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Demystifying the Dramatis Personae

It’s a sound that every performer has heard, be that a dance recital or a Broadway show: the inevitable folding and refolding of a program.

Let’s make one thing clear: I am not out to get rid of programs altogether. Our entire midterm was spent creating program notes. Programs are an artful craft, an opportunity to synthesize the play with the audience at hand.

But here’s the thing.

When a program includes the dramatis personae before the show begins, I know exactly how many actors to expect at any given time onstage. And once all of the actors listed have entered the stage at least once, I know the opportunities for surprise are now limited. If we are to compare the success of film and theatre (again, I know…) what draws me to film is the fact that I never know how many actors I will see on screen. Yes, part of that is budgetary, but a part of that is still an element of surprise.

In the UK, programs cost money. I am not vouching for that (no wonder Europe is less supportive of dramaturgs), but what I can say is that unless I knew the play ahead of time, I could never anticipate how many actors I would see onstage.

Let’s take the play People, Places, and Things, which went onto an encore presentation by the National Theatre. What made this one of the most remarkable theatrical experiences I’ve ever seen were the use of bodies onstage. When the lead character is entering drug withdrawal, it appears as if her body has multiplied tenfold, and several actors in blonde wigs replicate her movements. I had no idea this was going to happen because there was no dramatis personae in sight to tell me that there would be a chorus of body doubles at some point in time. See what I mean?

The unexpected presence of actors onstage, in my opinion, is a theatrical tool that is shortchanged by knowing the cast of actors ahead of time. What do I propose? Keeping the dramatis personae separate from the program, and leaving it as a separate sheet of paper that is accessible to an audience only after the performance is complete.

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