Commentary by Rob MacFarlane
No afternoon or evening at the theatre would be complete without receipt of a ‘playbill’ or ‘programme’ by audience members as they take their seats prior to a performance. Let’s take a moment or two to consider just what’s been handed to them. The earliest handwritten or printed information provided to an audience originated in the 18th century, and the term ‘playbill’ comes from a New York City publication by that name, founded in 1884, that continues to this day.
Traditionally, theatre regulars were more concerned about who was on stage, rather than what was on stage, and the non-appearance by advertised stars often caused quite a commotion, and occasionally riotous behaviour.
In Great Britain and Europe, programmes are still sold for many shows, while in North America design and printing are paid for by advertising, or the cost may be hidden in the admission price. The modern theatre version is a long way from a four-page monochromic pamphlet. Its design often begins with consideration of the advance advertising graphics for a particular play or musical, that authors and composers through their agents may control and supply. These graphics frequently are adapted for the programme’s cover that customarily includes credits for the original production and which identifies the producers and artistic team of the presentation that the audience is about to see. The cover is the show’s ‘store front’, an enticing invitation to what’s inside and a promise of what’s to come momentarily.
There is no rigid template for the makeup of the content of a programme, or for the content itself for that matter. State-of-the-art graphics software allows for seemingly limitless conceptualization, yet the basic purposes of a programme must be respected.
Primarily, the form and content must clearly and concisely inform the reader (audience). Typically before the curtain rises, an audience member has a brief time, in less than ideal lighting conditions, to become acquainted with the background and setting (including acts and scenes) of the show, its cast (actors) and parts (roles) being played, and in the case of a musical, the songs that will be sung, and which characters sing these. A synopsis of the plot also may be helpful. Thoughtful designers bear in mind that during actual performance, an audience member may wish to reference the playbill briefly in virtually no light at all. In view of such requirements, regard must be had to type styles, sizes, spacing, paper and other colours, and overall graphic treatments. Size and convenience in terms of handling are further considerations. It should be an easily accessible aid, as opposed to an annoying, ‘don’t know where to keep it’, distraction during a performance.
Better design recognizes the need for a programme to entertain a theatre audience, multi-dimensionality typified by engaging, occasionally humorous and provocative, commentaries by the artistic team, profiles of directors, actors, and leading production staff, and evident in other features. These qualities may extend to advertising content that is specifically created to complement the characteristics of the show and the local arts community. All these aspects contribute to a second, desirable purpose of a theatre programme that of a souvenir, a memento of a unique production at a particular place and time. Something that everyone will want to keep!
When one thinks about it, a theatre-goer actually begins and concludes his or her artistic experience with a programme in hand, designed ideally to stimulate our imagination and feed our anticipation, guide us, and ultimately provide a cue for looking back on a delightful, enduring memory.
Rob MacFarlane continues to be involved in Music Theatre Mississauga’s ‘Encore Series’, having recently designed the programme for Theatre Unlimited’s production of ‘Annie’.