Are Program Bios Adding Value To The Experience?

Earlier this week Samantha Teter had a piece on ArtsHacker about writing bios. She does a good job pointing out many important elements that should be part of a bio (including proofreading) and that one should use a different bio for different purposes.

However, recently I have been wondering if bios in a performance playbill are really effective anymore. Performers have been using the same basic format with the same basic content for decades now, but as we all know, audiences have changed during that time.

So among my questions are: Do audiences read bios any more? Is the content relevant to them? Has anyone thought to ask?

What are the purposes of bios? Do they serve the artists by providing recognition to individuals? Do they serve to strengthen a relationship with the audience? Are they effective at doing either?

Over the last decade I have often read suggestions regarding press releases and marketing content for the arts. One of the things most often criticized is the inclusion of long listings of accolades that the public has no way to judge the relevance of.

People know what the Tony Awards are, but nearly anything else is a mystery. While foreign sounding names like the Zhege Dongxi Prize and studying with Pierre Lapin at Le Jardin de M.A. Gregoire sound somewhat impressive, no one who is not an insider has any idea if this is a mark of excellence or something someone made up.

There is also the distinct possibility that even regular audience members may lack the connection to the arts field that past audiences did and do not recognize the prestige of names like Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood, and Stratford Festival.

If one actor lists a dozen shows they were in and another just lists a short handful, is the former more experienced than the latter? It could easily be the case that the former is just starting out and listing everything they have been in since high school and the latter is so experienced, it isn’t worth listing more than the last couple shows.

Does it help the audience feel more engaged in the event to know that the performer lives with their husband, kids and two dogs, Misty and Pepper?

I am not suggesting that bios be scrapped so that the organization can save on printing bills and relegate performers to a simple listing. Yes, I know some unions require the inclusion of bios.

Nor am I saying that all bios are useless. I spent part of today reading bios of the speakers slated for the Americans for the Arts conference in Chicago.

I am just asking, outside of tradition, do we know why we still do this? If we do, then could we do it better?

If we want audiences to be excited by our organizations and what we do, would it be better to have a big color picture in the program of the artists conducting a workshop or in rehearsals, instead of pages of text?

Perhaps QR codes with the names of the individual artists could be placed around the margins of the image so that people could scan them and learn much more than 50 words about the artist by visiting their social media page packed with images and videos.

If the purpose of listing bios is to provide artists with recognition that they wouldn’t otherwise receive and it has to be done in the traditional format, then are there any changes of content people might suggest?

Think about it this way. Everybody gets their name in the credits at the end of a movie, but even if people stay and try to pay attention to the list, it is nearly impossible to pick individual names out even if there is someone you are looking for.  Someone working on the movie probably has a better chance of being recognized as people scroll down on the IMDB listing than they will in the movie theater.

Teaser trailers at the end of Marvel movies keep people in the theater, but they probably don’t help improve an artist’s exposure and recognition.  By making  considered changes to program books, arts organizations might actually have the ability to raise the profile of artists, if only by a smidgen and provide a more meaningful experience for audiences.

I am just not quite sure what those changes might be. Something to consider, though.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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5 thoughts on “Are Program Bios Adding Value To The Experience?”

  1. I hate it when there aren’t bios in programs. I’m a performer, so it may be biased, but I ALWAYS read them with great interest.

    Reply
  2. I produce the program for a small, but mighty, theatre company. I edit crap out of bios I receive so the dogs abd cats and lovers are cut. I think our patrons are interested in what they’ve seen these artists perform in before. We’re a close-knit University town where we showcase three college’s faculty and students. We give our actors many benefits, besides working on our prestigious stage, and those include proof of their performance like professional head shots, reviews, and their bio in the program. These land in their portfolios for other work. We will keep the bios on our programs as a documentation to their involvement in the productions.
    Gail Dobbins
    Managing Director
    Heartland Theatre Company

    Reply
  3. My family always read the bios. Often it is to try to figure out what plays we may have seen the actors in before, but we also look for quirky bits intended to amuse those who bother to read (in computer fields, those are called “Easter eggs”—treasures hidden for those who take the trouble to find them).

    We particularly like the bios of costume designers, lighting designers, and others who often get neglected (or only one-line credits) in playbills.

    Don’t use QR codes—the point of a playbill is to give people something to do while waiting in order to engage them in the performance, and sending them to their cell phones is the last thing you want to do.

    90% of your audience won’t read anything and just want a playbill for tradition’s sake, but the 10% of us who do read playbills would like the content to be interesting, not just advertising (though we always scan the advertisements to see who is supporting local theater, and to see which private schools have the best ads). [Disclaimer: I made up the 90%-10% split, based on informal observations of people around me in the theater.]

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  4. I’m so glad to read someone blogging about this!

    I think it’s excellent to question bios from a patron’s point of view. Yes, it’s obviously important for artists to list their accomplishments, because they’ve earned them! However, I think artist promotion could possibly work better for both artists and patrons if they were more focused on connecting the audience emotionally to the performer’s experience rather than listing titles and names. I think the most important point is that we could SHOW patrons the profundity of artist experience rather than implying it. QR codes could link you to a performer’s Twitter feed, and maybe you could see a picture of them at a music festival, or rehearsing for the show you’re about to watch. Or, eating their favorite food– “Hey- I go to that restaurant too!”

    Maybe it’s true that many patrons are used to seeing such lists- they subliminally give audiences confidence that they’re about to enjoy a performance group with a high level of artistry. A big fan of the arts could probably recognize a few names, or google them to make a connection. However, aren’t we missing opportunities by telling people what they should think is important, rather than showing them so they can make up their own minds?

    Whether or not this needs to change, it’s almost certainly true that it’s not talked about enough, at least in my experience as a musician.

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