Like most American theatergoers, I’m always startled when I get to England and I’m expected to shell out £4 (about $6.40) if I want a theatre programme. This flies against the American tradition of free programs, regardless of whether you’re attending commercial or not for profit theatre; don’t confuse a program or Playbill with souvenir programs, those $20 photo galleries found on Broadway, at ice shows and circuses, and their like. When you calculate the cost of a theatre ticket in England against what’s charged here, there remains a significant savings, so I and other Americans should really keep our mouths shut about the extra tariff. Comparatively, we’re still getting a bargain.
That said, the experience reminds me once again about the nature of theatre programs, their purpose and their often unrealized value. That’s something that transcends price and international boundaries. At its simplest, the program gives us the basic info about the show we’re seeing: who did what and what they’ve done before. It’s a tool for telling us about the artists, and a great way of insuring that you’re not distracted by thoughts like, “Wait, is that the woman who was in…” while you should be focused on the story unfolding, not the identity of a performer.
Beyond that, programs can tell us more about the show we’re seeing, in the manner of a study guide for adults, with everything from impressionistic pages replicating art works and corollary quotes worth contemplating in relation to the show, to explicit essays which seek to tell us things we might not know, but should (at least in the eyes of the producer or artists). They can also tell us more, in the case of work produced by ongoing companies, about the people and organization responsible for the show; while this is often boilerplate, it’s institutionally necessary, just like those pages of donor acknowledgements.
In our media suffused era, programs have become tablet friendly; I’m seeing theatres making their entire program available on iPads in advance of the show, or downloadable as PDF files for those without the newest technology (he said, pointing to himself). I think that’s a terrific asset, especially if there’s something in the program that might prove particularly valuable to one’s appreciation of the work. Very often people read their programs after a show is over, so advance access is a great step forward – provided theatres make a distinction between programs and newsletters, and define a clear purpose and corresponding type of content for each.
I could ramble on all day about the nature and benefits of theatre programs, but let me cut to the chase with a particular and perhaps unique example. For many years, London’s Royal Court Theatre’s programmes have been copies of the play you’re seeing, an exceptional asset and value, especially at a venue dedicated to new plays. I know of many American companies that have long envied the Court, yet few have managed this feat of offering new scripts to their audiences; in this age of instant publishing and tablets, perhaps it’s time to look at it once again.
Last week, seeing Caryl Churchill’s new play Love and Information, which is comprised of dozens of vignettes that go far beyond the title topics while always managing to encompass one or the other (or both), I bought my Royal Court programme/script. When I got home that evening, I wasn’t about to immediately re-read the play, but I did decide to glance through it, foolishly thinking that the ever-enigmatic Ms. Churchill might offer some additional insight in the text. What I found profoundly changed my view of the play.
While there was no treatise on the piece, by the author or anyone else, there was a brief production note on the text that made the experience, in retrospect, even more fascinating. It reads:
The sections should be played in the order given but the scenes can be played in any order within each section.
There are random scenes, see at the end, which can happen at any time.
So what Ms. Churchill informed me, and anyone who bothered to read that text note, is that Love and Information is a theatrical erector set. While there are certain rules that must be followed (as in, say, architecture), there’s also a freedom to reimagine the work with every staging. Indeed, the optional scenes were not in the premiere production that I saw, but they’re still available for a director, leaving (or perhaps mandating) that the text be approached as malleable with every new iteration.
I don’t recall that reviews of Love and Information noted the unfixed nature of the play’s vignettes, suggesting that it wasn’t called out in the press materials or that some critics may have missed this note, which to me is vital. As part of a play which offers no conventional narrative and a highly fractured structure, it’s sure to set off lots of conversations. In her taciturn way, Ms. Churchill appears to be telling us that there’s no singular answer because there’s no singular version of the play. Mind blown.
Some will argue that what’s on stage should be all there is, and one can make a case for that. But I see nothing wrong in reaching out to audiences with some useful, and at times vital, information. In print or online, free or paid, programs can profoundly effect our understanding of what we see. The challenge that remains, no matter the price or the format, is how do we get people to take advantage of the information on offer, not because it’s “good for them,” but because it may open their minds to even greater insights and possibilities?