My husband and I have been collecting playbills since our Fairview High School senior trip to New York City. Many of our favorites have been framed and hung in a hallway in our home.
But if Norm Orlowski is correct, playbills may be a thing of the past.
Orlowski and his two sons — Garett and Kyle — run “Onstage Publications,” a Kettering-based custom publisher that’s been providing traditional printed programs for arts organizations throughout the country for the past 20 years. Before COVID, the Orlowskis’ company was publishing more than 4.5 million paper program books every year — more than 130 million pages for 110 North American organizations.
Their clients are what’s known as the Big Four: orchestras, dance companies, theaters and opera companies. The Orlowskis also work with major performing arts centers. Among their clients are the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance in Dayton, CAPA in Columbus, AT&T Performing Arts Center in Texas, Peace Center in South Carolina, The Bushnell in Connecticut and the Kimmel Center in Pennsylvania.
“Programs and playbills have always been an integral part of the performance,” says Norm Orlowski. “They enable the arts organization to communicate with patrons about the current performance, promote upcoming performances, and thank them for their support.”
The arts groups provide the written content; the Orlovskis sell ads, handle layout, design and printing. In addition to the program books, the company also offers a direct mailer product, Artspac, as well as in-venue digital signage.
Seven years ago, the Orlowskis began providing a digital version of the printed programs to each of their 100-plus arts organizations. It was a fortuitous decision. They could never have predicted that a worldwide pandemic would turn a novelty into a necessity.
“As patrons begin to return to live performance, they will not only expect touchless tickets, doors and toilets, they will also want a touchless program,” Norm says. “Audience Access will provide the program for the concert right on their smartphone, enabling texting features including feedback, surveys, micro-donations, upcoming performances, and special events.”
Michael Moran, executive director for the Stamford Center for the Arts in Connecticut, calls the Orlowskis’ system “absolute genius.” If someone buys four tickets to a performance and gives some of those tickets to friends, he explains, that organization has only the ticket buyer’s contact information. But if all of those patrons access the program booklet via smartphone or email, the arts organizations will then have the ability to be in touch with them and reach out to more potential ticket buyers.
“We’ve known for years that program books would soon be entirely digital,” says Norm. “It’s an inevitable change that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Audience members, performing artists and advertisers can all enjoy the benefits of a traditional program book, with zero contact and a reduced carbon footprint. "
If you’re wondering whether the lights from your cell phone would be distracting during a performance, Norm says that hasn’t been an issue. “We have never had a complaint about that from any one of our arts organization’s clients,” he says. “People do not turn on phones during a performance.”
More about Norm Orlowski
Orlowski, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., began his career with LM Berry and Co. After being transferred to Berry’s home office in Dayton and holding various management positions, he left to start his own Yellow Pages publishing company about 25 years ago.
“We saw how the internet impacted the Yellow Pages as more and more people turned to the web to find a business or service, and we were determined to get ahead of the curve with playbills and programs for the arts,” he explains. After selling that company, Orlowski and his two sons started OnStage Publications on Sept. 11, 2001. “It wasn’t a great day to launch a new business,” he says.
The company’s Audience Access digital program, built on a texting platform, now serves organizations that perform either virtual or live. Supported by advertising sold by Onstage Publications, it provides the local businesses an opportunity to be in front of a specific demographic and connect local business with local arts. Advertisers, he adds, range from private schools and luxury auto sales to financial planners, travel and hospitality organizations.
Garett Orlowski is vice president of operations, while Kyle Orlowski serves as vice president of sales. “We come from a family of entrepreneurs and ideas and were taught to approach everything with a whatever-it-takes mindset,” Kyle says. “Everyone that works at Onstage has this mindset, too, which is why we have been so resilient regardless of the climate of the economy.”
The Cleveland Orchestra goes digital
The Cleveland Orchestra has been using Audience Access for several months of virtual performances, and plans to test it this summer at Blossom Music Center, the outdoor venue. In the fall, when the orchestra returns to live performances at Severance Hall, audiences will be handed a short one-page program so they’ll know what’s being performed. That program also will tell them how to read more before the lights go down on the digital book.
Until recently, the Cleveland orchestra had been going the traditional route, producing its own program books with a local Cleveland printer.
“We had always talked about at what point we’d go digital because of the convenience, the cost factors,” says Eric Sellen, managing editor of the Cleveland Orchestra’s program books. “We’ll still have to produce content, so in one sense it doesn’t change the equation. But we think it’s the way of the future, younger people are used to their phones.”
“Will everyone be happy with this — we don’t know,” says Sellen. “We’ll adjust and fine-tune it based on everyone’s feedback. I know some of us like a printed program book, but the world is going to go digital. Twenty years from now a printed program book is going to be a dinosaur.”
For more information about OnStage’s Audience Access , visit audienceaccess.co.
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