Written on the 1 December 2012


Theatre Programs: Who needs them? Who makes them?

So, youve spent $279.80 on two tickets for Legally Blonde at Sydneys Lyric Theatre. Paid for parking and dinner. Oh, and Ticketmaster charged you a $7.45 Handling Fee on behalf of their hardworking computers. Lets get a program! says your date. Ker-ching! Thatll be $20 extra, please.

Yes, $20 is the standard price of a musicals program these days. And, youd better believe it, the $25 program is coming for some big attractions next year War Horse, for instance.

Who makes these increasingly expensive items? Who writes them? Are they value for money? Frank Hatherley investigates the making of programs for professional and community theatre.

The Program King

Brian Nebenzahl remembers the place of programs in a 1950s Sydney theatre night out. The deal was that you bought your girlfriend a corsage, a box of Winning Post chocolates and, of course, a program. When we started at the Tivoli, programs cost a shilling. Thats 10 cents in todays money!

Nebenzahl went on to co-found Australias leading publisher of programs, Playbill. At 77, he remains Executive Chairman.

He and ex-schoolmate Lance Peters got the Tivoli program job from another ex-schoolmate, Lloyd Martin, who had taken over the running of the Tivoli Variety Show Circuit after his father died. Previously, making the programs had been an extra duty that no one wanted, Nebenzahl says.

Every eight weeks they had another show. We could only print 1500 copies of the first edition so the management had an opportunity to change the running order, depending on the popularity of the various acts.

The Tivoli job wasnt enough. He had his eyes on the largest theatrical firm in Australia, J.C. Williamson. I rang Peter Morrison [then Head of JCWs Public Relations] every day for a year, he says. Then one day the woman who had done their programs for ages didnt turn up for work and he said, okay, come in and meet [Managing Director] Sir Frank Tait.

So I fronted Sir Frank with a contract. He looked up at me over his glasses: what size will the type be in? Nebenzahl laughs merrily at the memory. Of all possible questions, I wasnt ready for that one, but I said, 9 on 10 point Times Roman. It was all I could think of quickly. He said, youve got to understand us oldies cant read all that well.

So the deal was done. It was very exciting. Our first JCW program was for Maurice Chevalier at the old Empire Theatre, and the next was for My Fair Lady. Now that was Big Time.

He confesses to appropriating the name Playbill from the US firm that had been printing theatre programs since the 1880s. 

I really knocked their name off, he says cheerfully. Weve got it registered throughout Asia, the United Kingdom, South Africa. Their words to me were, as long as you dont get into our cabbage patch we dont care. When we publish in America we call ourselves Platypus Productions, a good Aussie name.

The Australian Playbill has just about cornered the market for professional companies. These days we do almost all the subsidised companies. We do the MTC, the STC, Musica Viva, the six state orchestras, the Opera, the Ballet. Plus independent producers like Cameron Mackintosh and John Frost.

Were a publisher, not just a printer. We take the commercial risk and pay a royalty on all program sales to the producers and theatre companies. This represents a significant income stream for them.

Happy in his family trade son Michael is Managing Director, wife Jocelyn is Editorial Director Brian Nebenzahl doesnt wish to discuss the cost of programs to theatregoers. Theres always someone who thinks they should be free, he shrugs, before listing all the other showbiz costs that keep going up admission prices, venue hire, wages (onstage, front and backstage), travel and transport, etc. Why wouldnt program costs go up, too? he implies.

Who decides the editorial and pictorial content of a program? It varies. Sometimes producers leave it to us. The subsidised companies often have a resident team that does all that. If they dont, we do it. Recently Playbill and the Sydney Theatre Company reappraised their program content and they appointed a journalist. Now the look of it is totally different with lots of interesting stories.

The Program Editor

Alex Lalak has edited STC programs since being recruited 18 months ago from The Telegraph where she was Arts Editor. A self-confessed absolute theatre nut she had been writing reviews as well as interviewing stage and cinema personalities.

Her arrival as Content Manager sparked intense discussions. We talked a lot within the company about what we wanted from a program, if we even wanted to continue having programs. And we got some positive feedback from our patrons through a survey. So then it was, well, how do we make programs more valuable and worthwhile? That was our starting point.

We think of our programs now in terms of something that will be useful and interesting for the audience when theyre here, but also as something they will read through after they leave the theatre. For the last 12 months weve been including a 1500 word essay that Ive commissioned, mostly from academics or from experienced journalists, on a topic or interesting angle connected to the show.

At a recent performance at the STCs Wharf Theatre this poster was on display in the foyer: Enhance your Experience of Sex With Strangers Purchase a Program, $10.

And we have another new section, says Lalak, called Discover the World of the play, where we offer suggestions for the audience to take the experience further. I gather these ideas from the rehearsal room, from their process.

The Sex With Strangers World suggests 3 movies to watch (including When Harry Met Sally), 2 books to read (including The Lover by Marguerite Duras), and 4 writers to seek out (Simone de Beauvoir, etc). Theres even a suggested wine to go with the play (A crisp Californian white).

Has there been any increase in program sales since her arrival? She cant say for sure. Playbill controls the printing and the sales. But weve been having some really good feedback, which is great. [Later Playbill confirmed that STC program sales have indeed risen.]

A sign of the times is that the enthusiastic Lalak also manages the complex digital side of the STCs information outreach. She edits regular subscriber newsletters, an online magazine with videos, podcasts and a blog.

Considering the changes that are happening throughout the newsprint media, with Arts sections getting smaller and smaller, I think companies need to be producing more and more of their own content. Starting with their programs.

The Friendly Local Printer

Ken Hind is the owner of the Gosford (NSW) Snap Printing franchise. Robust and friendly, hes well known locally as the printer (and often designer) of programs for community theatre groups. He produces the outstanding glossy 16-page A4 programs for the Gosford Musical Society and the more modest 8-page black and white A5 programs for the Woy Woy Little Theatre.

Its a digital world here, too. Program makers in the 1990s would be amazed at the speed of Kens work and the double page spread of full-dress show photographs in the program ready for the opening night audience.

GMS shows open on a Friday night. A professional photographer does a shoot during the final dress rehearsal on the previous Monday. All the rest of the program will be ready by then. I can give them a first run of 200 programs thatll cover Friday and the two shows on Saturday.

If everybodys happy Ill then send the file off to a trade printer and get a bulk run done for the next three weeks.

Each production team handles their own program content. As coordinator, I make sure they have it proofread and ready on time.

How many GMS programs are regularly sold? At a full house [the Laycock Street Theatre seats 392] between 20% and 35% of the audience buy a program. A show does 15 performances. Sales definitely vary from show to show. Our biggest selling programs were for Cats and for The Boy From Oz. Recently the Chorus Line program didnt sell so well.

Does anyone complain about the $7 price? Ken doesnt think so. The actual unit cost averages out at between $3.50 and $4, he says, but they regularly give away 150-200 copies for the library, the committee, for all the volunteers.

He remembers when the price went up from $5 in January 2010. The sales havent varied since then, he says. The Boy From Oz had more content images and stuff they got from a trip to Tamworth and Armidale so they called it a souvenir edition and sold it for $10. That didnt affect the volume of sales at all.

Dont Forget the Merchandising

To supplement their program sales, Playbill has branched very firmly into merchandising. During my visit to Playbill HQ, Brian Nebenzahl shows me an impressive display of their current offerings.

Its the big musicals that have kept us going, he says, proudly showing a wall of branded clothes, toys and knickknacks. His top-selling Mary Poppins collection, for instance, includes Umbrellas, Beach Towels and a Musical Snowglobe (for $65). Mamma Mia! was said by The Age to have generated several million dollars in merchandise sales.

Its a very big area, he says. Weve sold container-loads of stuff over the years. People love it. Weve got Legally Blonde on the deck at the moment.

So, after youve bought your $20 program, now you can purchase a Pink Cap for $25, anOMIGOD You Guys Singlet for $40, and a Pair of Legally Blonde Yoga Pants for $75.

Originally published in the November / December 2012 edition of Stage Whispers.

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