By Kelly Monaghan, June 13, 2022
In Ontario, theatre programmes (or programs as we Americans insist on calling them) may be going the way of the Atlantic walrus — extinct, that is.
The Shaw and Stratford Festivals are printing fewer programmes and guiding patrons to online equivalents. At the Stratford Festival, patrons are handed a one-page cast list and a one-page plot synopsis as they enter the auditorium.
If they ask for a programme, they will be directed to a rack in the lobby.
This has come as a surprise to many people. If there was a formal announcement from either institution, I missed it. Perhaps formal announcements are down the road; the season is young.
At the Shaw Festival, patrons are guided to a QR code near entrances to the various auditoriums. If you request a programme, you will be directed either to the house manager or the Audience Services desk where you can get a printed programme, either the truncated “preview programme” that is used prior to a show’s official opening or the full programme which appears after that date.
All theatres in the Drayton Entertainment portfolio have gone a step further and done away with printed programmes. The alternative is a QR code in the lobby for those with smartphones or a download from their website, which gets you an electronic version of the full programmes they used to distribute.
So why is this happening? I have heard several explanations. Environmental concerns are mentioned frequently. Health concerns are another topic (“less contact,” whatever that might mean). I was told that due to Covid, programmes could not be recycled and so went straight into the garbage, which is certainly a valid environmental concern. I also got the impression that some institutions used to gather programmes left behind and reused those that were more or less pristine; again, Covid put the kibosh on that idea.
Although the financial cost of printing sufficient programmes was never mentioned, it seems obvious that this was a major contributor to the changes. One reason I think I’m right on this score is that I never heard “Oh, this is a temporary measure. Once the pandemic is comfortably in the rear-view mirror, we’ll revert to the status quo ante.”
I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning. It remains to be seen how robustly attendance will rebound after the pandemic; it seems only reasonable to assume that there will be some falloff now that folks have gotten cozy with Netflix and a gazillion other streaming services. And as the media never stops telling us, we live in inflationary times. So clearly, money is a concern. And if these institutions are eliminating programmes because they are on shaky financial footing, that is truly scary.
However, I hate to see the theatregoing experience diminished. For many patrons of these institutions, the plays they see are a cherished part of their cultural lives. The programmes they collect and lovingly preserve are very important to them. I know they are to me.
Programmes create a tangible, almost visceral sense of connection with the theatre and its artists. Every time I see my carefully curated collection of theatre programmes on my bookcase, labelled by year, I feel that connection afresh. If I want to compare Stratford’s 2022 Hamlet with the 2015 production or Shaw’s 2019 production of Man and Superman with the one I saw with Ian Richardson and Carole Shelley way back in 1977, the programmes are at hand. It bothers me to think my son and grandchildren might lose this connection.
There’s a great deal of talk these days about making theatre more accessible. But surely a programme hidden away among the bits and bytes of your phone is much less accessible. And when I want to look up who I saw in that great play ten years ago, how accessible will that virtual programme be then?
There’s another reason to give everyone in an audience a programme they can peruse before the lights dim. Since directors delight in creating ever newer “concepts” for their interpretations of classic texts, a programme may be your only hope of understanding what the heck is happening onstage. A 2018 Stratford production of Comedy of Errors featured a fair bit of gender-swapping, cross-dressing, and S&M regalia, none of which was explained in Shakespeare’s text. Only the director’s notes could tell you what was happening in Ephesus.
I could mention other reasons why this new policy is problematical, but enough already. The only upside I can see in all this is that, with theatres now posting their virtual programmes online , you will be able to review the programme of a show in the comfort of your own home before making the decision to see it or not.
For the time being at least, printed programmes are still available at both Shaw and Stratford. If getting one for your at-home collection is important to you, I advise getting to the theatre early. If you don’t see programmes on display, ask the nearest usher where to find one.
I understand that neither Shaw nor Stratford will be printing as many programmes as they once did. While there seems to be enough to go around now, that might not be the case later in the season.
Down the road, you may have to pay a small fee to get a programme. I was told that Shaw is mulling that option for next season. I, for one, would be willing to pay, as I do at every show I see in London, where this has long been standard practice.
The theatres may see the cost-cutting benefits of eliminating programmes as a tactical move, but I fear they are making a strategic error. If this new policy bothers you, I suggest contacting the theatres directly, outlining the reasons for your disappointment and expressing a strong desire to see the policy reversed. Be polite — this is Canada, eh? — but be firm.
I have tried to be as dispassionate as possible in this article despite my strong feelings on the subject, and I am sure there are many things that I either don’t know (what’s happening in Toronto? On Broadway?) or have missed. If anyone can provide additional information or correct errors, please feel free to use the Facebook Comments section below.
Kelly Monaghan divides his time between Stratford and the Connecticut shore. He chronicles his love affair with Canadian theatre at OntarioStage.com