Just what are theatre programmes for? Are they supposed to be a source of information and therefore arguably educational, or are they just an advertising rip off? And what about programmes which don’t even give you the information you need?
I have two main gripes about this. First there’s the need, often unmet, for information. Second, there’s the high cost of far too many theatre programmes.
Last week – and I’ve had an apology so I won’t name and shame – I attended a show as a reviewer. It was a two hander and nowhere on the free handout sheet was the basic information about which actor was playing which role. So, as a piece of useful communication, it failed at the first hurdle.
And that’s surprisingly common, especially with shows for very young children. There’s a perception that three year olds don’t read programmes and the parents aren’t interested in who plays what or where he or she trained – so quite often there isn’t even a cast list. And that makes the reviewer’s job impossible. It’s hardly fair on the actors either.
Many’s the time I’ve prowled round theatres before or after a show trying to find out the names of the director and his or her cast. I have sometimes written it myself by hand while someone from the company rattles off the names. And on one occasion they phoned the stage manager who met me at the stage door with a hastily (grudgingly?) typed cast list.
Secondly there’s the obscene cost of some programmes. When I attended The Russian National Ballet of Siberia’s La Fille Mal Gardee at Marlowe Canterbury as an off-duty paying customer a couple of weeks ago, I never did find out the names of the performers. I am simply not going to pay £6 on top of the ticket price for a glossy brochure which contains mostly adverts.
Programmes should really be free of course, as they are in America – or, to put that more accurately, included in the ticket price. Everyone in the audience is entitled to further information about the show. It shouldn’t be an expensive optional extra.
Of course there are honourable exceptions. Programmes are free at London Symphony Orchestra concerts at the Barbican. Both RSC and NT produce programmes which are reasonably priced (although still not cheap) and usually contain essays and information which goes way beyond just a fancy cast list – although that is there too. As a sixth form teacher I always advised my English Literature students to buy an RSC or NT programme when we went to the theatre because of the insights into the play they’d find therein. I usually suggested that they club together in twos and threes and share the cost.
So, in the interests of education we need programmes which are free, or very modestly priced, and which give as much information as possible – from the basic cast list to detailed articles about the history of the play.
At the moment it isn’t – for the most part – happening. And it ought to be.