For example, while I’ve observed several additions to post-Covid concert experiences (few fashionistas could have predicted coordinated masks as the literal must-have accessory of 2020), certain other things seem to have unceremoniously poured through the stage doors. And I’m not talking about basic smartphone etiquette (although I might be).
NSO takes on Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and the roar of the audience
I’m talking about programs. The rich, thick, glossy, palm-filling, pre-pandemic printed programs that were once reliably handed to you by cheerful ushers on the way to just about any performing arts event with a certain price tag are becoming harder and harder 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 springing up as a legacy of the printed programs we have come to know and love, rustling and rippling and pretending to read rather than produce Eye contact with people we don’t want to talk to right now.
These ushers, who once carried proud armies of programs, now roam the lobbies decked out (sometimes literally) with oversized QR codes, waiting to be scanned by passing guests like a can of soup at the self-service checkout. From there, concertgoers (many of whom, how should I put it gently, don’t know how to use their phones) go to their seats to scroll and squint at long PDFs of tiny letters, desperate for the mezzo .
I’m actually pretty tech savvy. I am writing this on a computer at the moment. And in general, I embrace our robotic overlords (i.e., social media algorithms) and don’t resist the slow migration of our culture to digital on every physical front. Virtual is the new reality. I get it.
But this particular advance feels like a drag. I cherish my shoebox graveyard full of old playbills that I hardly ever open or look at. If I do, their pages will whisk me back to my place in the hall.
Before the concert, I leisurely flipped through their thoughtful essays and bonus interviews and notes on the sets and costumes and historical context. I would train on the singers and players, composers and conductors. I marked the terrain of the evening and the pace of the movements as if planning a trek into someone else’s imagination. (And all without having to rely on dodgy WiFi.)
During the concert, I briefly consulted their pages or retreated deep into their pages, depending on what was happening on stage. I would use my program as a backup notebook to jot down sudden thoughts, or as a handy guide for navigating libretti in foreign languages, or just as something pageboy and funky to play around with quietly when I get fidgety. (Also: Have you ever tried fanning yourself with an iPhone on a hot day? Not so good.)
And after the concert it goes in the shoe box. Or the garbage. Or the floors of the concert hall and then the garbage. (Okay, maybe we don’t need these things.)
Aside from souvenir and archival value, printed programs enjoy a window of usefulness that rarely lasts more than a few hours – compared to the months it’s left to rot in a landfill.
“Once you print it, it’s obsolete,” says Jim Kelly, president and executive director of the National Philharmonic in Bethesda. (Kelly also plays the viola in the orchestra.)
The Philharmonic spent approximately $20,000 annually (on a budget of between $3 million and $4 million) printing programs for their concerts at Strathmore and Capital One Hall. In the seasons leading up to the pandemic, the orchestra produced a (rather clunky) book to cover all of its fall concerts and another for the spring.
When the pandemic hit, priorities changed. Printed materials in general have had a bad few months as confusion has required us to wipe down our groceries with Lysol. Additionally, the prospect of returning to print when audiences had not yet fully returned to real life seemed financially unwise. And the idea of printing a year’s plans when no one knew what the next day would bring seemed more foolish than optimistic. The digital program, meanwhile, offered a degree of flexibility.
“The advantage of the digital program is that if there’s an error in the program notes, a last-minute change in the program, or a change of donor, we can do it literally moments before the concert starts and keep the document alive,” says Kelly . “If every dollar counts, the dollars should go to the arts and pay the musicians. It shouldn’t go into things that don’t have a lasting effect on the organization.”
For much larger organizations like the Kennedy Center, the size of their program printing program has become a matter of conscience rather than cost. Eileen Andrews, the arts center’s vice president of public relations, says Covid considerations were never part of the calculation behind its sweeping migration to digital programs over the past two years. It was garbage.
The 1.5 million programs the center has printed — for every event in its main rooms, regardless of genre — amounted to 250 tons of paper per season, according to Andrews, at an annual cost of nearly $400,000. Not counting the additional waste of inserts, which primarily address corrections or updates, but are sometimes also fundraising-oriented. (Those 1.2 million inserts could add an additional $200,000 to seasonal costs, Andrews says.) Not to mention the programming produced by tenants of Kennedy Center spaces.
The result of all this is massive waste from the entrance (where surpluses in production produce boxes of unopened programs) to the exit (where the bins are located).
Like many performing arts organizations, the Kennedy Center produced its programs (for its more than 2,000 performances per year) via third-party publishing Playbill. The center would submit editorial texts 60 to 70 days in advance, and Playbill would supplement them with their own content and advertising. The programs would then be produced, printed, and shipped back to Washington.
Since transitioning to digital, the arts center has moved program operations in-house, using its own 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 consistent program approach to both text-heavy events like opera and relatively uncomplicated rock or jazz performances was another source of waste.)
“It’s an evolution,” says Andrews. “It’s somewhat entrepreneurial, but at its core, we’re using technology to streamline the process and reduce overall paper usage because we’re the Kennedy Center and these are big numbers.”
Andrews says the center has not received any complaints about the programs. I, on the other hand, have become a kind of human suggestion box. Patrons have written to call the move to digital programs “frustrating on many levels” and “a terrible development in the performing arts”. I’ve heard gossip from the donor community, some of whom are reportedly upset that their microprinted names are no longer in 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 “snatch a couple phones out of people’s hands” during a particularly egregious email blast.
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For the fall season, the Kennedy Center will produce limited editions of optimized printed programs for those who need them (e.g., because cellular phones are not available), and large print and braille versions of printed programs remain available.
However, the center intends to refine and enhance its digital program platform, increase the visibility and availability of QR codes in the hall, strengthen phone mute enforcement and employ other means to address the elements that customers may escape. (For example, donors are increasingly seeing their names on screens outside of the center’s three main venues.)
Likewise, the National Philharmonic will limit its output of printed programs (approx. 300 per concert) in autumn and create individual handouts for works with libretti or other text.
The classical world is generally not wild about works in progress. You can hear the growing pains of this digital revolution in the concert halls—they ring tones, dropped phones, and angry voices begging someone, anyone, to show them how to use this damn thing.
Even those of us accustomed to the progressive fall of the physical world into the digital world can huff and squint in frustration when reading the fine print of a 57-page PDF file on a 6-inch iPhone.
One day, maybe not that far in the future, we’ll emerge from this clunky technological in-between we seem stuck in – ie the smartphone age. We don’t always have to carry those loud, lumbering stones around, chirping and buzzing in our pockets and purses like a choking canary.
Someday we’ll be able to tell what movement we’re in by tapping an earlobe and thinking about it; or the libretto will be printed on the inside of our contact lenses in our preferred font at the point size we choose; or the Supreme Commander bans music and we don’t have to worry about any of that.
Until then, it’s a changing world, where change is the only constant and nostalgia is the only reminder that we are indeed moving forward. With that in mind, I need a fan to match my mask.