A program serves as the only tangible aspect of the theatrical experience. In some cases they become cherished memorabilia while in others they get thrown out or left behind the moment the show concludes. Programs for independent theatre are often an afterthought, something to be printed on the morning of opening night. Which makes sense as the producers will have their hands full ensuring that people actually come to see the show rather than focusing on the supplementary materials people receive once they have already bought a ticket. However, the humble program can say a lot about a company.
It is important to note that the program falls in between the following steps:
The customer encounters the program before they see your show. It is the first impression they have of your work. My high school modern history teacher used to emphasise the importance of an opening paragraph in essay writing. He said that regardless of how you feel about the rest of the essay, it must start off with a high distinction introduction. That way, you begin with an HD and get marked down as necessary. Whereas if you start off with a credit level introduction, you have to claw and fight your way up. The theatre program is the opening paragraph to your show and your company. If your program is average then that may reflect customer expectations and increases the burden of the performance to deliver.
The program is a very powerful tool in building a brand identity and a unique program can assist in placing a company firmly in the customer’s mind. Every aspect of a program is a potential statement about a company’s identity. For example: The quality of paper (Glossy, matte, thick, thin), colour or black and white, typography, care taken with visual layout, the presence of images (Logo, headshots, rehearsal images, the brand image for the show used on the poster) and information available (Bios, directors notes, show history, facebook page).
All of these factors and more are completely under a company’s control and may be sculpted as they see fit. Choosing any of these factors arbitrarily can lead to a company not being seen the way they wish to be. For example, it’s pretty difficult to convey that you are a brand new and exciting group of theatre makers with Times New Roman printed on so-so quality paper with poorly placed images or no images at all.
The Off-Broadway hit, iLuminate uses a simple program consisting of only two double sided pages with the bare essential information. However, it’s neon design elements provide a fantastic and exciting first impression for audience members.
The typical A5 black and white booklet used widely by independent theatre. Unfortunately I was unable to include an example of one because I don’t keep any of them, regardless of how much i enjoyed the show. These are the print outs that get left behind in the theatre or thrown out immediately after the show finishes.
A unique program can also act as a business card for the whole company. A theatre practitioner who decides to keep a program now holds details of all cast, crew, creatives and producers for future opportunities. You want people to keep them so take the time and effort to design something sensorily appealing.
The Most Successful Program In The World - Playbill
First printed in 1884 for a single theatre in New York, Playbill is now in every broadway theatre and is synonymous with the broadway identity. The level of cult status they have achieved allows them to branch out into all kinds of merchandise including their own pyjamas (Updated annually with new productions, of course).
They are printed on thin glossy paper and staple bound together. They look good and importantly, they feel nice to hold.
The greatest thing that Playbill has achieved is forming a common link for the Broadway community. In addition to being in every theatre, it advertises other shows and contains articles that are updated monthly. It is the glue that holds that Broadway entity together.
Now here’s a crazy idea. Forget everything I’ve said about the program being part of a unique brand identity for a second. Imagine that every independent theatre venue in a given city forms a coalition, much like Broadway. For the sake of where I live, let’s say that city is Sydney. All of these venues come together and decide on a common program brand that will be distributed at every theatre, able to accomplish everything that Playbill does. All of a sudden independent theatre in Sydney has a brand on it’s side that may able to compete with larger theatre companies. Individual theatres become a larger entity capable of supporting each other through advertising in a cohesive manner (Because let’s face it, postcards on a table in a corner don’t quite cut it) and setting a standard for program quality that influences first impressions. The cultural identity of Sydney’s theatrical landscape evolves into a hub and it all begins with a program.
For many reasons, this will probably never happen, but it illustrates how powerful the program could be.
This Is All Well And Good But What About The $$$!?
And now we come to the biggest factor that stops independent companies pursuing the art of the program. There is no denying that producing a quality program comes with costs. The cheapest printer I was able to find in Sydney charged the following for a colour 8 page booklet (Four double sided pages including front and back covers):
Other printers charged around the same area while some charged significantly more. If I had spent some more time searching, I may have even been able to find a better deal than the offerings of Ready Steady Print, whose prices once you’ve ordered above 50, seem incredibly reasonable for an 8 page full colour booklet. Although in independent theatre, these amounts can certainly be a budget breaker. In which case we can examine two ideas for offsetting the cost:
Option 1 – Selling them
Let’s say that we have a two week run of six nights a week in a thirty seat theatre. The maximum amount of programs you will need is 360 if you are sold out every night and everybody wants one (Which they will because we’ve made this program pretty damn fantastic). However, instead of buying 360 straight up, we’re going to play it safe financially and invest in 150 at the above cost of $172. Let’s examine a couple of pricing options:
- Sell them for $1 at the door. You can’t regain all of your costs and in the best case scenario where all of the programs are bought then you’re still at a $22 loss, however managing to recoup some of the costs is never a bad thing.
- Sell them for $2 each. In this scenario we would need to sell just over half of them (86) to break even. Sell more and there’s potential for some profit.
- Sell them for $5. Now things are getting expensive, however you only need to sell 35 to break even.
But let’s be clear, it needs to be a pretty good looking program for anything over $2 to fly as a sale price and the unfortunate aspect of attaching a price at all is that we’ve put up a barrier to access. This will instantly turn many customers away from the program, which is not what we want. There are certain promotional tools at our disposal to encourage sales. For example we could run a raffle for tickets to another show that is entered upon purchase of a $2 program. The prize could be any number of other things easily acquired by the company (Wine, signed poster ect..) but that small bit of encouragement will go a long way to covering the costs of our amazing program.
Option 2 – Compensate Through Crowdfunding
Given the prevalence of crowdfunding, it may be that you allocate that couple of hundred dollars within the campaign. However, the marketing of these campaigns is an entirely different beast that requires a significant amount of time and effort.
When all is said and done, programs in independent theatre are a bit of a non-event. More of a compulsory dump of information compiled at the last second to keep in line with theatrical conventions. Which is a shame given that they are the first thing your audience encounters and the only thing that remains long after your show has evaporated. An independent company has a lot of potential to develop a brand through careful construction of a program. They are also able to act as a theatrical business card and there are strategies available for recovering the cost of printing them. Programs can do a lot more than they get credit for.
Until Next Time
Thanks for taking the time to read this article. Please feel free to join the discussion through the comments below and check us out on facebook. I’ll be back soon with another article promoting the art of marketing for the arts.