The program is a helpful informational tool. Coming soon, lots of help putting one together!
When the audience arrives to see the show, into their hot little hands will go the program. At its most basic level, the program is there to give the audience information about the production: what they’re seeing and who is involved. Of course, a program can contain much, much more. What follows is a basic blueprint:
The title of the play, immediately followed by the name of the author (make sure you obey any contractual obligations you may have regarding the size of the author's name). Typically, the name of the producing group will be featured prominently, and there will usually be a graphic (often some version of what’s on the poster).
Inside the program, you’ll likely once again have a title page which will provide the name of the producing group, the title of the play immediately followed by the name of the author, and then the other artistic credits: director, designers, often the names of the cast, as well as any contractual credits (e.g. “Produced by special arrangement with YouthPLAYS” or “Originally produced by Sidewalk Studio Theatre, Burbank, California”).
Here you’ll have the cast and the characters they play, often in order of appearance (though some choose to present them alphabetically). Below, often will be setting information and whether there will be an intermission.
Bios are standard for performers and the artistic staff (including the playwright, of course) in professional theatre programs, and often at the community theatre level as well. Be sure to give everyone a word limit, or you could end up with several novellas. Bios are a great touch for school programs, space permitting.
OTHER ELEMENTS OF A PROGRAM
Somewhere, there should be a place to thank those who have assisted, either by donating time, expertise or goods/funding. That may be a formal "patrons" page, or a more informal "special thanks to..." list. Some programs will also feature a director's note, or there may be a note from the artistic director or producer about the season, or a blurb about the company.
JUST FOR MUSICALS
In the case of musicals, of course the band will also be credited (assuming you're not using tracks), and there will typically be a list of songs and who sings them.
Ads are a great way to help defray the cost of your program. We'll talk more about them later in this section.
A program is a powerful tool that can inform, entertain, promote and serve as a keepsake of a production. Whether it's a single 8.5 x 11 inch sheet folded in half or something much more elaborate, it's an essential tool to connect with your audience.
Your program is more than just a way to inform your audience about the show and who worked on it. It's a powerful tool for generating revenue and advancing your goals as a producer. Be sure to use it.
When you flip through all but the most basic of programs, you'll find advertisements—for local restaurants or businesses, for larger corporate entities in the case of larger productions, and sometimes for other productions. So...where do you begin?
First, you'll need to decide roughly how much space you have for advertising. To do that, figure out how many pages the program will be and how many pages you'll need for content (title page, credits, bios, director or author's notes, etc). What remains is your advertising space. If you suddenly find yourself swamped with ad requests, you can consider expanding the program (typically you will need to do so in 4-page increments).
Next, create a pricing breakdown. Advertising prices can vary greatly, so it's best to research prices based on your area and similar theatres. For example, if you're at a high school, call a few of your neighboring schools and find out what they charge. Ditto for community or other theatres. A great goal for the program is for it to pay for itself with advertising revenue. If you can earn money on top of that, even better.
But there are other forms of payment that can be just as useful as cash. In fact, it may be that a business can make a larger, more valuable "in kind" contribution. For example, if you need edible food props, see if a local market will supply them in return for a program ad. It might cost $100 if you had to purchase the food retail, but their cost may be only half that. In other words, they're giving you $100, but it only costs them $50 to do so: everybody wins. Similarly, you might look for deals from local printers or businesses from which you would otherwise buy props or costumes. Even if you don't get things completely for free, you can save yourself a substantial amount of money.
Also, you might consider trading program space with other theatres. If you think their audience is likely to be the sort of audience that will also attend your show, why not swap ads? Just make sure that such a trade is likely to be of benefit to you. You don't want to give a program ad for your show in October to a company whose show doesn't open until after your production has closed. It may benefit them, but it doesn't help you.
So who do you approach about advertising? Regardless of the level of production, it always makes sense to begin by compiling a list of who you know. Particularly at the amateur level (it's not something you'd ask in a large-scale professional production), ask your cast or production staff if they know anyone at local businesses who might be interested in advertising. It could be that someone works as a waiter at the café down the street as part of his day job, and he would be happy to refer you to his boss, or better yet, make the initial approach himself. Or maybe the lead actress works part-time in her father's store.
Once you've compiled a list of contacts, consider what other businesses to approach. What is nearby? Locally owned businesses will usually make the best choices, as they don't have a corporate office from which they need approval. For example, a restaurant might want to offer a discount to your patrons (e.g. 10% off or a free dessert with a paid entrée). It helps if a restaurant is open late enough for people to stop by after the show, but it's not a necessity. In particular, consider targeting newer businesses that are looking for ways to publicize their name out to the community. Be prepared, when soliciting advertising, to be able to tell them roughly how many people you expect to attend the production and other salient facts about your show and theatre group.
While sometimes the producer does pretty much everything, it helps if you can have one person take charge of program advertising—preferably someone congenial who's a good salesperson. In a school or college production, perhaps there can even be a little competition to see who sells the most program ads (in the same way they often do for candy sales), with an incentive for the winner. Also, keep in mind for school shows that some "ads" are nothing more than congratulatory notes from friends and family. Nothing wrong with that, if it helps you put the best show possible on stage.
While at schools and universities and at many community theatres we are typically solely responsible for making our own programs, particularly at the professional level, some cities have “shared” programs.
How does the “shared” program work? It’s quite simple. Certain pages are specific to your group (i.e. the cast and production info, director’s note, etc), and other pages are provided by the company that does the program. Typically, these additional pages may include a feature article or editorial, information about them, and, most importantly, information about other shows playing locally by other companies that have bought into the shared program.
Why do it? Three reasons:
1. The cost of the program will be MUCH cheaper than it would be if you were to do your own.
2. While you’re responsible for creating camera
3. You will typically have the opportunity to cross-advertise your production in the programs of other groups using the shared program. This allows your company to attract a wider audience to your theater.
The best place to find out whether your city has such a shared program is the local theatre alliance or producers’ organization. Some examples of shared programs are Footlights (Los Angeles, primarily smaller companies), Stagebill, which covers virtually every theatre in Chicago, as well as venues in many major US cities, and Playbill, which covers Broadway, off-Broadway and other major venues across the country.
Don't have an organization nearby that already does a shared program? Why not band together with a group of like-minded area community or professional theatres and start one as a way of cross-pollinating? At a high school? What if schools banded together to create, for example, a county-wide set of shared pages. Perhaps your state educational theatre organization (and pretty much every state has one) can help help. Regardless of the kind of theatre group, it never hurts to explore the possibility of cross-marketing with similar groups, even if it's only through program inserts, to expand your collective theatre audiences.