Time for a rethink about theatre programmes?

As the need to find ways to reduce waste becomes more pressing, is the time ripe to make theatre programmes only available in electronic format?

Sunday 21 January 2018


QR code for ActDrop website

Reviewing Bunny at the Tristan Bates theatre earlier this week, I encountered something unusual and one which I've not come across before - there was no printed programme or cast list for this show.

Collecting my ticket at the box office, I was also given a card on which was printed a QR code to scan with a mobile phone in order to see and read the programme.

If you're not familiar with QR codes, they are images (like the one at the top of this page) that can be scanned by cameras.

Embedded in the image is a link to a website, some text, a phone number, a location or a link to a Facebook or Twitter account and so on.

In order to scan the QR code, you need an app on your smartphone which you point at the image.

Once scanned, the app will take you to the website or whatever destination is embedded in the code.

So, using my phone to scan the Bunny QR code, I got taken to the programme for the show.

Well, I actually got taken there after a bit of effort.

First, I tried scanning the code before the show in the theatre bar which was a little dark, and not wanting to blind others nearby by using the flash on my phone, I decided to leave it until I got home.

Normally, I would have read the printed programme there and then and known a bit more about the show.

Of course, I could have scanned the code anyway using my flash - maybe next time that's what I will do, but it doesn't seem so considerate of others standing or sitting nearby.

During performances, I occasionally want to find out who is playing a particular character and, normally, I can do that with a quick glance at the programme, without disturbing my neighbours.

With a programme in electronic format, I can't do that as we're usually asked to switch off phones when we enter the theatre.

And I normally do switch off my phone rather than have it in airplane mode (as Apple so quaintly put it).

So, an electronic programme doesn't help in that situation when I want to glance at it during the performance.

Back home after the show I managed to scan the code easily and then to see the show's programme.

On my iPhone 5s (which has a fairly small screen) the programme text was unreadable, at least for me, and I couldn't increase the text size by zooming.

So I had to download the QR scanner app on my iPad and then scan the code again to be able to read it.

That worked ok, apart from the fact that the scanner app only allowed me to read the programme in portrait mode, when I would have preferred to use it in landscape since that's the way I use my iPad for the most part as I keep it in a keyboard case which works in landscape format.

Still, I was now at least able to read the full programme since the text was large and clear enough.

I presume that some scanner apps are more flexible in terms of how they let you view the content, probably if you pay for them rather than merely using the free versions - I need to do a bit more research about these apps.

But I certainly hadn't time to do that before publishing my review of the excellent Bunny, and I certainly wasn't going to pay for any of them, particularly since I have never had cause to use a QR code scanner up to now.

As I was reading the electronic version of the programme, it would have been neat to copy text from it and paste into my review - but the app wouldn't let me do that.

Nor could I save the show's programme to use on my desktop computer which is where I write my reviews.

Overall, then, my experience of using an electronic programme was a bit mixed.

I'd have liked to have been able to see the programme in whatever format I chose and to be able to copy from it.

And, in total, I spent more time on getting the information I needed than had I been using a printed programme.

Of course, there was some waste here because all the patrons attending Bunny were given a card (only the size of a business card) in order to have access to the programme at the theatre and afterwards.

Maybe for critics, the code could be sent via email, or contained in a PDF version of the press release for the show.

And, at the theatre, maybe only a few small posters need to be stuck-up on the walls of the bar or foyer to give access to the code.

Alternatively it could be included on tickets, either the printed ones or the electronic variety.

Full marks, though, have to go to Fabricate Theatre (the producers of Bunny) for making the effort to take a step towards solving the matter of printed programmes, because we really ought to have more concern for the environment and the future of the planet by avoiding printing anything out that is not strictly necessary.

That means theatres and production companies need to spend time trying to resolve the issue about printing programmes - many of which at present are likely to end up in recycling bins or, worse, in landfill.

Of course, some people like to keep printed programmes as souvenirs, and it would be good to take account of their requirements too.

Critics also have specific needs - particularly in terms of extracting information from programmes while writing at speed, and it would be handy to be able to copy from them too, especially names and general background details.

The theatre industry needs to examine the needs of theatre-goers, critics and other interested parties (like advertisers) and come to some collective conclusions and recommendations about how we can avoid printing programmes wherever possible, whilst still making it easy for people to get information about a production.

Maybe this is already on the cards, or even underway, though I certainly haven't heard about any such initiative.

But with many industries now jostling to be in the vanguard of reducing waste and recycling, it's incumbent on the theatre industry to examine ways to do its bit to make a brighter future for our blue planet.

By the way ... Fabricate Theatre's version of Jack Thorne's Bunny continues at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 27 January, and you can read our 5-star review of it here.

Peter Brown

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