Welcome to the house pages. You may have bought your programme to share a joke with Alan Ayckbourn, to acquire some background information on the Nigerian musical phenomenon featured in Fela! or to eavesdrop on an illuminating conversation about Hamlet. Or something else entirely, depending on the play you have come to see, although you will always be sure of finding production credits.
This article is an extra, one of a series about the behind-the-scenes working of the National, and it will be unusually introspective: its focus is Lyn Haill and the rest of the Publications team. As ever, Lyn is responsible for commissioning this piece; having modestly shunned previous requests for a detailed description of her duties to appear in print, she has bowed to a suggestion from NT Director Nicholas Hytner.
NT programmes tend to be singled out for praise: “The National Theatre… almost always provides programmes that offer a well-written feast of enlightenment. Other theatres should follow its fine example”, wrote Charles Spencer in the Telegraph in March 2010, while Michael Billington of the Guardian later described them as “pocket encyclopedias”. They have a style and format which have been honed over the years, from the first which were overseen by Kenneth Tynan, the Literary Manager in the early days of the NT at the Old Vic. In 1975 came the move to the South Bank and, by the time this building opened in 1976, Peter Hall had taken over from Laurence Olivier as Director and John Goodwin had moved from the Royal Shakespeare Company to be Head of Press and Publications, bringing ideas gleaned from editing RSC programmes. Lyn Haill, after holding several other administrative positions at the NT, moved into the Press Office to work with Goodwin. She says: “His maxim – that the audience is intelligent but doesn’t necessarily know anything about a particular subject – has been my watchword ever since: providing information without patronising the reader and considering ‘What do I want to know about this play?’”
To begin with, writers were employed to work directly to Goodwin, researching pictures, commissioning articles and often providing much of the material themselves. Notable among these was the critic Helen Dawson until (as she put it herself) she ran away to marry John Osborne.
John Goodwin retired in 1988 and Lyn Haill took over NT Publications. These days, she begins the process of producing one of each year’s 26-odd programmes about 10 weeks before the first preview. After reading the script, she and her job-sharing assistants, Emma Gosden (at present on maternity leave) and Ben Clare, and one of the graphic designers hold a meeting with the director and, if possible, the playwright. “Directors and authors are my main sources because they will normally have done a huge amount of background reading and they will know the best people to approach on the subject. The programme is their means of communicating with the audience.”
Programmes to accompany plays with historical subjects are especially popular, although the regular sales – 27 or 28 per cent of the total audience buying one – are higher than most elsewhere. A clarification of the politics of the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, for instance, added to the pleasure of watching Blood and Gifts, while a quick check on dates and characters in the French Revolution was a good way to ease into the convolutions of Danton’s Death. Academics, journalists and biographers – anyone the director may have been influenced by or (in the case of a new piece) the playwright has met or read – may have been commissioned.
Shakespeare – and Hamlet more than any other play – poses a different problem: nearly everyone knows what happens, some members of the audience may even mutter along to the soliloquies, but the subject is endless, the possibilities for interpretation many. Yet the production will be specific. One solution for the current NT production – to allow those closely involved, Nicholas Hytner (director), Rory Kinnear (the Prince himself) and Ben Power (NT associate director) to record a conversation full of their ideas – proved succinct and revealing, both about their particular Hamlet and about the play in general. In fact, the idea worked so well that something similar, if more light-hearted, appears in the Season’s Greetings programme.
Plans for the Season’s Greetings copy began with the customary meeting, in this case with director Marianne Elliott. Alan Ayckbourn, stalwart of the British theatre for 40 years, may yet be unfamiliar to younger audiences. Here was an opportunity not only to get the man himself to write a piece, but also to draw on the by now extensive NT picture archive. The latter was straightforward enough, but Ayckbourn plays don’t write themselves and their begetter was planning to be at work on number 75 at just the wrong moment. So, to throw light on opus 21 we have Mark Gatiss, who plays Bernard, and Michael Simkins who was Neville in the first production in Scarborough in 1980, chatting about the joys and challenges of acting Ayckbourn and of surviving Christmas, even if you have Simkins’ Uncle Norman to contend with. Ayckbourn’s biographer, Paul Allen, fills in the background and some carefully chosen literary comments on the festive season along with a few dreadful cracker jokes complete the editorial.
Every programme has a cast list (also available on a free sheet, in large print or Braille if required), production credits and the biographies of actors and the creative team. Organising these, researching pictures and writing captions are among Ben Clare’s responsibilities. Agents provide material which is trimmed into NT style then agreed by the actors. One day in the first few weeks of rehearsals a specially commissioned photographer captures everyone while they work, so that their pictures can appear alongside the biographical notes.
Apart from information about NT supporters and personnel, the remaining component is advertisements, only one in the smaller, cheaper Cottesloe programmes, but several pages-worth in Olivier and Lyttelton ones, the space sold by an agency on behalf of the NT. There was little or no advertising in the early days; now other theatres, schools, hotels, restaurants and drama colleges take the opportunity to trumpet their wares in a place sure to be seen by the right demographic. The result is that previously loss-making programmes have, for many years now, turned a healthy profit.
Vikki Peter is one of the three graphic designers who work in turn on programmes, under art director Charlotte Wilkinson. She was involved early on Season’s Greetings and, as usual, chose typefaces and consulted Lyn (who had already provided a rough layout) on placing the pictures sourced by Ben. With so many programmes to produce it is as well production methods have speeded up; no longer do staff have to draw up headline type and send couriers for photos. Various agencies provide these online, and the NT has a special relationship with Corbis which has a vast range of historical illustration and modern reportage.
Sometimes, there’s the chance to have a bit of fun with the subject. Remember the pull-out aletheometer in the His Dark Materials programme? Or the special edition of the Pendon Pennant which fell out of a previous Ayckbourn programme, the one for the dual productions of House and Garden which took place simultaneously in the Olivier and the Lyttelton in 2000? This unique local newspaper included contributions from the Publications team and the author himself. It featured a report of the NT cricket team’s fixture against Pendon, in which the village’s heroic Truefinger failed to save the day.
Another of the designers, Clare Parker, especially enjoys the inventiveness required for children’s programmes. The one for Beauty and the Beast sent young audience members off learning French words, making silhouettes, stargazing and planning their own stories.
The Publications department support other areas of the NT, such as Development, Marketing and Discover. This may entail no more than proof-reading, but Discover produces regular 12 to 20-page on-line resource packs for schools, with considerable assistance from Ben. Publications also provide plot synopses – quite a challenge in some cases – for the captioned performances provided for the hearing-impaired.
Then there are the books. The annual report, produced for circulation to funders, sponsors and the press, can take up to six months to complete. The occasional instant book following rehearsals to the first preview – The Horse’s Mouth (on War Horse), The Alchemist Exposed and The Art of Darkness: Staging Philip Pullman’s Trilogy are examples – poses a different challenge as the aim is to have it on sale by press night. And this autumn The National Theatre Story, Daniel Rosenthal’s history of the National Theatre, from the first movement in the 19th century to the present, is due to appear in association, like these, with Oberon Books.
With so much to cope with, the Publications department can be forgiven the odd mistake. Surely no-one was really misled into thinking that Robespierre had been guillotined in 1974, as published in the Danton’s Death programme, instead of 1794? Compliments are more common. One came recently by mail from someone calling herself an “opsimath”, saying that the War Horse programme had been “a pleasure and an education to read”. Opsimath? One who learns late in life. And there is yet another useful piece of information gleaned from a National Theatre programme.
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