Are programmes a thing of the past?
I have a love-hate relationship with the playbill (or handbill or programme or whatever else you want to call it). At first glance, it strikes me as being both an economic and environmental waste of time. Looking over the budgets for shows I once produced, I am always astounded by two things. First, the actors were all saints for working for such little pay (thanks guys!); and second, they all would have made a lot more money if I hadn’t wasted so much time printing programs. I don’t have many regrets from my life on the other side of the stage, but I’m seriously thinking about regretting this.
This is a difficult thing to say, especially given the current funding climate, with money being so scarce that we’re relying on beggary and Facebook campaigns to save our shows. The playbill has been a long-lauded-way of raising funds ever since the1880s when advertisers first realized they’d be a good place to hawk their wares. And since people usually object to being handed a booklet of ads, theatre producers began padding the programmes with either information the audience already knows (like the title of the show) or things they don’t need to know (like the actor’s bios).
Digital programmes are environmentally sound and – for those who don’t get sponsorship deals – an economic alternative for our cash-strapped theatres.
With the digital revolution continuing to rewrite the rules of engagement, it’s easy enough to make all this information available online – which most people could probably access in the theatre anyway. And it would be easy to add digital advertisements to these pages, which are often have a stronger impact then print ads, since they are not as easily ignored. Digital programmes are environmentally sound and – for those who don’t get sponsorship deals – an economic alternative for our cash-strapped theatres.
On the other hand….
A playbill is more then just a collection of actor’s bios and donor names: it also stands as one of the few physical records of what is essentially an ethereal art. For this reason, they have become collectibles – over on e-Bay, Playbills from Broadway are being auctioned off for hundreds of dollars. Most of these are signed, but one is a handbill from a production of Julius Caesar that starred John Wilkes Booth (that’s the guy who shot Abraham Lincoln, in case you don’t know). One can never guess what will be of value to future generations. Seen from the historical perspective, a playbill is an invaluable historical document, both as a record of the performance and of the culture where the show was performed.
Should our technology (or the means to power it) disappear, then our digital world will disappear with it.
Further, if there is anything disturbing about our digital universe, it’s the lack of physical history that universe creates. Should our technology (or the means to power it) disappear, then our digital world will disappear with it. People call me a Negative Nelly whenever I say this, but think of all the information stored on phonographs, cassettes, videotapes and non-digital film - we’re already losing the ability to look at those, mostly because the technology needed to view it is no longer being widely produced. For this reason too, I am wary about putting our combined theatrical history into the iCloud.
Such, then, is the great programme dilemma: the concerns of today versus being concerned for tomorrow. A clever person might remark that this is merely a metaphor for what’s going on in all aspects of our culture, but I don’t think I’m clever enough to be that person. What I will say is that while I struggle with my love-hate relationship with the playbill, those who do keep printing the traditional programmes are contributing more to our cultural history then they may realize at the time.