Do You Read Theater Programs?

I’ve never found a good way to tell people what I do. In person at least. I can write about. (I better be able to write about it!) I’ve had plenty of opportunities with random strangers in casual carpool (the Bay Area phenomenon where pedestrians wait for drivers they don’t know to pick them up on one side of the Bay and drop them off on the other—alive and in tact and on time), but I never get it right. Here are a few scenarios:

Dammit, Robin, watch out for that page!

Scene 1
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh.
[Driver turns up NPR]

Scene 2
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh. [Pause] Like a movie theater?
Me: No. I work at A.C.T.?
Driver: Oh… [Long pause]
Me: What do you do?
[Driver explains that he’s a psychiatrist at a V.A., a lawyer, a bookie, sells tickets to Alcatraz, etc. and we stay on that more interesting subject]

Scene 3 [Best case scenario]
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh? Which one?
Me: A.C.T.
Driver [with recognition] Oh yeah, I saw _____ there!
[Conversation about that show, other shows, and how A.C.T. compares to Berkeley theaters. Very fun! Usually ends with me pitching our current show and the nice driver smiling and telling me he’ll definitely try and make it. Who knows if he ever does.]

Scene 4
Driver: So what do you do in the city?
Me: I work at a theater.
Driver: Oh. So are you an actor?
Me: No.
Driver: So what do you do?
Me: I’m a writer?
Driver: Oh yeah, you’re a playwright?
Me: No, well yes, but not for . . . I write for the programs . . .
Driver: Oh yeah?
Me: You know, the programs you get when you sit down? And I also write a “patron study guide” . . . with articles . . . and interviews . . .
Driver: Sure. [Pause]
[Driver turns up NPR]

Even at opening nights, amongst other theater people, I have trouble. I mean, I know what I do, I love what I do, and I know other people appreciate what I do . . . but if we’re being honest, I often question what I do, especially with the program.

Because, if we’re being honest, I don’t read theater programs. There. I said it. Whew.

I saw an amazing production at Shotgun Players last Thursday. I believe I’ve talked about this before, but Shotgun Theatre’s programs are the most beautiful books you have ever received sitting down to watch a show. Hands down. They’re complete, unified concepts from cover to cover by the unparalleled illustrator/designer R. Black. Last Thursday I saw God’s Plot by local theater-superhero Mark Jackson: Jackson’s work is not for everyone, but those of us who like it usually love it, so I went into this show completely and confidently blind. I knew nothing about the story, the production, if the run was well received. Nothing.

The lights went down, and the first of countless, gorgeously written, brilliantly executed monologues (which often left the actors literally gasping for breath) hooked me: I was transported to 1665 colonial America. I had no idea I was heading back to 1665, and I was thrilled with the surprises it allowed for. Stories of coming over from the old world; traditional traditional values; Puritans hating on Quakers; court being held in a tavern; traveling downstream by raft; anger at government and business leaders making decisions an ocean away.

Everything was new. I had no idea where any of it was going, which for me is a rare joy. And then intermission came. And I opened my program. And I read one line, and I learned that the play that these 17th-century characters were performing (three characters decide to put on an amateur skit lambasting unfair trade practices) was the first play known to have been written and performed in the United States. And, in a blink, I saw where it was all heading. And I slammed by program shut! Too much! Don’t interrupt the ride I’m on with information!

…Says the man who spends his days thinking of new ways to contextualize plays for his audiences. [Exhale.] There are plays that need it (I tell myself), and certainly productions that need it (I comfort myself), and your readers certainly ask for/demand it (I excuse myself). But do they need it? And if they do, why do they?

These questions keep me honest, but they also keep me on edge. What if everyone else decides to go into the theater blind and opt not to read their programs? Then I really won’t know what to say when my casual carpool drivers asks what I do in the city . . .

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