For example, while I’ve observed several additions to the post-covid concert experience (few fashionistas could have predicted that coordinating face masks would be the literally must-have accessory of 2020), some other things seem to have passed the stage doors. And I’m not talking about fundamental smartphone etiquette (although I could be).
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I’m talking about programs. Once reliably delivered by happy ushers on your way to just about any performing arts event of a certain price, the rich, thick, shiny, palm-filled printed programs of the pre- pandemics have become increasingly difficult to find. (Maybe it fell under the seat? I think it fell under the seat.)
And this scarcity is intentional. As anyone who has attended concerts or stage performances over the past year can tell you, digital programs are increasingly emerging as the heirs apparent to the printed programs we have come to know and loving and rustling and curling and pretending to read rather than making eye contact with people we don’t feel like talking to right now.
Those ushers who once carried proud armfuls of programs now roam the lobbies, outfitted (sometimes literally) with oversized QR codes, waiting to be scanned by customers who pass like a can of soup at the automatic checkout. From there, viewers (many of whom, how to put it kindly, don’t know how to use their phones) head to their seats to scroll and squint through long PDFs with tiny characters, desperate to identify the mezzo.
I’m actually quite tech-savvy. I’m writing this on a computer at present. And generally speaking, I embrace our bot masters (i.e. social media algorithms) and can’t resist the slow migration of our culture on all physical fronts to digital. The virtual is the new reality. I understand.
But this particular progress looks like a brake. I cherish my old shoebox graveyard Playbills which I hardly ever open or look at. When I do, their pages lead me back to my place in the hallway.
Before the gig, I quietly leafed through their thoughtful essays, bonus interviews, and notes on sets, costumes, and historical context. I learn about singers and musicians, composers and conductors. I mapped out the evening’s terrain and the rhythm of the movements as if I was tracing a hike in someone else’s imagination. (And all without relying on dodgy Wi-Fi.)
During the concert, I would briefly consult or retreat deeply into their pages depending on what was happening on stage. I would use my program as an ersatz notebook for jotting down sudden thoughts, or as a handy guide to navigating foreign language booklets, or simply as something paginated and creepy to quietly manipulate whenever I get restless. (Also: Have you ever tried fanning yourself on a hot day with an iPhone? Not so good.)
And after the concert, it goes into the shoebox. Or the trash can. Or the floors of the concert hall, then the garbage cans. (Okay, so maybe we don’t need those things.)
Souvenir and archival value aside, printed programs enjoy a window of utility that rarely lasts more than a few hours – compared to the months they will spend decaying in a landfill.
“As soon as you print it, it becomes obsolete,” says Jim Kelly, president and CEO of the Bethesda-based company. National Philharmonic. (Kelly also plays viola in the orchestra.)
The Philharmonic spent about $20,000 a year (out of a budget of between $3 million and $4 million) to print programs for its concerts at Strathmore and Capital One Hall. In the pre-pandemic seasons, the orchestra produced a (rather voluminous) book to cover all of its fall concerts, and another for the spring.
When the pandemic hit, priorities changed. Print materials in general had a bad month as the covid confusion caused us to wipe our groceries with Lysol. Additionally, the prospect of returning to print when audiences hadn’t fully returned to real life seemed financially unwise. And the idea of printing a year’s worth of plans when no one knew what the next day would bring seemed more insane than optimistic. The digital program, on the other hand, offered a level of flexibility.
“The advantage of the digital program is that if there is an error in the program notes, a last minute program change or a donor change, we can do it literally moments before the concert starts and keep it living and breathing document,” Kelly says. “When every dollar counts, the dollars should be invested in the art and paying the musicians. It shouldn’t be about 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 became less a matter of cost and more of conscience. Eileen Andrews, the arts centre’s vice president of public relations, says covid considerations have never been part of the calculus behind their large-scale migration to digital programs over the past two years. It was garbage.
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 does not count the extra paper waste created for inserts, which mostly deal with corrections or updates, although they are sometimes geared towards fundraising. (Those 1.2 million insertions could add another $200,000 to seasonal costs, Andrews says.) Not to mention programs produced by tenants of Kennedy Center spaces.
The result of all of this is massive waste from input (where overproduction produces boxes of unopened programs) to output (where trash cans).
Like many performing arts organizations, the Kennedy Center produced its programs (for its more than 2,000 performances per year) through third-party publication Playbill. The center would submit editorial copy 60-70 days in advance, and Playbill would augment it with its own content as well as advertising. The programs would then be produced, printed and sent back to Washington.
Since its transition to digital, the arts center has moved 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 cohesive identity. at all levels. This also makes it possible to adapt the programs to the events they detail. (A one-size-fits-all program approach for all text-heavy events like operas and relatively simple rock or jazz performances was another source of waste.)
“It’s an evolution,” says Andrews. “It’s a bit entrepreneurial, but basically we’re using technology to streamline the process and reduce the total amount of paper usage, because we’re the Kennedy Center and those are big numbers.”
Andrews says the center has not received any complaints about the programs. I, on the other hand, have become a sort of human suggestion box. Patrons have written to call the shift to digital programs “frustrating on many levels” and “a terrible evolution in the performing arts”. I’ve heard gossip from the donor community, some of whom would be offended to see their names microscopically printed out of circulation. I’ve even heard of musicians weary of the cascading effects of non-paper programs, one of whom had to resist the urge to “take a few phones out of people’s hands” during some particularly egregious emails.
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For the fall season, the Kennedy Center will produce limited runs of simplified print programs for those in need (e.g., lack of cellphones), and large print and Braille versions of print programs will remain available.
But the center intends to refine and improve its platform of digital programs, increase the visibility and availability of QR codes in the room, strengthen the application of telephone silence and use of other ways to respond to items that customers might miss. (Donors, for example, can increasingly have their names displayed on screens outside the center’s three main sites.)
Also in the fall, the National Philharmonic will limit its production of printed programs (approximately 300 per concert) and will create individual documents for works with librettos or other texts.
The classical world, generally speaking, is not crazy about work in progress. You can hear the growing pains of this digital revolution in every concert hall – they ring like ringing bells, broken phones and exasperated voices begging someone, anyone to show them how to use the damn thing.
Even those of us accustomed to the continual downfall from the physical to the digital world can find ourselves frustrated and squinting to read the fine print of a 57-page PDF on a six-inch iPhone.
One day, perhaps not so far in the future, we will emerge from this clunky technological in-between we seem to be stuck in, i.e. the smartphone era. We won’t always have to carry those noisy, bulky bricks, chirping and buzzing around in our pockets and purses like a suffocating canary.
One day we will be able to identify which movement we are in by tapping an earlobe and thinking about it; or the booklet will run in our favorite font at the point size of our choice inside our contact lens; or the Supreme Commander will ban the music and we won’t have to worry about any of that.
Until then, it’s a world in transition, where change is the only constant and nostalgia the only reminder that we are truly moving forward. On that note, I’m going to need a fan to match my mask.