The theatre programme: recording for posterity

Arts On Sunday

How important are programmes to the theatre?  Programmes in this context refer not to the proceedings themselves, that is, what is being performed, but those little documents that are usually handed out (or sold) at the door.  These vary in size and sophistication, but they are printed leaflets, sometimes a one-page document, occasionally an elaborate booklet, that provide information about the proceedings, (the programme), the production or whatever is being performed on stage.  Sometimes, and perhaps too often, they are not provided at all.

Al Creighton
Al Creighton

Some of the words and phrases used in the foregoing may already give a hint regarding their importance.  For example, they are sometimes absent, which would indicate that the programme can go on without them, and often does.  But then again, they are called “programmes,” the same word used to describe the contents of the production.

The point is that producers of theatre or like events generally disregard, underrate or misunderstand the place, function, usefulness and importance of those printed leaflets.  However, the fact that both performance and information leaflet carry the same name is not an accident.  In a sense, that leaflet is almost as important as the production itself.  The printed programme is a tangible, permanent record of the programme performed and can help the audience to understand it.

The fact that producers often do not provide a programme may be a factor of cost.  There might not be a budget for it and printing these things is seen as an additional expense.  For the same reason a programme might be provided that costs as little as possible, resulting in something inadequate.  Other producers will treat the distribution of programmes as an opportunity for cost recovery; they are sold and either fund themselves or make a profit.  On occasions, they are elaborately printed with the deliberate intention of making them attractive to theatre patrons who would then want to purchase them.

This is the case with souvenir programmes that are usually sophisticated, contain a good deal of information and try to provide such an attractive record of the occasion that patrons see them as worth keeping.  Souvenir type documents like these are priceless because of the historical and biographical data they contian.  There are times, too, when the printed programmes target family members and friends of the cast.  Proud parents will buy and keep a programme with the name of their child in it, or a photograph, or even brief bio data.  There are those programmes produced by dance schools or companies which actually sell space to these parents who then pay for a congratulatory message accompanied by a picture of their children who are members of the cast.  Additionally, some of these programmes also carry commercial advertisements paid for by companies and business establishments.  In these cases, the programmes more than fund themselves, and they become saleable commodities.

The other side of this coin is that money may be spent printing programmes that do not sell because the show is undersubscribed or because large segments of the audience do not buy programmes.  They themselves might have very limited funds and paying for tickets is quite enough; or they may have no interest in records or information; they do not see or appreciate the importance of them; or reading programmes is just not a part of their culture.

Quite apart from financial considerations, there are producers who consider it a waste of effort (and funds) largely because of audience disinterest.  One of these reported that she started out printing programmes which were not for sale, but were given out at the door.  After the shows, she always noted that the floor was littered with hundreds of programmes that the people had simply just thrown away.  She stopped printing them.  The result of that was that members of her cast were not publicly recognized and were robbed of that satisfaction.  The audience was not helped and could not know who was doing what.

However, even when it is considered important to print programmes, the producers do not treat them with a commensurate sense of that importance.  Far too many programmes lack thoroughness or are shabbily produced.  It has been very interesting to follow up on this over many years in Guyana.  It is almost a norm to mis-spell the names of cast and crew.  There are some actors/actresses whose names are repeatedly or routinely misrepresented so that sometimes one does not know which is correct.  It appears that accurate information is not an issue and little care seems to be taken to ensure that the programmes record it.

Neither do these errors seem to upset the victims who take it as a hazard of the trade.  They accept it in remarkably good humour, and the most interesting case is that of an actress with an uncommon name which is never correctly printed on programmes.  Her response has been not to bother to correct it any more.  She has now adopted the wrong name and has even begun to use it herself.

But apart from the financial potential and other benefits outlined above, what do programmes do for actors, producers, practitioners and productions?  Why is it necessary to be accurate?  The programmes serve many purposes or functions.  They first of all give information.  They provide basic facts about the production, programme, proceedings and personnel, who are the performers and what they are performing.  These acknowledgements are called ‘credits’ and, in fact, the publication of credits is a legal obligation in the film industry.  In theatre it gives some satisfaction to the personnel to have their contribution recorded in print.

It may also be a guide helpful to the audience when additional useful information is given, sometimes providing background or explaining concepts, and this can be very instructive.  Sometimes it is even necessary in a difficult performance or one that is based on material unknown to (most of) the audience.  Some annotation can assist the audience in following the performance.  This kind of extra help is usually provided in what is called Programme Notes, traditionally written by the director.  Very often theatre artists have something to say which they put in written statements to support the statements they make on stage.  From the point of view of a critic, an academic or a researcher, this is often useful and interesting material in the way directors relate to the work produced.  Even more interesting is the way what appears on stage sometimes fails to measure up to the director’s stated intentions.

Talking of critics and researchers, programmes are of immeasurable importance because of their value to records and history.  They are indispensable to researchers.  Programmes are fairly permanent records; particularly in the past, sometimes they are the only record of a production.  Newspaper reports will also provide this archival information, that is, if they were covered in the press, which many productions are not.  In previous centuries the programmes were published in the press as advertisements, or printed on flyers and posted around town.  A further post facto benefit is that researchers are able to investigate them centuries later.

That was, however, when populations were smaller, cities less complicated and, especially in countries like the Caribbean, the theatre audience was mainly only the elite.   Today is the electronic age and technology has opened other means of advertisement and even other means of  recording that productions existed.  In Jamaica, for example, where this kind of industry is the most advanced in the Caribbean, popular plays are reproduced on video and sold on the market, so that the productions are marketed as films as much as they are promoted as stage plays.

Yet this factor of advanced technology has not yet rendered printed programmes obsolete.  They can exist in electronic as well as hard copies, but the performed play on stage is still a major event where paper programmes are distributed.  Furthermore, the sale of filmed versions constitutes a branch plant industry and it is largely a feature of the popular farces.  More ‘serious’ drama, such as Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play, is filmed, but it is well understood that screen and stage are very different media and committing a stage play to video is a sophisticated exercise.

For all that it does for the performers’ sense of achievement, and for all concerned, the printed programme, even the hard copy, has not yet been rendered redundant.

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