It’s been truly lovely to get back to some approximation of normal in the performing arts these past few months. Patrons are once again filling up the rows of concert halls and theaters, and a chock-a-block fall season is already filling up the columns of my calendar. Musicians are playing, dancers are dancing and, like fussy swallows returning to lousy, overcrowded Capistrano, the critics have even returned to complaining.
For instance, while I have observed several additions to the post-covid concert-going experience (few fashionistas could have predicted coordinated masks as the literally must-have accessory of 2020), certain other things seem to have unceremoniously vamoosed through the stage doors. And I’m not talking about fundamental smartphone etiquette (though I could be).
I’m talking about programs. Once reliably handed to you by happy ushers on your way into pretty much any performing arts event of a certain price tag, the rich, thick, glossy, palm-filling printed programs of pre-pandemic days have become harder and harder to find. (Maybe it fell under the seat? I think it fell under the seat.)
And this scarcity is by design. As anyone who has attended concerts or stage performances over the past year can tell you, digital programs are increasingly sprouting up as the heir apparent to the printed programs we’ve come to know and love and rustle and curl and pretend to read rather than make eye contact with people we don’t feel like talking to right now.
Those ushers who once carried proud armfuls of programs now wander the lobbies, outfitted (sometimes literally) with oversize QR codes, waiting to be scanned by passing patrons like a can of soup at the self-checkout. From there, concertgoers (many of whom, how do I put this gently, don’t know how to use their phones) head to their seats to scroll and squint at long PDFs with tiny type, desperate to identify the mezzo.
I’m actually pretty tech-savvy. I’m writing this on a computer right now. And generally speaking, I embrace our robot overlords (i.e. the algorithms of social media) and do not resist our culture’s slow migration on every physical front to the digital. Virtual is the new reality. I get it.
But this particular bit of progress feels like a drag. I treasure my shoe box graveyard of old Playbills that I barely ever open or look at. When I do, their pages whoosh me back to my seat in the hall.
Before the concert, I’d leisurely leaf through their thoughtful essays and bonus interviews and notes on the sets and costumes and historical context. I’d school myself on the singers and players, composers and conductors. I’d map out the terrain of the evening and the tempi of movements as though plotting a hike into someone else’s imagination. (And all without relying on iffy WiFi.)
During the concert, I’d briefly consult or deeply retreat into their pages depending on what was happening onstage. I’d use my program as an ersatz notebook for jotting down sudden thoughts, or as a handy guide to navigating libretti in foreign languages, or merely as something pagey and flippy to quietly fiddle with whenever I get fidgety. (Also: Have you ever tried to fan yourself on a hot day with an iPhone? Not as good.)
And after the concert, it goes in the shoe box. Or the trash. Or the floors of the concert hall, and then the trash. (Okay, so maybe we don’t need these things.)
Keepsake and archival value aside, printed programs enjoy a window of usefulness that seldom lasts more than a few hours — compared with the months it will spend decomposing in a landfill.
“The second you print it, it becomes obsolete,” says Jim Kelly, president and chief executive of the Bethesda-based National Philharmonic. (Kelly also plays viola in the orchestra.)
The Philharmonic was spending roughly $20,000 a year (of a budget that sits somewhere between $3 million and $4 million) on printing programs for its concerts at Strathmore and Capital One Hall. In seasons before the pandemic, the orchestra would produce one (rather chunky) book to cover all its fall concerts, and another one for the spring.
When the pandemic hit, priorities changed. Printed materials in general had a bad few months as covid confusion had us Lysol-wiping our groceries. Moreover, the prospect of returning to print when audiences hadn’t fully returned to real life seemed financially unwise. And the notion of printing a year’s worth of plans when no one knew what the next day would bring seemed more foolish than optimistic. The digital program, meanwhile, offered a level of flexibility.
“The benefit of the digital program is if there’s any mistake in the program notes, a last-minute change in the program or a change in a donor, we can do that literally moments before the concert starts, and keep it a living and breathing document,” Kelly says. “When every dollar matters, the dollars should be going into the art and paying the musicians. It shouldn’t be going into things that don’t have a lasting effect on the organization.”
For much larger organizations, such as the Kennedy Center, the scale of its program-printing program has become less a matter of cost than of conscience. Eileen Andrews, the arts center’s vice president of public relations, says covid considerations were never part of the calculation behind their full-scale migration to digital programs over the past two years. It was about trash.
The 1.5 million programs the center printed — for every event in its main spaces, regardless of genre — amounted to 250 tons of paper per season at an annual cost of nearly $400,000, according to Andrews. This doesn’t count the additional paper waste created for inserts, which primarily address corrections or updates, though are sometimes geared toward fundraising. (Those 1.2 million inserts could add an additional $200,000 to seasonal costs, Andrews says.) Not to mention the programs produced by renters of Kennedy Center spaces.
The result of all this is massive waste from entrance (where overages in production produce boxes of unopened programs) to exit (where the trash cans are located).
Like many performing arts organizations, the Kennedy Center produced its programs (for its more than 2,000 performances a year) through the third-party publication Playbill. The center would submit editorial copy 60 to 70 days in advance, and Playbill would augment it with its own content as well as advertising. Programs would then be produced, printed and shipped back to Washington.
Since transitioning to digital, the arts center has shifted program operations in-house, using its own stable of writers to produce essays, its own designers and its own proprietary platform to develop programs with a consistent identity across the board. This also allows programs to be scaled for the events they detail. (A one-size-fits-all program approach for both text-heavy events like operas and relatively straightforward rock or jazz performances was another source of waste.)
“It’s an evolution,” Andrews says. “It’s somewhat entrepreneurial, but at the core we’re using technology to streamline the process and reduce the total amount of paper consumption — because we are the Kennedy Center and these are big numbers.”
Andrews says the center hasn’t received complaints about the programs. I, on the other hand, have become something of a human suggestion box. Patrons have written to call the switch to digital programs “frustrating on many levels” and “a terrible evolution in the performing arts.” I’ve heard scuttlebutt from the donor community, some of whom are reportedly miffed to have their microscopically printed names out of circulation. I’ve even heard from musicians weary of the cascading effects of non-paper programs, one of whom had to resist the urge to “grab a few phones out of peoples’ hands” during some particularly egregious emailing.
For the fall season, the Kennedy Center will produce limited runs of streamlined printed programs for those who need them (for lack of a cellphone, for instance), and large-print and Braille versions of printed programs will remain available.
But the center intends to refine and improve its digital program platform, increase visibility and availability of QR codes around the hall, increase enforcement of phone silencing, and employ other means to address those elements patrons might miss. (Donors, for instance, may increasingly see their names displayed on screens outside of the center’s three primary venues.)
Similarly in the fall, the National Philharmonic will limit its output of printed programs (300 or so per concert) and create individual handouts for works with libretti or other text.
The classical world, generally speaking, isn’t wild about works in progress. You can hear the growing pains of this digital revolution throughout the concert halls — they sound like ringtones, dropped phones and exasperated voices begging someone, anyone to show them how to use this damned thing.
Even those of us well-accustomed to the ongoing fall of the physical world to the digital one may find ourselves huffing with frustration and squinting to read the fine print of a 57-page PDF on a six-inch iPhone.
One day, maybe not so far in the future, we’ll move on from this clunky technological in-between we seem to be stuck in — i.e., the smartphone era. We won’t always have to carry these noisy cumbersome bricks around, chirping and buzzing in our pockets and purses like a suffocating canary.
One day, we’ll be able to identify what movement we’re in by tapping an earlobe and thinking about it; or the libretto will run in our favorite font at the point size of our choosing on the inside of our contact lens; or the Supreme Commandant will ban music and we won’t have to worry about any of this.
Until then, it’s a world in transition, where change is the only constant and nostalgia the only reminder that we’re actually moving forward. On that note, I’m gonna need a fan to match my mask.