An Inside Look at Playbill On-Line

by Claire E. White

Playbill On-Line is the premier resource for theatre news of all kinds. Featuring theatre listings and seating charts for plays On and Off Broadway, regional listings, national theater tours, and selected international listings, Playbill On-Line also provides a sneak peek inside the business end of the
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industry with current information on casting, jobs, books, awards, transcripts, and articles. Playbill also includes a directory of theatre-related websites, chat, message boards, news and more making it an information warehouse on anything related to the theatre. We talked with Managing Editor Robert Viagas about Playbill's move online, the future of Playbill and what's going on in the theatre industry.

How did the decision get made to bring Playbill online?

Playbill graphic "Playbill publisher Philip S. Birsh felt it was a natural next step in the growth of Playbill. The year 1994 was Playbill's 110th anniversary year as the provider of programs to Broadway shows. Playbill had an unparalleled wealth of information about every detail of every show going back to the turn of the century. Our staff has contacts in every area of the business, so we were the natural people to gather information on current and forthcoming shows as well. We know what theatre lovers want, and we felt we were in a unique position to deliver it to them."

How has the electronic revolution affected the theatre world?

"A robust online theatre community sprang up almost immediately with the advent of online. People share news and reviews of productions everywhere. Theatre people like to talk about their experiences, and online has given theatre lovers everywhere the chance to do it. Its the Electronic Algonquin Round Table effect. Every town has a small but devoted theatre community. Online has enabled them to link up, creating a critical mass of users."

"Online is the perfect medium for theatre. Unlike films, which can play at hundreds of theatres simultaneously, a theatre production can play at only one theatre at a time. It's true that a show can tour, or a script can be mounted at more than one theatre at a time, but for the most part, live theatre is anchored to a place. It is therefore dispersed. It is therefore difficult to create a single magazine or newsletter that can cover everything; space and distribution problems get in the way. THEREFORE, online is the perfect medium for theatre because it is distributed everywhere simultaneously, at minimal cost. And because its size is virtually unlimited, we can post many many more stories, reviews and everything else every day without worrying about newsprint costs."

What services does Playbill On-Line provide to its readers? To its Club members?

Playbill graphic "Our main feature is running a 365-day-a-year theatre news service. We have a staff of four full-timers, a part-timer and some two dozen regional and international correspondents working on just the news-gathering part of the service. In addition, we list more than 1500 theatres in North America and the U.K., updated weekly by our staff. The listings for Playbill theatres include not just the usual performance schedule information, but all manner of info, including the length of the show, handicapped accessibility, discounts -- plus the entire contents of that show's Playbill. We track releases of theatre recordings, the day tickets go on sale for major new shows, theatre folks appearances on TV talk shows, films with significant theatre links, etc. Through our sister website, Theatre Central, we maintain easily indexed links to well over 1000 theatre related websites."

Playbill graphic"People can buy tickets to shows in New York and elsewhere through Playbill On-Line. And through the Playbill On-Line Club, can get all manner of discounts and special ticket offers. We sometimes offer tickets to hits on sale to members before they go on sale to the public. Special blocks of tickets were set aside for the 1997 Tony Awards, and for the Les Miserables 10th anniversary performance, for instance, and offered only to Playbill On-Line Club members. Users can download clips of songs from new cast albums. For many, we make the clips downloadable as of 12:01 AM the day of release. Interactively, we schedule discussions seven evenings a week, allowing fans of a particular show or star or writer to meet at a specific time each week. We also schedule moderated live chats with guests like Tommy Tune, Betty Buckley, Stephen Schwartz, et al. In our Message Board area, we enable members to write and read their own reviews of shows."

How do you become a member of the Club?

Playbill graphic "There is no charge to join the Club. You give us your name and email box, and that's it."

Do you accept feature articles or interviews from freelance writers or are all of your features written by your staff?

"Most of the articles on Playbill On-Line are written by staffers. We have ongoing relationships -- some going back more than 15 years -- with certain freelancers and regional correspondents who supply us with stories each month on a contractual basis."

What has been the biggest challenge in running Playbill?

"At first (1994-95), the biggest challenge was explaining what online was to a highly tradition-bound industry, and convincing people that we were a serious journalistic effort that was defining theatre coverage in this new medium. But everyone significant is now up to speed with us. Now our greatest challenge is finding ways to make the ever-changing technology serve the needs and interests of theatregoers. It's a fun challenge, but it's very demanding."

What are your plans for the future of Playbill?

"Playbill is launching a record label, Playbill Records, to rescue worthy older cast albums from oblivion, and to record worthy up-and-coming theatre artists. Playbill On-Line will be making a serious effort to serve the global theatre community, with correspondents in some 20 foreign countries, and mirror versions of the service in other languages."

What are the hot shows playing on Broadway right now?

Playbill graphic "Ragtime and The Lion King are the hottest of the new shows -- both dazzling musicals, the first for its great story and score, the second for its fabulous design and staging. Chicago, Titanic and Rent are still selling out and enjoying a strong buzz in our chat rooms and message boards. Jekyll & Hyde and Scarlet Pimpernel have cult followings. Phantom of the Opera continues to sell every ticket nearly every night, though its approaching its 10th anniversary Jan. 26, 1998."

Are touring productions scaling back or do you see this as a growing market?

"The touring market depends on Broadway to create hits that can then tour. The mid-1990s were fairly dry for new hits, but the last two seasons have produced lots of new shows that recently launched tours (Chicago, Big, Annie) and regional productions (Rent), or will be doing so in the coming year (Titanic, Jekyll & Hyde, Ragtime). The road seems headed for a boom.

How is the resurgence of the small, intimate houses affecting new playwrights -- are there more opportunities, or are these theatres surviving doing the classics?

"Resident theatres and Off-Broadway continue to be a hotbed of new shows, non-musical plays especially. Among shows developed Off-Broadway or regionally in just the last two years include Rent, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Jekyll & Hyde, Scarlet Pimpernel, The Old Neighborhood, Chicago, How I Learned To Drive, An American Daughter, Prides Crossing, and many more. Theatres in Toronto, Southern California, Chicago, Seattle and Texas have been especially fecund."

Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about your site?

Playbill graphic "Playbill On-Line is staffed by theatre fanatics. We've all stood on the TKTS half-price line, all lip-synched to cast albums. Among our staffers are authors of theatre books, people whove worked as actors, as directors, as playwrights, as company managers. We have one staffer who has been going to shows since the 1930s, one who sees every avant garde show below 14th street, and another who's a rabid Jekkie. We know what turns theatre fans on. And, hey, we work at Playbill! They've given us access to all the resources of the company that's been doing Broadway programs for 114 years. It doesn't get much more legit, in both senses of the word, than this."

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