Getting Rid of the Printed Program: Is it a Good Idea?

Posted on January 26, 2012


This post was written by Caitlin Milligan Sheaffer, Production Manager at Mixed Blood Theatre Company. The post, initially scheduled to be released Tuesday, January 17, 2012, was held back to allow for other posts.

This morning, Jamil Jude, Producer In Residence here at Mixed Blood, forwarded today’s edition of the daily theater newsletter You’ve Cott Mail to the MBT staff. The newsletter highlights the efforts of a theater company in Texas to “go green.” Thomas Cott pulls out a short excerpt from John Garcia’s article:

Co-Artistic Director Chris LaBove of Second Thought Theatre in Dallas said: “Last year STT went green. We switched to purely internet based marketing and eliminated playbills in favor of digital projections. We used the money we saved to pay more to our artists as we strive to be a leader in production quality in the community. This year we are taking things one step further. Audiences will use their smart phones to either download the playbill to their device at home or scan a QR code to interact with the website and download the playbill to their device once they arrive. Other theaters tell you to turn your cell phones off. But not us. We want you to leave them on, in silent mode of course.”

Jamil followed up with some questions to our staff. He asked, “Would our audiences be upset if the only programs we offered were online or on the lobby screen? Does this increase accessibility or limit it? How can we use this idea to cut costs in certain areas? Increase our outreach and promotion? Maintain Mixed Blood’s vision of being a premiere, theatrical destination?”

Before I jump into sharing some of our staff responses to these questions, here’s some backstory. Those of you who have been coming to Mixed Blood for a while may remember that Mixed Blood tried something similar at the beginning of the 2009-2010 season. We didn’t eliminate the playbill entirely, but we did pare it down to a 4-page piece that included only the most essential information about the production. We left out artist biographies, dramaturgical information, and playwrights’ notes, among other things. We made some of that information available online and by phone and we played live bios, recorded by the casts and artistic teams, on a tv monitor in our lobby. This move didn’t go over very well with some of our patrons. While most people either didn’t notice or care about the truncated program offerings, several patrons responded with frustration at the missing content. To my knowledge, no one made a point at the time to let us know that they preferred to get that content online or appreciated the cost and paper-saving measures we were taking. There was a fair amount of debate within the organization about how to move forward with program design, lobby video content, and web-only information. It was ultimately decided that Mixed Blood would go back to having a robust and content-driven printed program available to all patrons.

Given all of that, I was not surprised that Jamil’s questions sparked some spirited conversation here at the theater today. With their permission, I’d like to share with you some of the staff’s responses to the idea of cutting back on our use of dead-tree formats.

From Director of Radical Hospitality Amanda White Thietje:

I couldn’t love this idea more.  I believe that there would be a huge buy-in buy from our audience for eco-friendly efforts, and this would offer us the opportunity to display information (on a screen, via smart phone, etc.) in a dynamic, compelling and budget-friendly way.

From Marketing and Communications Director Beth Richardson:

I still think the program content is pretty valuable. In fact, I’d love to see it become more and more content-driven, and hopefully we could spread that content through a number of platforms.

I thought it was a disservice to the artists to only make their bios available [on a tv monitor in the lobby]. Hard to hear, hard to watch, not very compelling, etc.

I’m a big fan of nice programs – I think it says a lot about the quality of the theatre.

From me (Caitlin Milligan Sheaffer, Production Manager):

I sort of love the idea of projecting some of the content that currently appears in the program. I’ve seen this done once and I thought it was successful. I really think that a well-done pre-show media display would look fantastic and would be in keeping with a high-quality theater experience.

Jamil also tweeted the following: Having interesting conversation on the value of the program for each show. Hard copy? Virtual? Does it matter?

One of our followers (@cbl_IGresponded: “Just more paper I end up recycling if I forget to hand the program back. I prefer online information and community discussion!”

It wouldn’t be surprised if more people have come around to the idea of more web-based content and less printed material since 2009. It’s also possibly relevant to this discussion to note that while a formal review of our changing audience demographics hasn’t been completed, I’d bet money that the average age of a Mixed Blood patron is much, much lower than it was two years ago (and in fact it is according to our Director of Radical Hospitality, Amanda White Thietje’s blog post!). Do younger people feel differently about web-only content than older people? Are younger people more likely to have and use smartphones? To piggyback on one of Jamil’s initial questions, does it increase, or limit, accessibility to target different kinds of patrons using different methods of communication?

What do you think?