in a bag – particularly ill-judged since the National started restricting the size of bag you can take into the auditorium with you.

The £4 programmes at Shakespeare’s Globe are also pretty good value (and just about a transportable size) offering a synopsis of the play, should you want to familiarise yourself beforehand, as well as a range of articles about the creative process and related history – before a decent biography section with rehearsal photos dotted about. A nice touch for Romantics Anonymous included the cast & creatives’ favourite chocolates at the end of their section! Each programme has an introduction from the artistic director, which is the same for each show in the season bar the final couple of paragraphs which are specific to that show, and towards the back there is some general information about the theatre and other things they offer.

But when you compare this with the West End… Your typical £4 programme will get you a fairly thin A5 booklet that is probably half advertisements, half related content – and most of that will be bios and rehearsal/production shots, with a couple of short articles thrown in to look like there might be something to keep you occupied before the show starts.

 

A fair amount of theatres now also offer a souvenir brochure to buy with (or instead of) a regular programme – if you have the extra cash this is a really nice option, as it will include all of the cast & crew information as well as a range of large production shots, usually on glossy paper. Aside from your ticket, this is probably the best physical souvenir you can buy (rather than overpriced merchandise).

The problem is, some theatres and shows have decided that this is the only form of programme they want to offer, so if you go to the Dominion then it’s a massive £8 brochure or nothing at all. The Nativity! tour was the same when it reached the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith. Whilst this is potentially fine for one-offs (such as Nativity!), if you’re a completist then you could end up shelling out at every cast change – suddenly the £4 version doesn’t seem so bad.

Speaking of souvenirs… One of my favourite programme innovations has got to be Kneehigh’s recent effort for The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, which provides you with a set of colouring pencils so you can colour in your spiral bound programme in your own individual style.

 

Though I have started to get a bit pickier about which shows I buy a programme for (my collection is becoming quite overwhelming), as a critic they are indispensable. I am completely reliant upon them when I come to writing up. For most shows I will get sent a press release beforehand which has most of the relevant information, however I usually write my reviews by hand (old school) before typing them up – having a screen glaring at you can be off-putting – so knowing that I can flick through a paper booklet whenever I need to is extremely valuable to me, and makes the whole process a lot more efficient.

If there’s any contextual information in there it can be a nice bonus to include in my review, and any insight into the creative decisions and processes are equally useful; headshots next to actor biographies are absolutely vital, as you really don’t want to be talking about the wrong person! Had I not been given a programme for Becoming Shades, for example, I would have matched everyone up incorrectly: the performer I thought was Hades was actually Persephone, the one I thought was Persephone was in fact a “lost soul”… Nightmare!

But, unlike Michael Crick, all I want from an actor biography is what they look like, who they play and career highlights. I don’t need to know their political affiliation, sexual preference or what they had for breakfast that day – anything like that is entirely irrelevant to their performance and professional life.

Why are actors’ biographical details in theatre programmes so universally rubbish – just a long list of past plays & films? Nothing about age, background, education, opinions, family or anything interesting. The people who write crap like this should be deeply ashamed & quit. pic.twitter.com/qVa9VuBSQB

— Michael Crick (@MichaelLCrick) February 11, 2018

Of course, quite a lot of fringe shows will come without a programme – though some do at least provide a cast list for free. And there’s usually a plentiful supply of leaflets for that kind of show, should you want something as a keepsake. Or there are places like the Royal Court which generally don’t sell programmes, but have cheap playtexts instead – so you get the cast list & biographies with the great bonus of the entire play at your disposal too (that’s excellent for critics, as you have quotes on tap and probably won’t need to take notes either). And, at the end of the day, theatres & companies are really just selling them to recoup a little cash should anyone want to part with some of their money.

Like many people, I do get exasperated with the lack of effort that goes into a certain section of programmes, but that doesn’t stop me from continually acquiring them. Though I’m all in favour of a widespread adoption of the National’s decision to have free cast lists available to pick up (some other theatres do this too) if all you want is the basic information.

Without something being available, it makes critics’ jobs harder and can cause frustration for audience members. It also would have prevented me from making an exciting discovery when I looked back through my old pile of programmes at my parents’ house at Christmas: in 2002 I had seen Kyla Goodey in a production of Twelfth Night that had a cast of five, and over 2016-17 she was part of the cast of 946 that I followed from the Globe to New York! When we met we established a West Country affinity, but it’s quite amazing to find something like this. (I now also wonder if Jim Carey is a relation of Seamas, another Kneehigh regular – answers on a postcard!)

To conclude this rambling… There are some truly excellent programme styles out there, and having these things in your collection can sometimes provide the most unexpected of surprises – so really it’s up to the poor ones to get their act together! And if you’re of Mr Crick’s persuasion, just don’t buy one if you don’t think it’s worth the investment. Nobody’s forcing you.

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Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.
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Debbie Gilpin on FacebookDebbie Gilpin on RssDebbie Gilpin on Twitter
Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.

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