Get with the programme: why small-scale touring needs to rethink the free sheet

I very rarely buy a programme when I attend a theatre show. Especially not when it’s clear you’re paying £3.00 for 10 pages of advertisements, black and white rehearsal photos and dull actor bios which are far too long. As Lyn Gardner has rightly pointed out, a good theatre programme worth keeping should be useful and jog the memory. I think that it should also be free.

Obviously this has financial implications, and I’m not suggesting that all West-End venues and large –scale organisation should start handing out programmes like free sweets, but I’m looking for a middle ground where small-scale venues and companies can create something valuable without the monetary value found on the more commercial scale.

All too often the programme or free sheet is seen as afterthought in the marketing and creation process of small-scale theatre. As a Producer I once found myself running to find a theatre’s local stationer to get 500 black and white copies of a Microsoft Word document that I knew would ‘do the job’ for the run which was opening that evening. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience. What I returned to the theatre with was a double-sided document with some information about the cast, the artists and a director’s note. No images (colour printing is surprisingly expensive) so this free sheet/programme hybrid was an incredibly average piece of paper tasked with the job to accompany an expressive and visual experience which audiences were paying money for. This didn’t add up for me, and since then I have greeted black and white free sheet/programmes with disappointment and a realisation that so many small-scale companies and venues are missing an opportunity.

Material given to audience members whilst they sit and wait for a show in the bar or auditorium represents a chance to start a conversation, to convert them into a supporter of your work and a future advocate for your company or venue. And this doesn’t have to come at a great cost of time or money.

By striking a balance between the content of a programme and the use of a free sheet, a simple document could be created which is visual and full of interesting information. This can be the usual A5 size or even A6 folding out to A4 (a style we’ve been experimenting with in house), and by seeing the free programme creation as an extension of the design process for a flyer or poster, you could save time whilst achieving professional results with not too much effect to the budget. Thinking long-term, once you have a layout you’re confident in, this could be used as a free programme template for all productions, again saving time and cost. There’s not a standard way of designing or creating this document, but changing your perspective on the content to make sure it’s useful and allows audiences to engage with the company is an important consideration. The addition of instructions for how to connect with the company online, and where to sign up to the newsletter are examples of how to encourage action from the reader and promote long-term audience engagement and the development of a relationship with the company.

The best free programmes I have kept have also been an extension of the production; a children’s show with a colouring in activity, a map for a promenade production and a newspaper for murder mystery are all good examples of extending the creativity from the show to the print.

Next time you’re about to plan a performance or tour of your production, remember to put some time aside to think about how you want to start the conversation with the audience sat in the auditorium before the show and what they may take away with them afterwards. I can guarantee that you’ll find less paperwork left on the auditorium floor, and you never know, your free programme could be in someone’s collection one day.