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Howard Sherman: Is it time for US theatres to get with the digital programme?

US theatres typically give programmes to audience members free of charge. Photo: Shutterstock
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For US audience members, receiving a programme after being shown to the correct seat is a standard part of the theatregoing ritual. Unlike in the UK, no currency is exchanged.

The free theatre programme tends to come as standard, whether it is the playbill that is ubiquitous on Broadway or an individual company publications found outside the Great White Way.

Indeed, for Americans visiting the UK for the first time, it’s downright startling to discover that programmes aren’t free. Broadway audiences pay only for the Broadway souvenir programmes – oversized, full-colour, photo-laden compendiums.

The fact is that everyone leaves US theatres with a physical memento of the experience – and it’s certainly more than the single sheet of paper listing the names of the creative team and cast list that can be found, sometimes with effort, at London theatres.

But as production expenses rise, along with concern for the environmental impact of paper overuse, and as people grow ever more used to consuming text via screens, this may be starting to change.

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York’s East Village has done away with printed programmes altogether, directing patrons to its website for a digital version. Some theatres now offer their programmes both digitally and in print, reducing the number of physical copies that may be needed over a run.

The Off-Off-Broadway Soho Rep has, for a number of years now, produced a programme that is a single sheet, printed on both sides, with complete biographical and production information, but shorn of graphics, ads, full-colour images, or the familiar booklet format.

‘For subsidised companies in particular, the theatre programme is an integral part of their messaging’

As a progressive initiative, the evolution of the theatre programme makes a certain amount of sense. For every theatregoer who rigorously preserves, protects and files away their theatre programmes, there are surely others who leave it behind when they depart or throw it away at home.

Yet, for subsidised companies in particular, the theatre programme is an integral part of their messaging. It not only contains details about the artists in a production, but also about company itself, as well as dramaturgical materials to contextualise and enhance the show.

Some patrons will never see an online programme, as opposed to something that is thrust into their hands at every show. Venues may address this with lobby display materials, but not every theatre, especially older ones, has the space for such compensatory measures.

Of course, the possibilities open up with a digital programme, since page count and paper cost become irrelevant – provided patrons take the time to look. However, there is an increased risk, from those eager to find that information in the auditorium pre-show, that mobile phones remain on, albeit accidentally, during performances.

It is far too early to sound the death knell for the free theatre programme in the US. Old habits die hard, and there’s something admirable in every audience member having the option to retain a physical reminder of each show.

As someone who has been saving programmes since my earliest theatregoing experiences in the 1970s (for many years taping my ticket stub inside the front cover), I would find the absence jarring, not least when, mid-show, I just have to figure out why I recognise a certain actor.

But when I see programmes littering the floor after a performance, I have to acknowledge that perhaps the waste outweighs the benefits. New platforms do offer new options, and even greater possibilities. Perhaps it’s time for all US venues, and me, to get with a new programme.

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

This week in US theatre

Lila Rose Kaplan’s The Magician’s Daughter, receiving its premiere at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, may be a new play, but its two characters should be rather familiar: Prospero and his daughter Miranda. It opens tomorrow night under the direction of Shelley Butler.

Spanning half a century, the world premiere of Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation at the Goodman Theatre is the story of how the life of a young writer affects those of four artists 50 years later. Niegel Smith directs the world premiere, which opens on Monday.

Following its premiere at last year’s Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This makes its New York debut Off-Broadway at Primary Stages on Tuesday, having recently won the prestigious Yale Drama Series Prize. This story of five Kentucky residents addressing their mortality is directed by Morgan Gould.

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