Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
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Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Playbills and Programs

In many ways, “playbill” and “program” can be used interchangeably in theatre vocabulary. The earliest surviving playbill from an American theatrical performance announces the staging of The Orphan in a theatre on Nassau Street in New York City on March 26, 1750. Early playbills provided the dual purpose of serving as an advertisement for a performance as well as a program. Single sheets given as handouts in the theatre or posted in public places, these playbills provided information about a particular show, giving place, time, a list of the actors and the characters that they portrayed and often, a brief advertisement of the next night’s performance.

By the mid-nineteenth century, printers began producing playbills on larger sheets of paper. Playbills eventually became poster size, which made them unwieldy for use as a program. This necessitated the printing of separate, smaller programs to be handed out to the audience upon entering the theatre. In 1884, in New York, Frank Vance Strauss elaborated on this idea, creating the multi-page Strauss Magazine Theatre Program, later entitled The Playbill, providing a theatrical program in a magazine format. Each theatre had a customized cover and a few interior pages devoted to a particular show. All of the playbills would include the same advertisements and items of interest to theatre-goers. In the twentieth century, these programs began to feature production photographs or stars from a particular show on the covers. Programs and playbills have become the playgoer’s souvenir of an afternoon or evening at the theatre, invested with the memory of the experience.


A scrapbook of theatrical playbills and memorabilia kept by Samuel G. Staples. 1905 to 1912.
From the Papers of the Staples and related Persinger Family. Mr. Francis’s Benefit.


On Monday Evening, April 21st, Will Be Presented, A Tragedy, (Never Acted Here) Called “King John.” [Written by Shakespeare]. Playbill for the New Theatre. [Philadelphia: New Theatre, 1800].


The cast for this production of King John includes Elizabeth Arnold, the mother of Edgar Allan Poe, as Prince Henry and Charles Hopkins, Elizabeth Arnold’s first husband, as Pembroke.




Programme. Five Nights and Saturday Matinee. Richelieu! A Drama in Five Acts, by the Late Bulwer Lytton. Program for Booth’s Theatre. [New York: Booth's Theatre, 1878].
Gift of John Frick.


The famous nineteenth-century actor best known for his portrayal of Hamlet, Edwin Booth opened his own theatre in 1869 in New York City on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. Booth both acted in productions and managed the theatre for four years until the financial panic of 1873 caused his withdrawal from the management. The theatre continued under new ownership until 1883 when it was demolished. Despite having given up managing Booth’s Theatre, Booth continued to act on its stage, as is evidenced by this 1878 playbill announcing his performance in Richelieu.


Bread & Puppet: Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, 1989. West Burke, VT: Janus, 1989.
Gift of J. Wallace Sieg.


Peter Schumann feels that theatre is as important in sustaining life as food. In 1961, he founded the Bread and Puppet Theatre to present performance art that serves both as spectacle and social commentary. The use of huge puppets and masks facilitates the portrayal of characters whose striking design adds to the impact on the audience. One of the theatre’s most recent pageants, entitled The Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for a Rotten Idea: A Special Mass for the Aftermath of the Events of September 11th, was staged in December 2001.


Selected issues of Strauss Magazine Theatre Program. New York: Frank V. Strauss, 1910-1922.
Courtesy of William Muller and the Harry Rogers Pratt Collection.


Selected issues of The Playbill. New York: Playbill, 20th century.
Gifts of John Frick and Elizabeth Mead.


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