Confessions of a programme editor

Chloe Veltman's terrifically provocative piece across the hall (prompted by Amanda Ameer and her enquiring mind around the corner) wonders if the traditional theatre programme should be killed off. It's certainly true that what most audiences are offered is lamentable - over-priced, under-thought, padded by gushy biographies and dullsville PR, with the odd background article written by a drudge with no spark or insight into the production.

But does it have to be that way? Is it the fault of print and paper that they're used so soullessly? I'm certainly not knocking internettery and its uses. Sure, you can do all manner of whizz with it, and why wouldn't you? Work that website, luxuriate those downloads, share the sound and vision. But is it either/or? The glory of a publication is that it's there in your hand - before, during and after a show. And a good one feels like having a lively, papery companion along for the ride.

I'm hardly disinterested here. I've edited a raft of programmes in my time, and written notes for many more on theatre and dance. What I have learned that it makes an immense difference if you can get involved in the production in some way. I once spent six months at the Royal Shakespeare Company, covering a sabbatical by their then head of publications, Kathy Elgin. She had developed a richly informative programme style - a canny student could have used one of Kathy's programmes as a generous casebook of context and criticism. Directors were also used to being involved in discussions about what the programme could contain, and the best of them would share their sense of process to produce something that would both enhance the production and be rather gorgeous in its own right (Andy Williams, head of graphic design, take a bow).

I had some great fun working on these programmes. For pleasure-seeking Love in a Wood by William Wycherley, I wrote a Time Out-style guide to Restoration London, with details of where to drink, shop and party. For an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (by the lovely poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell, who died at the end of last year), we set out the background information like a board game, carrying the reader from page to page with a grave playfulness that I must admit I would have loved when I was little.

I also edited the programmes for the first several seasons of BITE, the Barbican Centre's consummate international performance series. Despite the pioneering artists - Cunningham, Ninagawa, Anderson, Lepage, Wilson - we had to work much harder to produce creative programmes. Many artists weren't used to Brit-style programmes, or feared over-explaining their work. We again commissioned brainbox essayists, devised chronologies and other imaginative contexts. I was hugely proud of some of these publications, and thought they really enhanced the shows - I certainly learned a lot - but other times felt the lack of connection with the artists, and worried that the result, however interesting, ran parallel to a production rather than opening a door into it.

Freesheets can be fine - they're common in abstract contemporary dance, but even there it's frustrating to have little more than a list of names. Pay-for programmes certainly have to justify their price tag. The National Theatre produces fat little booklets, crammed with goodies, and have rightly been promoting them as valuable adjuncts to the show. Sadler's Wells is sealing its status as London's most thoughtful dance venue by upping the content of its once skimpy programmes - it's no wonder they keep reaching new audiences. Many new writing venues combine programme with playtext, which is a wonderful idea.

Yet you dig in your heels and cling to your wallet. Shouldn't a piece of theatre stand on its own, you say? Oh yes. If you need a programme to make sense of it, it's unlikely to be a good night. But there's nothing wrong with pointing an audience in the right direction, giving them a sense of the process, making them feel involved. Equally, a good programme can help you carry on the conversation after the show - connect with the words and images you've seen, clarify your own thoughts (even if in disagreement), remind you that theatre is a dialogue and that what happens in your head after a show is as significant as what takes place before your eyes.

What programmes, if any, have you found genuinely helpful at theatre, dance, opera or concert? What information would you like to find, but rarely do? If you're a practitioner, do you enjoy having a programme accompany your work, or is it a distraction? Let me know what you think.

January 13, 2009 5:15 PM | | Comments (0) |

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on January 13, 2009 5:15 PM.

Practical criticism - other people's money was the previous entry in this blog.

Nothing to lose but self-respect is the next entry in this blog.

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