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Theatre programmes: To bin or not to bin?

What do you do with theatre programmes after the event? As a professional reviewer I am always given one because, obviously, I can’t review without cast and creative details. Actually a single sheet of A4 rather than the full-Monty glossy job would do perfectly well and in fringe theatre quite often that’s what I’m given.

Even so, if I kept every single sheet, booklet or whatever, I’d be neck deep in paper. I reviewed 153 shows and concerts last year ranging from drama school shows (single sheet, usually) to Proms and large scale shows such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat and  Mary Poppins.

There was a time when I kept and neatly filed every single one. Not any more, I’m afraid. After a couple of weeks – once I’m sure there won’t be a query on the review or an interview opportunity arising from the show – I put them firmly in the recycling bin.

Wasteful? Yes, programmes are a useful resource. When I was teaching and regularly taking school groups to the theatre I used to suggest to O Level (that dates me). GCSE and A level classes that they bought a programme in order to read the usually informative background information about the play we were seeing and studying. “It can be expensive so I suggest you buy one between three or four of you and then pass it round afterwards” I’d advise. Some teachers would, I suppose, have bought one with petty cash, photocopied anything useful therein and distributed it. As a writer myself I was always too mindful of copyright to do that. Anyway I didn’t believe in spoonfeeding my students any more than I did my own children.

It’s also a dreadful thing from an ecological point of view that so many trees die to provide peripheral theatre programmes. I’m sure I bin a whole tree every year all by myself – a small forest over a lifetime. Why isn’t there greater emphasis on downloading paper-free programmes in advance? That would work perfectly well for me as reviewer but it rarely seems to happen.

On the other hand  proper programmes or playbills are an interesting record of old shows. Every now and again someone donates a collection of historic programmes to some archive or library – potential gold dust to students of theatre history. There will be less of this in future, if people do as I now have to do, and simply bin them. I hope they’re all digitised somewhere.

Meanwhile I still have a few. My late husband was very keen on keeping them and I have several boxes in my loft which survived our ruthless 2016 downsizing. They include an Alleyns School programme for Richard II starring a very young Simon Ward – he and Mr E were near contemporaries at school. Then there’s Maxim Shostakovich conducting his father’s fifth symphony in Royal Festival Hall and an RSC programme for Antony and Cleopatra starring Judi Dench and Antony Hopkins among many others. We were never sure why neither of us kept the programme for Stravinsky conducting his own work on his last visit to London – probably the most memorable concert of all. Perhaps, for teenagers, the tickets were so expensive (cheapest £1. We usually paid 7/6) that we couldn’t actually afford to buy a programme.

I sometimes wonder what I’m throwing away now which posterity would rather I had kept.

Not many programmes in the photograph because, of course, I have thrown away most of the 2019 ones!

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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