Playbills and Programs

Image of playbill from Theatre Royal, Birmingham, 1828Theater programs and playbills are printed lists of the acts, scenes, selections, or other features comprising a performance, including the names of the performers. Modern programs often include articles on the production process, interviews with the cast or creators, and photographs of the production. Souvenir programs are more elaborate publications with additional articles and images from the production.

Harvard's libraries have traditionally distinguished the terms playbill and program based on the number of pages - a playbill being a single-sheet listing of acts with a short description, printed on one side of paper, and a program a folded piece printed on both sides, in leaflet, pamphlet, or booklet size. This is not a universal definition, however, and the terms are often used interchangeably.

The single-sheet playbill was the only format in use until the 1860s. It was used as both a poster for advertisement and distributed in the theater. The multi-page program became the standard format starting in the late 19th century. Harvard's earliest playbill is from the 17th century but the bulk span the 18th century to the present.

Searching for Playbills and Programs

​You can search for playbills and programs in HOLLIS from the Advanced Search page. Select Library Catalog from the Search for options and enter playbill OR theater programs in the search box:

screenshot of search page

This will bring back a large number of results. To narrow your search down, you can enter terms specific to your topic in the second search box.

Some playbills and programs are described in great detail in individual catalog records, but the vast majority are parts of larger collections. These might be collections of programs from organizations (like ballet companies), regions (like the city of London), people (like prominent actors), or subjects (like African American theater).

Often, only one aspect of the playbill is described. So, try searching for multiple aspects of the production if you aren't finding what you're looking for. In particular, search for the theater name, title, names of the stars, and company (if applicable).

The largest collections of playbills, located in the Harvard Theatre Collection, are:

The kind of data found in playbills can also be found in online databases and reference sources. For example: