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Mark Shenton: What’s the point of theatre programmes in a digital world?

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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Michael Crick, political correspondent for Channel 4 News, waded into a dangerous political territory the other day when he tweeted a photograph of Toby Jones’s bio page in the programme of The Birthday Party. He then asked: “Why are actors’ biographical details in theatre programmes so universally rubbish – just a long list of past plays and films? Nothing about age, background, education, opinions, family or anything interesting. The people who write crap like this should be deeply ashamed and quit.”

Never mind that his own bio on the Channel 4 news website is scarcely more illuminating. We find out none of the things he criticises actors for failing to provide.

‘Why the hell would we be moved to tell you about our pets/schools/politics?’

As former The Phantom of the Opera star Nadim Naaman duly replied: “These biogs are designed to list our previous work. Please enlighten us on how your own gripping CV reveals thrilling personal info. Shall we include pets’ names and favourite holiday destinations, so audiences can try and guess our Facebook passwords?”

Emma Fielding, recently in A Woman of No Importance at the Vaudeville, also chipped in: “Don’t be daft. It’s not Hello magazine or the Mail online. We’re trying, for ready money, to convince an audience we’re someone else. Why the hell would we be moved to tell you about our pets/schools/politics or anything else in a theatre programme? It doesn’t matter.”

But then there is a sense in which actors become “public property”. By choosing to spend a night in their company watching them do their job – ie. acting – some audience members feel they get a bit more ownership over them.

Theatre programmes: do you need them?

Critics, of course, routinely get a free programme (except, strangely, at Cirque du Soleil shows), and on Broadway, playbills are free to all. But I always apply the test I also use on theatre tickets to assess how useful they are: would I pay ready money to have one? And the answer is hardly ever.

‘I used to keep them all, until about 10 years ago when I had four filing cabinets full to the brim’

Yet theatre programmes have become a habit for many. They are part of the theatregoing “experience” and a happy aide-memoire of the show. But, I often find the information I need just as easily online. A front of house notice will typically list the cast at a particular performance – especially important with long-running shows where substitutions often appear. So I simply take a photograph of it.

As for my stack of programme and playscripts: I used to keep them all, until about 10 years ago when I had four filing cabinets full to the brim. I realised it was no longer practical to keep them all – and especially given that, thanks to Google, I hardly ever referenced them except when I wrote my initial review. So, now I donate them to the library of a drama school.

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