Saturday, July 28, 2018

On Digital Programs

The "cover" of the
Carmen Jones digital program
Along with the admonishments to turn off cell phones and unwrap their hard candy, theatergoers attending the Off-Broadway revival of Carmen Jones at Classic Stage Company are getting an unusual greeting from the volunteer ushers. "The theater is going green," they tell the patrons, "there are no paper programs. You can go online to CSC's website and view the program digitally." This came as a bit of a shock to me since, up until recently, I have saved the theater program from every single show I have ever seen--and many I haven't. I used to scour the Broadway Flea Market, used book stores and antique places in upstate NY for Playbills of significant shows, sometimes even historic flops like Dude and Carrie. But lately I've been purging my collection. Do I really need the program from the Alaska Rep production of Mrs. Warren's Profession or the 37th Off-Off-Broadway revival of Three Sisters?

But for the shows I did see, it's difficult to part with the paper reminder. If there is no physical program, it feels to me as if the experience did not exist or that it wasn't official. That's a bit irrational on my part, but it's how I feel. It's a hard habit to break and digital programs may be the wave of the future, just as digital books, the internet, and I-phones are killing print journalism, physical tomes, and photo albums.

Many of my theatre souvenirs were stored at my parents' house. In the past year they decided to move to a smaller apartment. Fifty years of theater memories are not going to fit in my co-op, so I've had to start downsizing. I donated five boxes of programs, along with books, magazines, CDs, LPs, photos, and Tony swag to the Broadway Flea Market. (Tony voters receive large, slick souvenir programs of nominated shows with quotes from favorable reviews, unlike Golden Globe voters who get watches and cars--or so I'm told.) My rule for discarding my previously precious acquisitions was to get rid of any Playbill for a production that was unmemorable. If I did not actually see the show, and it had not historical value or curiosity such as a famous flop, out it went. This includes dozens of skimpy Off-Off-Broadway programs from my reviewing days at Back Stage.

My mother told me sorting through one drawer in her three-story house was like a trip down memory lane. How was she going to go through the entire house if each piece of paper evoked a forgotten moment from the past? I had a similar experience rummaging through the Playbills stacked in my basement storage unit. Here was the stock production of Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue with Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara when they did a mini-version of their comedy act after the curtain call. Here was the Philadelphia try-out of Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner's megaton bomb 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And what about Ginger Rogers in Coco at the Valley Forge Music Fair when it rains so hard on the fabric tent we couldn't even hear the show or the London staging of Gorky's Barbarians with that actress from the old Doctor Who series?

Of course I kept all of those, but many more were discarded. It felt as if a little piece of me were being thrown in the trash along with them. That's probably what the people on Hoarders feel when they are told to clean up.

The small depravation of one Off-Broadway company eliminating programs made me think of larger portends of an all-digital, less communal future. Google is working on driverless cars. A columnist in Forbes advocated for the eradication of public libraries to be replaced by Amazon and Starbucks outlets. Congressmen call for the end of the postal service. Shopping malls are deserted as more people do all their ordering online.

As we move into the digital age with no newspapers, photos, theater programs, books, DVDs, CDs, drivers in cars, libraries, post offices, what will we lose? As in E.M. Forster's prophetic short story The Machine Stops (1909), will we be individuals in cubicles communicating only by social media with no physical records of who we are or what we experienced? A recent visit to Starbucks was like a scene from Forster's story. Everyone was seated with their coffee, each on laptops or phones, no one was talking to anyone else.

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