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Lyn Gardner: It’s time to reconsider what theatre programmes are for

Toby Jones in The Birthday Party at Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson Toby Jones in The Birthday Party. Does he have any pets? What's his view on Brexit? Photo: Johan Persson
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“Why are actors’ biographical details in theatre programmes so universally rubbish – just a long list of past plays and films?” asked Channel 4’s political correspondent Michael Crick on Twitter last week after going to the theatre to see The Birthday Party. Somebody quite rightly answered by tweeting drily: “Because they’re writing about their job… acting?”

Crick yearns for more detail, including age, background, education, opinions and family. When I’m about to watch Toby Jones play Stanley in The Birthday Party, I don’t really care about what he thinks of Brexit or what his mum and dad did for a living. I can look that stuff up on the internet if I’m so inclined.

But while those working in theatre may raise an eyebrow at Crick’s comments, maybe he’s done us all a service by raising the question: what is a programme for? Unlike my colleague Mark Shenton, I think there probably is a place for the programme in the digital age.

Theatremakers are constantly asking what theatre might be, so isn’t it time that creatives and marketing departments came together to ask what a programme could be and whether it might take other forms, digital or otherwise?

I recall a programme for Pilot Theatre’s production of Lord of the Flies, long ago. The show was aimed at young people and recognised that they might not read a programme but would, in that pre-internet era, use a CD that included music and other material from the show.

Programmes for children’s shows are often more inventive than those intended for adults. I can think of several that looked like gifts: the handwritten programme that came like a ship in a bottle; another was shaped like a fan for a Spanish-themed show. Those are programmes to treasure, an extension of the show itself.

Whatever Crick might think, those actor CVs serve a purpose, particularly to those of us who are frequent theatregoers. I like to be reminded of the shows and films in which I might have previously seen an actor. This aide-memoire is even more pleasurable in the case of lesser-known actors rather than stars such as Toby Jones. I love being nudged to recall a performance in a distant, obscure show.

I suspect Crick’s dissatisfaction stems less from dry actors’ biographies and more from the fact that so many theatre programmes –particularly in the West End, but also elsewhere – represent such poor value for money.

All theatres should, as a matter of courtesy, provide a free cast sheet. Or, better still, and far more environmentally friendly, provide a link easily visible in the foyer where you can access all the cast and creative information online. Most people use their phones in the theatre until the very moment the lights go down so such information is no less accessible in that form than it is in a printed programme.

But a paid-for programme should always add value to the experience of going to the theatre, not just be seen by the company as an extension of merchandising. When a programme is shoddy, it simply adds to the feeling that, once the theatre has sold you a ticket, its only interest is how much more money it can then squeeze out of you for sundries.

You can often buy the entire play text at the Royal Court (which also supplies free cast lists) for the same price you pay for a West End programme, which has already been heavily subsidised by advertising. No wonder people feel ripped off – and when they start feeling ripped off it colours their entire experience of going to the theatre.

It’s not just theatre ticket prices that are rising but everything around them, from transport to cloakrooms. Those are often the straws that break the audience’s back and make them feel disgruntled, and potentially on track to becoming non-theatregoers.

The Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Almeida, Manchester’s Royal Exchange and the National Theatre have long understood that the added value in terms of critical essays, background information and insightful editorial make a programme worth the money and worth cherishing.

The programme for the Royal Exchange’s The Almighty Sometimes, a terrific play about child mental health, not only offers material pertinent to the production but also links to support organisations. This is crucial, given the subject matter.

But even the best ones feel stuck in the past. Theatre programmes have not changed for decades, while theatre itself has. Why don’t more companies and theatres see the programme as a way of continuing appreciation and conversation around a show after the curtain has fallen rather than a cynical revenue generator?

Why don’t they ensure the programme is designed with the same care and attention as the show? Then it would become something beautiful and worth paying for – something to be cherished and revisited even as the memory of the show fades.

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