By Kerry Reid
Photo Credit: Patrons interacting with the lobby display for TimeLine's "Cardboard Piano." Photo courtesy of Lara Goetsch.
Editor’s Note: When we asked our social media followers about their attachment to printed programs, it became clear that these physical items are still very much valued by theater patrons. However, as proud theater advocates, we wanted to take a moment to highlight the amazing innovative minds in just two of Chicago’s theaters. We hope you enjoy learning about the amazing tech our clever colleagues have created.
In his comic 1981 essay “Going Round,” British playwright Alan Bennett lamented then-current trends in theatergoing. Among these, he noted, were ever-expanding playbills. “Theater programmes haven’t yet got into two volumes, but they’re well on the way, and it can’t be long before they come with an index.”
But in the digital era, some theater companies find themselves taking advantage of online resources, as well as printed programs, in order to provide information to audiences in a new way. In the process they are not only creating lasting internet archives, but also expanding the dramaturgical framework that is part of the company’s mission.
Redtwist Theatre in Edgewater, founded as Actors Workshop Theatre in 1994 by husband-and-wife Michael Colucci and Jan Ellen Graves (who serve as artistic director and managing director, respectively), initially moved their playbills online as a cost-saving measure. Graves notes “Playbills had traditionally been a pretty pricey aspect of our productions and printing enough for every patron—even as small as we are [the company’s flex-use space usually maxes out at around 40 seats per show] was out of proportion to our other costs.”
For a while, Redtwist experimented with reusable playbills in vinyl “menu-like enclosures,” as Graves described them, printing only 50 per show. That backfired. Graves says “That made them look so precious that people not only wanted them, but there was one instance where someone visibly put three in their pocket and ran out the door like a thief.”
Now Redtwist prints no more than 500 playbills per show, with a recycle message on each letting audiences know that they can use a scan code or the URL to visit the playbill online. Patrons also get information about how to access the playbill with their ticket confirmations, in case they want to read up beforehand.
TimeLine Theatre (whose motto is “Yesterday’s Stories. Today’s Topics”) is famous for its extensive use of dramaturgical materials. Lara Goetsch, director of marketing and communications, notes that there are three main overlapping areas where the company distills the dramaturgical work for each show (which is itself a collaborative effort by Goetsch, associate artistic director Nick Bowling, resident dramaturg Maren Robinson, and the production dramaturg).
The lobby display from TimeLine's 2018 production of "Boy." Photo courtesy of Lara Goetsch.
The first is the printed program/magazine, Backstory, which is mailed to subscribers and, says Goetsch, focuses on “What is helpful to know before the show?” This includes historical background, interviews with the artists, and other material to give the, well, backstory. (Past issues are available on the company website.)
The second is the “lobby experience.” Visitors to TimeLine are probably familiar with the large lobby displays featuring timelines of events, supplemental information about the people and places in the play, and interactive displays. For the recent production of Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, Goetsch notes that “the lobby ended up being built around three themes of forgiveness, faith, and love. And each one had an interactive piece asking people ‘What is something you’ve forgiven someone for recently?’ It could be something minor, it could be something major.” There was also a chart that asked patrons to rate themselves on how religious they are, and ways to add names of their “first loves.”
The “Explore & Learn” page on the company’s website is where all the material comes together digitally. In addition to profiles of cast members and video interviews with production artists, the section includes information on post-show discussions and related events. Goetsch notes that their 2016 production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica (directed by Bowling), about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, allowed them to put online the video of the famous “Tank Man” who confronted the Chinese Army.
More recently, TimeLine has taken another leap forward with a free mobile app that can be downloaded from their website. “It is a way to take the experience and expand upon what you see in the lobby – so we’ve done it for additional content and accessibility. We’ve done audio tours of what you see in the lobby. So if you can’t read it – if someone can’t read it or read well – you can listen to someone read to you what the panels says.”
Photos courtesy of Lara Goetsch.
There is also “Easter egg” or additional content from the dramaturgs, giving patrons access to information that might not have made the cut for the lobby displays. “You can also do things like ‘here’s a Spotify playlist that relates to the play,’” says Goetsch.
The app has been particularly helpful, says Goetsch, for the shows that the company performs outside of their current Wellington Avenue home. They usually do one show per season offsite, which means that TimeLine doesn’t have the same lobby access for displays as they do at home. Goetsch cites their 2017 production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play at Stage 773 as one where the digital app was particularly helpful. Patrons could click on objects in a photo of the set and get background information on what that object meant in the world of the play.
Robinson notes that TimeLine’s approach to creating audience experiences means that “We demand more of our dramaturgs, but we offer more for them to do.” The multiple platforms TimeLine uses means dramaturgs can think along several parallel lines. “You know you have more than half a page [to discuss the show]. What would you most like people to know? Where can it live? Where does it fit?” Sometimes this also means providing patrons information on organizations that work in areas related to the subject of the play. For Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel in fall of 2018, the company sought what Robinson describes as “appropriate partnerships” with refugee organizations and shared information on their work in the lobby and online.
Goetsch sums up TimeLine’s longtime commitment to an expanded dramaturgical universe – online, in print, and in the lobby – as “Audiences are looking for more than just those two hours in the seat.”