Audiences members know the routine well. You enter a beautiful theatre lobby, assemble your beverages and souvenirs, make a top off at the restroom before the line becomes to long, and then are handed a program on the way to your seats. At least this is still fairly standard operating procedure in the United States. Audiences in the UK however are used to paying a little extra in order to get their hands on a show bill.
Playbills have a long history in the American theatre and the iconic yellow topped pamphlets are a well known site. There is a whole culture built around the collection of Playbills, and many people earnestly trade and buy new ones for their collections all the time. This practice however is facing changes at theaters off and off off-Broadway, where the paper Playbill is being opted out of for digital counterparts. A practice which requires the audience to actively have to seek out a shows program in order to simply know which actor is on stage. Hence just one of the major issues with moving Playbills online.
Cell phones already pose a problem to live performances in general. Announcements and signs are everywhere reminding you to disconnect while attending a show. The online program is an invite to do just the opposite. A person learning that their program exists only online is being invited to sit in their seat and do a little web surfing. Taking you out of the theatre and pushing your focus to a world beyond. It instantly becomes easier to be lured deeper into your phone and have to be yanked out all because a program is on a theaters website. The issue also affects those of us who are a little more technically challenged and audience members who simply may not have the same amount of interest. While a physical program is in your hands and beckons for you to browse it even if it is out of pure boredom before the curtain rises.
The La MaMa Theatre in New York has taken the step and gone completely online. Programs are only available to you on their website, and you must go actively seek them out. Audiences members may have no idea the back stories of many of the wonderful performers and creatives who work on their fine shows, simply due to their program being online. Those who do look are few, and even fewer will go home after the show unless to remember a name of one character here or their. Unlike the La MaMa, other theaters have moved to hybrids offering both physical and online playbills. A good bridge of the gap for those of us not ready to take the leap into the digital era.
Now by this point you may be wondering what the argument is for going digital with programs and the arguments are there. The main argument cited tends to be about concerns over waste. For everyone of us who squirrel away our programs, there is five people who throw them out at the end of the show. Online programs are aimed to help reduce that footprint, a noble cause, but the true factor in it all is money. Programs can be another large expense for shows and the option to go digital saves many smaller theatres extra money to put to use elsewhere.
The digital era is upon us, and with it brings growing pains and changes even for live performance. Programs are just one of many items that will faces changes in our industry, but until them I and many of my fellow theatre fanatics will graciously take the printed program. Please leave a comment below on your feelings and let us know what you think.