Why Are Playbills Abandoned?

Pretty Playbills.jpg

Aaron Netsky

Many things happen after a performance ends. Actors get out of hair, make-up, costumes, and anything else that might go into becoming their characters. Stage managers write performance reports, accounting for any mishaps that hopefully went unnoticed by audiences. For me, currently, post-show activities center around scraping deviled egg from on stage plates and silverware, which allows me to notice the post-show activities of another of my colleagues in the theatre: the usher. After the audience files out, the usher sweeps through the rows of seats to tidy up before the next performance. There are discarded drinks, wrappers, headphones that will live in the lost and found for a while, and, if the world is fair, at least a little bit of fallen money. But none of that confuses me like the abundance of playbills I see picked up and headed for the garbage after a show.

Playbills are mementos of a particularly special date, one spent at live theatre instead of in front of a movie screen. They are records of history, with the names and stories of those you have come to see and those you might one day be able to brag about having seen before they were famous. They are often decorative (the one for my show features a lovely painting that would not be out of place hung on a wall). There are many playbills that I would love to put on display in my limited space, not because they are from everyone's favorite show or have prominent signatures on them, but because they are so lovely to look at on their own. I don't hang them up because the key word in that previous sentence was limited, but one day. They also have articles and interviews and puzzles, all of which can be fun and help remind you of the wider theatrical context in which you saw what you saw.

I have many playbills of my own, I have many playbills from a friend whose collection got too cumbersome, and I have many, many playbills from my grandparents’ collection. I even have playbills with my name in them, though not from my current show because, I'm told, of a clerical error. The older playbills have a bit more surface and seem to be thinner. They have ads for cigarettes and, more often than these days, photographs of the actors and scenes in the plays on their covers. I recently bought one from Michael Crawford's Broadway debut, Black Comedy, which featured him on the cover twenty years before he played the Phantom. That's a very special one for me. Sometimes, I give playbills as gifts, and I've been toying with the idea of using some of my surplus for wrapping paper. People do it with newspapers, why not playbills? 

You're probably thinking I have too many playbills, and you'd be right. I will admit that while they are nice, small, lovely, free mementos from a night of theatre, the more nights of theatre, the more they pile up. I am working on thinning the herd (anyone want one?). So maybe you shouldn't keep all of them, but there are still many reasons to at least carry them out of the theatre. First and foremost, think of the usher. Yes, it is the usher's job to tidy between the seats between shows, but you, yes you, can make the usher's job a little bit easier, and that's just a nice thing to do. On a slightly related note, leaving playbills could send the message to the cast and crew that you didn't like the show, and that's what the internet is for. Perhaps most importantly, I'll let you in on a little secret: theatres are bad at recycling playbills, so for the planet, you could just ensure that yours, if you don't want to keep it, makes it to a recycling receptacle.

But please, take it with you. Even if you leave early, take your playbill (and your drink...leave the change). Give it a chance to be part of what you keep for posterity. Your playbill may, for whatever reason, turn out to be the last of its issue to ever exist, and it will be important for historians to study. Worry about the potential clutter later, when it happens, and discard as many playbills as you want at that time, having been able to give real consideration to which ones are the most important to you. I used to go through the seats after shows even when I wasn't an usher so I could collect extra playbills off the floor to trade (a big part of the reason I'm now working on getting rid of some).

In former "New York Times" theatre critic Frank Rich's memoir, "Ghost Light," he writes about being so excited to collect playbills, that he would reach into garbage cans on the streets of New York City to get those from shows he hadn't seen. I suppose that's not really an argument for not throwing them out, and actually makes the leaving of them in the theatre seem like a better idea, but the point is, these are special things, and deserve at least the dignity of being escorted out of the theatre. Who knows? In those few extra moments, as the memory of the experience you've just had begins to fade, you may decide that that little magazine you're holding on to is worth keeping as a reminder that you were in the theatre where it happened.


Aaron Netsky (@AaronNetsky on Twitter) is a singer, writer, actor, and all-around theatre professional who has worked off and off-off Broadway and had writing published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, Slate.com, StageLightMagazine.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com, as well as his own blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and his Medium account. He is currently the Production Assistant at the off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur" at the Theatre at St. Clements.