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Event programs offer insights, timelines, interviews

When audience members open their programs, they're likely to find more than a cast list and technical credits.

Increasingly, performing arts presenters and producers offer historical timelines, biographies, background information and directors' notes to educate and inform their audiences.

"I like them because they enhance the theatergoing experience and give cultural context," says Ted Pappas, the producing artistic director at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, where archival photographs, glossaries and timelines about the playwright's career or the period of the play's setting have long been a part of each program. "It can be anything that helps the audience experience and gives context without spoon-feeding their response."

The program for the Pittsburgh Public Theater's recent production of "The Little Foxes" included a look at playwright Lillian Hellman's long career of writing for both the stage and film, which included film adaptations of two of her plays.

Several years ago, the Pittsburgh Symphony decided to expand its program notes.

"One of the key parts was to make sure the audience had a deep connection to the music whether intellectually, emotionally or both," says Larry Tamburri, symphony president. "We decided to move away from expositions or recaps (of specific works) to try to make (the performance) more reachable for the audience."

Those attending the Jan. 22 and 23 concerts will still find traditional program notes on the interplay between the tubas and French horns in Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 as well as a feature story updating the symphony's ongoing Beethoven project.

The goal is to supply multiple entry points for people with different experience levels to learn about music and other aspects of the symphony.

They also will find an essay on composer Gustav Mahler even though his Symphony No. 4 will not be performed until Jan. 29 and 31.

That's because each program in the Pittsburgh Symphony Grand Classics series contains information for two concerts.

The thinking is that those attending the earlier performance will learn something about an upcoming event the concertgoer also might enjoy. Those who attend the second concert will learn something that may inspire them to try an unfamiliar composer or work in the future.

"Everyone enters at different points in the educational experience. But everyone can experience something new," says Suzanne Perrino, the symphony's vice president of education and strategic implementation.

Essays, timelines and glossaries can help get the audience up to speed when the subject or period of a play is a little remote, says Andrew S. Paul, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre's producing artistic director.

To get the audience up to speed for last May's production of Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll," which was set during Czechoslovakia's three-decade tumble toward democracy, the program included three essays, an interview with Stoppard and a quick summary of essential information.

For those who wanted to know more, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre sold a 60-page package of background information in the lobby. The $5 fee barely covered the printing costs.

"We try, with our limited resource,s to provide tools for the audience," Paul says. "Our audience is a very educated audience and values the educational aspect of theater. It's an audience I have carefully cultivated, and I want to keep them. People are interested in more than just seeing a play."

Not everyone is a fan of expanded program notes.

"The meaning is in the movement. The movement is in the meaning," says Paul Organisak, the executive director of Pittsburgh Dance Council as well as the vice president of programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Organisak used to introduce each Pittsburgh Dance Council presentation with a traditional director's notes essay, which explained why the performance had been chosen for the season.

"I finally said, why are we agonizing over this," Organisak says. "They always sound the same, and we want people to come in and experience the show for themselves."

Organisak isn't against educating his audiences.

He prefers to do it with post-show conversations, which allow attendees and artists to explore the creative process and the experience they have just shared.

"We want people to have the experience, and then we'll talk," Organisak says.

Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos used to share Organisak's don't-tell policy. She made it a point not to include director's notes in her programs.

"I used to say I feared telling people about the experience. I thought (the notes) were the theater-maker's attempt to do the work for the audience," Boos says.

Over time, she has softened her stance and now includes a brief introduction in each program.

"Now, I desire to say things that don't mess with the experience and possibly enhance it," she says. In her director's notes for Quantum's November 2009 production of "Candide," Boos explained her personal attraction to the musical as well as the process and reasoning for choosing a defunct auto dealership to house the production.

"The marketing people and (Quantum's managing director) Renee (Conrad) say it's nice to give the audience a way in," Boos says.

As arts lovers become more familiar with the Internet, arts organizations are making more program information available on their Web sites.

Pittsburgh Symphony has links to its program notes and a short musical passage, which can be accessed by clicking on individual events on the Web site calendar at www.pittsburghsymphony.org .

Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's Paul is such a big believer in the value of program notes that last summer he began making the entire program available on the company's Web site, www.picttheatre.org .

Interested theatergoers could read the information online before going to the theater or at their leisure after seeing the production.

Melissa Hill Grande, the company's marketing director and artistic associate, first introduced the idea as a cost-cutting measure. The company could print fewer programs if they could encourage people to leave their programs at the theater for re-use by others.

The result provided educational benefits as well.

"For younger audience member, that's how they get information, so they don't mind leaving the (print) program behind," Paul says. "Even our core audience has been using it. If the play is in the public domain, we can actually link them to the script, so they can focus on what's there beforehand."

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