Programs, though, aren’t extras; never mind what the British have decided, with their practice of charging for them. They’re essentials that help spectators navigate the production and process it afterward. (That’s why those one-sheet playbills can be so frustrating, with their frequent lack of bios and other crucial information.)
My youngest brother, who is in his 20s, isn’t a habitual theatergoer, at least not yet. But when he goes with me to a show, he sits down and opens his program right up, reading it to see which actors he knows and what the director might have to say. He peruses the ads for other shows, too, in case any of them appeal.
So it’s not just the oldsters who like a good paper program, though they can be downright poignant in their dismay when they don’t get one. Recently at Classic Stage Company, a good chunk of the row behind me went all aflutter when they thought for a moment that someone sitting nearby had printed out the online program.
I’m sure that wasn’t the effect Classic Stage intended. But when a theater bypasses paper playbills, it is outsourcing a job to its audience members — saying that if they want to know more, that’s on them. Why do that to people who’ve already proved their curiosity by their presence? If they don’t want to take the thing home, they can always give it back.
I’m not a program hoarder, either, actually; I hang onto all of them for a while, then keep the ones that mean the most to me. I find it comforting — and useful — that Playbill, the company, has an archive of its programs online, and that digitization is preserving other programs from long ago. But that’s for history. In the moment, I want that tangible souvenir.
When I admire something I’ve seen onstage, I often spend my subway ride home scouring the artists’ bios, my paper program in full view of fellow riders — advertising that doubles, sometimes, as a conversation starter. But honestly (and I’m talking here about shows I’m not writing about), if the onus is on me to track that information down, there’s an excellent chance I won’t do it. When I turn on my phone, I’ll probably use it to read the news.