Tips for better theatre programs

Dec 19 2017, 11:57 am

We need to chat about theatre programs for a quick minute.

Specifically, directors’ forewords and actor/crew bios in independent theatre. You may think they’re not that important. You may think nobody reads them. You may genuinely have no idea you’re doing them completely wrong and that is why nobody wants to read them.

The program is the first impression you give audiences and reviewers of the show. Chiefly, I recommend getting an editor – someone who either does it professionally or possesses the skills, not just to check spelling, not even just to check grammar, but to help your program not make an ass of you and your show before anyone has even seen it.

Call in a favour from a writer friend or enlist a professional for a small fee; I know independent theatre companies don’t have a lot of money to spend, but I’m contending that if you’re going to budget for printing, you can and must find some spare change for editing, if no capable volunteers step forward. Otherwise, printing a program at all will do more harm than good. Failing that, if you must print a program that has not been proofread, I beg you to consider the following tips.

Director’s foreword

Avoid hyperbole at all costs. As a driving creative force behind this show, hyperbole is going to leave readers incredulous at your hubris. Do not call your show “amazing.” You are basically calling yourself amazing and a genius. Do not extol the quality of a product your viewers have not seen yet and would prefer to assess for themselves, thank you very much. Do not promise to “enthrall” or any similarly gushing verbs. You cannot guarantee that something as subjective as theatre is going to deliver “enthrallment” or “fascination” to even one of the people reading the program. Do not assign crazy reactions like “you are sure to leave X Show considering the meaning of blah blah,” it suggests the work the audience is about to see will not actually provoke thought on its own merits. The best you can do is hope to entertain. Hope to entertain – do not promise to amaze. Briefly explain your take on the show’s relevancy or value, introduce your reason for producing it, describe the creative process, and provide some sort of well-wish for the audience that’s about to consume it.


I’m gonna propose something unconventional: point form. Seriously, hear me out. What are the common problems with actor bios? At worst, they can be self-indulgent, awkward and boring, and not of uniform length. At best, they humbly list the performer’s education, accomplishments and recent roles. Why not cut out the clutter? Why bother trying to compose a paragraph when attempts at personality are likely to fall flat, and most actors are not also professional wordcrafters?

For those who would argue, “but I like knowing a tidbit about the real person playing the character,” I would first ask “why and who cares?” Second, I would say there’s no reason one or more of the points could not be such trivia. For example:

[Photo] Alex McActor Studio 58

– Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet. Studio 58.

– Horace Vandergelder, Hello Dolly. AMAZING Theatre. (Ovation Award)

– Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest. Entertaining Productions. (Jessie Richardson Award nominee)

– Owner of small business “Heart Smart Granola.” Come say hi at the next West End Farmer’s Market, Saturday mornings on Comox and Bute.

Satisfying without being obnoxious, maybe? Just an idea. A lot of theatre artists are utterly convinced everyone really enjoys reading silly bios full of personal information, and maybe they do – maybe jokes and trivia are completely appropriate for the show. I suggest letting a professional decide (or as I said before, a capable volunteer).

Anyone who has directed actors knows that sometimes marshaling a group of creative people with diverse backgrounds and personalities into doing anything synchronously can be daunting. Creating an organized format for their biographies is friendlier to readers than a confused, unruly array of lengths and unmatched tones ranging from overly serious to flippant and jokey.

Are you frustrated by theatre programs, or do you think bios are as much an authentic part of the artists’ expression as the work onstage? Let us know what you think in the comments below.