Out and about with Lewis Roden: theatre programmes
Lewis Roden, the Arts Marketing Association's (AMA) Senior Member Engagement Officer, set himself the task of seeing 100 live shows in a year. In the first of a series following his progress, Lewis gives us his observations on what makes the perfect theatre programme.
For those who don’t know who I am, my name is Lewis Roden I’m the Senior Member Engagement Officer here at the Arts Marketing Association (AMA.)
I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions and instead I like to opt for a broader targets in the form of yearly themes and goals. Listen to this podcast on setting yearly themes by independent content creators Grey and Myke Hurley. So, I set myself a goal this year of seeing ‘100 live shows’, across many different artforms, styles and mediums and here's what I observed, starting with programmes.
It all starts and ends with paper
Understandably many programmes use gloss lamination for the feel and look of a premium and luxury experience. The sticking point for me with this finish is glare from light when people are taking and posting photos on social media. As someone who has purchased upwards of 80 programmes this year alone, I have come to prefer uncoated, bond and silk covers for how they feel to hold . For these paper types the corners can be easily boxed in transport. A few organisations I have visited, such as Regents Park Open Air Theatre, have combatted this by using different paper types for different sections of the programme.
Being sustainable is a hot topic among all of our audiences. I know that all of the organisations that I’ve visited are focused on being more eco-conscious and socially responsible. However, many programmes don't state clearly if the paper used is sustainable or recycled. This is something I have noticed that audience members are increasingly looking for. Unlike previously, the current technology used in making recycled paper produces a final stock that is of comparable quality to its “Fresh”(non-recycled) counterparts.
As a self-confessed theatre addict, I end up with a lot of programmes with some of my own prized possessions being a set of pre-war programmes for the Theatre Royal Brighton. Making sure a programme stands up to the test of time is important. Programmes like The Bridge Theatre’s ‘The Southbury Child’ have opted for a rougher textured, higher paper weight that gives the impression of being coated without the negative effects, while still allowing your organisation to be committed to your sustainability and carbon reduction goals.
Substance over style
In August 2022, I showed the programmes from all the shows I’d seen to group of people with differing levels of sight. All of them found and commented that they found the smaller fonts with higher weights easier to read than the larger fonts that had a smaller weight. Another outcome is that one person who suffered from a stigmatism, pointed out is that text that is ‘cramped’, where the layout tracking is tight, can become impossible to read in theatre conditions, due to the way the condition skews it.
Anyone who knows me knows I am obsessed with fonts. Many of my favourite programmes use Serif fonts but as someone who's neurodiverse this makes the reading experience a lot more arduous and detracts from my enjoyment of the material.
Using San Serif fonts just make the copy easier to read. If Serif fonts are necessary (they are key to the design/ visual identity) keep them to a minimum. An option I've seen used in a few programmes is to just use serif fonts for headings and also increase the size of serif sections to combat that the issues with readability.
There's a lot of guidance on accessibility and colour contrast for websites including clear recommendations from WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). However there's less advice for print and good contrast becomes even more vital when you consider that the first time that most people will be looking at at a programme is in the auditorium of the theatre itself. These spaces tend to be lit more softly making text even harder to read. My quick tips fpr accessible colour contrast are:
- use the WCAG criteria to make sure your colours are accessible
- check all colour combinations using a colour contrast checker
- do not rely on colour alone to highlight important information
- check contrast ratio of non-text elements, like images, charts, graphs etc.
Size Matters! (In this case)
My number one annoyance when it comes to programmes is the size. This year I’ve had programmes that have been as small as A6 and at the other end approaching A2. The main sizes I've encountered this year have been roughly A4, A5, A3 or square.
Larger than A4 - there is no reason for there to be a programme bigger than A4! It becomes unwieldly to hold and a burden to transport.
A4ish - In my opinion this size should only be offered if there are multiple sizes of souvenir print material as reading this in somewhat cramped theatre seats can be problematic. For example, the Book of Mormon has a programme which is roughly A5 and a souvenir brochure which is roughly A4.
Square - Whenever I've visited a production with a square programme, it seems to be a big topic of discussion between the audience members and tends to polarize groups. My take on this is that as long as it’s not too big it doesn’t really make a difference. Although I would consider the subtle mental effects of the unusual print shape on the immersion and audience buy-in into the performance.
Lastly, A5. For me it’s the dream! Small enough to fit into any bag and text still readable at a standard size for the programme. It also allows the programme to have ‘less’ pages than usual and still feel like value.
Show your working
Based on my collection of programmes only 43% list who the printer is in any capacity. As someone who is always looking for a good printer, seeing an example of their final work is very valuable and often the deciding factor of whether to working with them or not. So do credit the printer- this will help them grow their business, help colleagues when they're looking for a printer and like any other artist or company on the project from the Make Up Artist to PR om MUA (Make Up Artist) to PR, acknowledge the work they have done.
Keep it together
All of these different programmes use one of two binding styles - saddle stitch or perfect binding. From my point of view as a customer these offer two different sets of benefits:
- Saddle Stich
This type of binding is easier to read and also to hold as the pages can be opened flat. They also suit programmes that have a smaller number of pages. The more pages there are in a programme the more likely you are to experience unexpected ‘page creep’. This is where the inner pages are trimmed more from the outer pages to allow the edge of the programme to be straight.
- Perfect Binding (Glue Bound edge)
Using this binding type gives the final programme a more premium feeling as it's squared at the edges. Also from my experience perfect binding stands the test of time much better than their saddle stitched counterparts, especially for thicker programmes. The only drawback for me is the reading experience, as you often have to fight with the spine to get the programme opened flat. This isn't much of an issue in everyday life but in the theatre situation where you might have a drink in one hand and the programme in the other it can be difficult to deal with.
Content is king
When I buy a programme there are three core pieces of information I expect to find:
- Information about performers
- Information about creatives
- Background of the show
These are my main motivators for the purchase. In my view the next tier of information includes things like:
- a note from the director/ producer
- historical context (if applicable) and
- production/rehearsal pictures
These are in a lower tier of importance as they add value to the programme but very few people solely buy it for this reason. Then comes adverts. These add an important source of extra income so make sure they're as relevant and engaging as possible and add value to the programme instead of detracting from it.
Do you need it?
The final question I find myself asking is ‘In this increasing digital age do you need a physical programme?’. The fantastic production of ‘The Trials’ at the Donmar Warehouse opted to have a digital programme, which is very fitting for the themes explored within the piece. Having a digital programme also allows for much more interesting and innovative design including animations, links and differing page sizes.
Despite this I still think: ‘No, there remains a very important place in the theatre going experience for show programmes’. If you're unsure I'd consider what the purpose of a programme is for this production and what form it should take. In several venues (generally where it’s the premiere) I've seen the playtext added to the core elements mentioned above to produce an almost hybrid programme format. Also consider using QR codes to link to additional digital content.
- What is the best paper finish for your cover?
- Is your paper from a responsible source e.g FSC® certified
- Font weight and tracking is sometimes more important than ‘font size’. Make sure you allow ample vertical spacing for your copy
- Use accessible fonts San Serif fonts
- Consider colour contrast and the WCGA AAA standards
- Programme size matters!
- Keep it together – use an appropriate binding type
- Make sure ads are relevant and adding value
- Remember content is king
- Think about your programme format - printed, digital, mainly information, souvenir with added content, hybrid format that includes playtext.
Lewis Roden, Senior Member Engagement Officer, Arts Marketing Association
More from Lewis on Instagram: Half Hour Call