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Collecting British Theatre Programs

by Mary Haberstroh

The first theatre programs, or playbills, in England were produced during the eighteenth century. It was during this time that theatre goers would receive a program for the play being performed after purchasing a ticket to see the performance. These were usually one page long but eventually the program form evolved into four pages folded into a booklet, printed with the name of the theatre on the front, and the play being performed. Two or three advertisements inside the program were included, along with the basic play information: the actors, dates and hours the play was being performed, other stage productions credits and synopsis of the scenes. Later programs would have extra added pages along with full page advertisements and biographies or photos of the actors in the stage performance. Newer programs may also contain other articles inside with upcoming plays and performance dates at the same theatre.

British program for "Lot's Wife" at Whitehall Theatre in London, 1938.
Starring Nora Swinburne, Cecil Parker, and Torin Thatcher.

Most theatre goers would save their programs as a valuable souvenir and a remembrance of their theatre going experience, especially if the play was one they particularly enjoyed, or if a favorite actor or actress appeared in the play. For the British, the theatre was an important part of their culture and they knew that by saving such souvenirs, they were preserving an important part of their cultural identity. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, programs found their way into special library collections so that the public could use them as a reference. British universities such as the University of Kent at Canterbury has a collection of theatre programs, usually as a donation from those who have collected them over the years. Harvard's library also contains a collection of more than 50,000 British theatre programs as well as other theatre related items.

The beginning collector of British theatre programs can decide to concentrate on collecting those associated with a particular playwright, such as Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, or Greek tragedists; or those programs in which a particular actor appeared in. Theatre programs can also be collected for cover art alone. Some theatres produced programs with art deco covers that can make a nice addition to any program collection. It is not uncommon for fans of popular film actors to also want to collect programs of plays that the actor has appeared in, for many professional actors got their start on the live stage in or near the city where they once lived. Theatre programs can easily be combined with any other paper memorabilia of an actor in a scrapbook.

One of the best reference guides for collecting theatre programs with a favorite actor, theatre, or playwright in mind is “Who's Who in the Theatre”, published by Pitman Publishing, London, England. Well known actors with theatrical backgrounds are mentioned in this guide along with a biography, complete theatrical works, including the name of the theatre they performed at, and the year the play they were in was produced. This guide also contains a list of performances by theatre name. Some of the most popular theatres in London are the Old Vic, Lyric Hammersmith, Drury Lane, Cambridge Festival Theatre, and Whitehall. Older theatre programs in very good to excellent condition will cost more than more recent ones but are worth collecting for their social significance and value.

Some average price values of twentieth century British theatre programs:

Behind the Blinds, Embassy Theatre, London, 1932. $12.00.

Grab Me a Gondola, Lyric Theatre, London, 1956. $8.00.

Henry IV, New Theatre, St. Martin's Lane, London, 1945. $13.00.

King Lear, Old Vic, London, 1940. $12.00.

La Douce, Lyric Theatre, Westminster, London, 1961. $10.00.

Lot's Wife, Whitehall Theatre, London, 1938. $10.00.

Mame, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 1969. $8.00

The Rocky Horror Show, King's Road Theatre, London, 1974. $13.00.

Romeo and Juliet, Old Vic, London, 1952. $10.00.

The Three Caskets, Player's Theatre, London, 1961. $8.00.

Looking for British theatre programs to collect is not a difficult challenge. Many can easily be found and purchased at paper shows, antique shops, and Internet auction sites. Keep a list of desired programs at hand when seeking them so it can easily be referred to. Purchase only those with very minimal markings on them, with all pages intact, and no tears in the cover, if possible. Once a program is added to a collection, any paper found inside the program should be removed, including any paper clips or rubber bands in order to preserve the condition of the program as well as possible. Keeping a program collection stored in acid free plastic covers also maintains their preservation. These can be stored in a scrapbook, or laying flat in an acid free storage box. More decorative programs, such as the art deco style, can be framed and hung up on a wall. Keep them out of direct sunlight exposure, which can cause the paper to yellow and discolor.

About the Author

Mary Haberstroh lives in Tucson, Arizona and she is a collector of British Theatre Programs. She can be reached at: daryavaush@yahoo.com

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