Most shows have a theatrical program or playbill of some kind, as (generally speaking), people like to know something about what they are about to see, or want to read more about it after they have seen it. In North America, programs are usually included with the price of admission, in the UK, programs cost an additional fee. Here is what a program may include, but is not limited to:
- Program note from the artistic director and/or director and/or artist involved in the show
- Note(s) from local politicians
- A land acknowledgement
- Listing of the people involved
- Bios and photos
- Synopsis of the play
- Rehearsal photos
- List of donors; Individual and Corporate
If you have a website, most of this information may also exist there (check out more on websites here), but a physical program is a more immediate and condensed way for people to get this information, and selling advertising space in your program is a good way to earn some extra funds.
Canadian Stage Shakespeare in High Park now prints out everyone’s headshot and bio on large placards at the entrance of the park rather than having individual programs. This could be another way to go if it is cost effective.
You might also consider having a post-show zine as an alternative form of audience engagement beyond a talkback! This exists outside of the program, but could be compiled in a similar way.
This is typically written by the artistic director of the company or by the director of the show, or sometimes a note from both will be included. A program note can give your audience context, or give them something to ponder, but one should never assume that people will automatically read it. Do not let it replace anything that needs to be communicated within the show.
Notes from Politicians
If you are a company rooted in a particular community, you may have a relationship with your City Councillor, MPP, MP, or a politician that is somehow connected to your project. Adding their voice to your program is good marketing for them and may help get the word out about your show, or help introduce your work to a larger audience, assuming that they will use social media to promote your project. It’s useful to ask them for that and send them specific content and days you want it released, for example: a photo for opening night, or a post to help promote an up-coming relaxed performance.
When requesting a note from a politician, make sure you have a clear deadline and know what you are asking for. For example: do you need their photo? a signature? an emblem? a logo? as well as their note?
Ask the graphic designer how they want the politician’s statement to come in, so that when you ask for them you are asking for the right format.
Selling ads to politicians is also a good way to get them involved. A note for the program can be free, so see if you can negotiate an ad while you’re in communication with them.
Some companies use a printed land acknowledgement instead of a live or recorded one, some companies supplement a live one by also printing it in the program, and some only do a live one. More on Land acknowledgements here.
Near the front of your program, it is typical to find a list of everyone involved in the show and their role on the show. Usually the cast list is first, below the title of the show, playwright’s name, and director, and then the production team. If people are playing multiple roles, decide if you want them all listed or not. This listing can be alphabetical or in an order that makes sense for you. Make a choice and be consistent in the following pages with bios and photos.
Bios & Photos
Decide if you want a word count limit on bios (usually 150 word is plenty) and send your request for bios and photos to everyone involved in the show ASAP with a deadline. These are notoriously difficult deadlines to maintain, so err on the side of earlier rather than later. Gathering all this information in one place (like a spreadsheet) can help you stay on top of who you’re missing. Ask for all photos in high resolution and if you want the bio formatted a specific way, send an example for people to use. For example:
For The Canadian National Theatre: Debut or list past jobs with TCNT
Theatre: Role and Play (Producing Company), Role and Play (Producing Company), etc
Film/TV: Show (network) or Film (Production Company)
Up-coming: Starring in her own one woman show at The Peterborough Playhouse, Oct 2025
Miscellaneous: Thanks to my cat Simon for all the cuddles.
Favourite breakfast food: Captain Crunch.
Bio formats are entirely up to you and can be as serious or as irreverent as you/the production desires. The producer should proofread and format all the bios and put them all in one document with the proper job titles and in the right order.
Entirely up to you to decide if this is useful to include in your program or not. Some audience members will seek out a synopsis in advance, but as with a program note, never assume that everyone will read it just because it’s printed in the program.
Also known as Content Warnings, Content Notes orient audiences to potentially disturbing material that appears in a show. These Content Notes give an audience the appropriate information needed to make a choice about what they want to be exposed to. In the words of Ophira Calof, content notes are like a tasting menu – giving your audience the knowledge to decide what they want to "try" or pass on.
Bigger theatre companies may invite an expert, a professor, or a historian to write about some aspect of the show to give further context to what the audience is about to see. As ever, this is supplemental and not fundamental and requires paying this individual for their work.
Printing a good quality program is expensive, but if you have space and are so inclined, people love behind the scenes images of the show they are seeing; actors in their own clothes with script in hand or the lighting designer hanging lights is a nice way to share the process of theatre that audiences don’t get to see.
Decide what price you want to sell ads for (there are no industry standards here, it is usually based on scope of the project), the options are usually 1/4 page, 1/2 page, and full page. Before any ads have been sold for the program, ask the Graphic Designer to write up how they would like each size formatted for the ads. Create a document that lists the ad size and the price for each size, specify if the ad will be in colour or not, and start selling! (more on advertising here) Make sure to send the buyers your document on size specifications, a deadline for their artwork, and an invoice. Please note that sometimes these specifications will be entirely ignored because they are beyond the skill set of the people buying the ads.
List of donors
Listing your donors in the program may be a stipulated ‘perk of giving’ or simply a nice way to acknowledge their support. For corporate donors, a logo is usually included (make sure to double-check that the one you have is up to date). A message of thanks can also be included.
What else does your show need/want to communicate? You decide, it’s your show!
Formatting Your Program
Once you have all of your content, you will need to figure out how it all fits together. Creating a document for pagination (what goes on each page) is useful. Number each page and put the physical content into it or write down what it will be (for example: Pg 5 - Generator ad full page) then go to the next page and continue.
If you are professionally printing a program, keep into mind that your program pages are in increments of 4. One folded piece of paper creates 4 surfaces for the printer. What that means is that if you have 20 pages, you will likely only have 19 pages available for content, as the front page is typically an image or the poster. If you go over your 19 pages, you will need to bump up the number of pages to 24 pages, as you cannot add only 1 page at a time. Adding those extra 4 pages will change the price significantly, so plan accordingly.
As the producer, the more you can plan in advance, the more control you will have over your budget. Sending all of your content to the graphic designer to organize will not allow you to plan ahead in terms of pages. A graphic designer may not be willing to sort it all out for you, they will likely expect all the content to be paginated in advance. You can always do this with their guidance, just be sure that this is planned for.
If you are working without a graphic designer, make sure that you are using a design program of some kind that will help you off set everything to account for the seam/fold in the middle of the page.
Working with an Editor
If you are working with an editor on the content, have a conversation with them about their working style, preferred timelines, and communication pathways. Everyone is a little bit different, as each copy editor and graphic designer will have their own, unique process. Your working relationship will be a lot smoother if you get on the same page before heading into editing together (as this usually takes place at a busy point in the producer's critical path). Here is one example of an editorial process:
- Client/writer writes text (using a text application like Google Docs or Microsoft Word) and sends to editor.
- Editor uses Track Changes in document to electronically edit copy. Ideally, an editor would have at least three days to edit. One day to make edits, one day to let it sit, one day for final review. The day in between is a luxury, but often a useful one. (Time: 1 to 3 days)
- Editor sends client/writer the edited copy. Track Changes allows the editor to make definitive changes (grammar, spelling) and also to make notes in the margin with questions, suggestions. There is usually some back and forth discussion at this stage between the client/writer and editor, with both working from the same electronic doc. (Time: a couple of hours)
- Editor creates a new version / draft of the copy– sends to client/writer who then obtains sign-off from anyone who needs to approve (for instance, artists approving final bios).
- Client/writer sends any changes to editor, who inputs changes and creates a final, fully approved document. (Time: a few hours, assuming changes are not extensive)
- Client/writer sends final, approved copy to graphic designer. (In general, the designer should never be responsible for editing text by typing in changes. The designer should recieve clean copy that just needs to be dropped into their design.)
- Once the design is complete, there should be a couple of hours allowed for proofreading the PDF version of the program. The ideal situation is to have someone who has never seen the text do it on a hard copy, going line by line with a ruler (old school). Fresh eyes frequently pickup small mistakes that everyone has missed because they are too close to it. In this case, should there be one or two small changes, the designer can input them.
Whether or not you have an editor, it is very useful to have someone with fresh eyes, who hasn’t seen it before, go through the approved content before it is sent to the graphic designer or the printer. Finding errors after the printing is done is very frustrating and potentially very expensive if you need to reprint.
A useful way or technique to proof read is to print out a draft of the program and go through a hard copy. Circulate that hard copy through the team and make sure that everyone proof reads their own bio and signs their initials next to it.
Printing Your Programs
Finding a printer early is useful as you will need to decide several factors:
- printing in black & white or colour?
- thickness/quality of the paper?
- how quick the turn around is to print and deliver?
- can you negotiate a better price, there is sometimes wiggle room if you ask, so ask!
There are tons of printing companies in large cities, the best way to find a good one is to ask fellow producers who they like.
Make sure that you plan to have your programs at least a day or two before your first performance, in case anything goes wrong or is delayed. Make sure to keep a handful for your archives and either mail or hand deliver one to everyone who advertised with you with a thank you note. Having a bin for programs at the end of the show is a useful way to reuse them for future performances and get the most bang for your buck. There are almost always programs left at the end of a run, sometimes boxes full, so be realistic about predicting how many you’ll need. You can always do another printing.
Toronto Printers Recommended by Producers
- Incredible Printing (considered expensive, but good for a quick turnaround and very reliable)
- Print Pop (in the Annex)
- Toronto Printing House
- Gullons Printing (North Toronto)
- Warrens Printing (outside of Toronto in Whitby)
- Responsible Theatremaking: Content Warnings and Beyond from Howlround on Content Warnings and how to approach sharing them with your audience.