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David Lister: Why are theatre programmes so completely useless?

Theatre programmes, do they still serve a purpose? Photo: Louise Miles Theatre programmes, do they still serve a purpose? Photo: Louise Miles
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When buying a theatre programme, should we expect a brief list of shows someone has worked on, or detailed profiles of performers and creatives? David Lister thinks more content is needed to make them worth buying

Nice play, shame about the programme.

More and more, this is my feeling on visits to the theatre. It’s not so much the cost of the thing. The minimum these days seems to be about £4, which isn’t exactly cheap, but then a programme I once purchased for an Adele gig at the 02 was basically a booklet of pictures and cost £30 for the hardback version, and £20 for the paperback. But let’s be fair, for your £30 you can name-check all 20 tour truck drivers.

But if theatre remains more in touch with reality than pop when it comes to the price of a programme, there’s no excuse for the ludicrous lack of information about the actors the audiences have come to see.

Forget ever learning anything about their background, education, training, parental status, what part of the country they come from, or, perish the thought, age. Actually, forget even learning which parts they have played in the past. Again and again, all you will get is a list of plays they have been in.

Has it not dawned on the people who run our biggest theatres, from the National Theatre down, that the name of the play Hamlet next to an actor’s name is meaningless. Did he play the Prince of Denmark or the second gravedigger? There is a difference.

Take Billie Piper in Yerma at the Young Vic last year, which rightly won awards and was by common consent one of the great performances of the year. Here’s a woman with a history, a remarkable journey from teenage pop diva via Doctor Who’s assistant on TV to consummate stage actor.

What did the programme give us? Yes, a list. “Theatre includes” followed by a list of plays she had been in, then “film includes” and finally “television includes”. No mention of parts she had played or her previous life as a singer. In fact, no mention of her life at all.

Also last year, the intriguing Elizabeth Debicki starred at the National Theatre in The Red Barn after her memorable role in TV’s The Night Manager. Might the National tell us anything about her, even what country she is from? Nope. There’s just the predictable list of plays, films and TV series. And, in line with current worst practice, no clue as to what she did in those plays, films and TV series. It is particularly strange, as the National is second to none when it comes to its programme essays, which are invariably superbly informative.

The dearth of information for performers is matched by a dearth of information for the creative teams. Lucy Kirkwood is one of the most original and challenging of the current crop of young playwrights. When her play The Children was on at the Royal Court Theatre, I was intrigued to learn more about her and bought a programme for that purpose. You guessed it – a list of previous plays. It did also list her awards. Then it ran out of ideas for lists.

The West End is a little better than the subsidised houses at giving at least a snippet of information to its paying public. Take the current hit, the wonderful Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at the the Duke of York’s Theatre. I really wanted to know more about the extraordinarily versatile group of young women who star in the show. This programme does at least tell us where they all trained. But then, straight into a list of plays, TV and radio, again rarely telling us which actual part any of them played.

Going back some months, I saw the comedy Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre. This programme bucked the trend, actually telling us which roles its stars played in previous shows. It even told us that Steve Pemberton “was born in Blackburn and trained at Bretton Hall College”. But the programme is inconsistent. There are no birthplace details for co-stars Katherine Parkinson and Ralf Little.

Funnily enough, the understudies give far more details than the main cast. Mark Hayden, understudying two parts, informs us he has a Guinness World Record certificate as he appeared in The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play. It’s not earth-shattering information, but it’s something to mull over during the interval.

Earlier this year, I approached one of our very best theatres, the Almeida in London, about its policy on actor biographies. A spokeswoman said: “We work with actors and their agents to create the biographies that they would like to be produced for our programmes. So it’s a combined effort to ensure we feature an actor’s career highlights – as well as awards won and training, where relevant – while formatting bios to fit a house style, and in order to make sure we have enough space to feature all cast and creative teams for that production.

“When we’re short of space, we and the actors would always want to prioritise the productions they’ve appeared in, to show their range of professional work, rather than sacrificing productions to name characters played. Our philosophy at the Almeida is that we’re company-led, rather than ‘star-led’, and our programmes are one of the ways we reflect that.”

I suspect, though, that audiences, if they were ever asked, would take a different view as to the information they want. Some actors might also. One told me that he tried to get more information about himself into a programme at one theatre but was told that he would be going against the theatre’s policy.

Theatre doesn’t have a monopoly on uninformative programmes when it comes to biographies. Go to a classical concert and the lists for the renowned soloists are of their forthcoming performances around the world. You won’t learn where they come from or how they became virtuosi. But you will learn that they will be giving a recital in San Diego in March. I asked the head of one of London’s leading concert halls why he charged concertgoers for this irrelevant information that provided nothing of use. He replied lamely that the artists’ agents wanted it. Who is standing up for the consumer here?

When Harriet Harman was Labour’s arts spokeswoman, I discussed theatre programmes with her. She said she would love to know where the actors she watched went to school. Would it be so terrible to include that information? One can understand a certain coyness about age, but hardly about where one spent one’s schooldays – with the possible exceptions of Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch.

It’s bizarre that our best-known theatres can fob off audiences with actor biographies that are simply lists of plays, with seldom any clue as to which parts those actors played.

Much better to have a smaller selection of plays where the actors played leading roles, supplemented with a brief but real biography, giving career highlights, influences, birthplace, parents’ occupations, school, hobbies and maybe a memorable quote from the performer.

At present, the information you can glean from theatre programmes is not much more enlightening than the names of Adele’s truck drivers.

David Lister is the former arts editor of the Independent