What do you do with your program after you’ve seen a show?
More and more theaters urge you to recycle them — perhaps by dropping them in a box on your way out of the theater. But my guess is that most people still take programs home, postponing the decision about what to do with them.
Once they’re home, many theatergoers probably decide to recycle or otherwise discard the programs. However, if you have even the slightest trace of the hoarding instinct, as I do, chances are that your theater programs join previously existing stacks of other paper — perhaps in a separate pile for theater programs, perhaps not. Or maybe they remain stranded in the back seat of your car for a while, until you find them several weeks later and take them inside to join their fellow programs in that steadily growing stack.
Before you know it, if you’ve gone to the theater often enough, your programs have grown into a tower of paper that threatens to eat your space in much the same way that Audrey II threatens to drink your blood in Little Shop of Horrors. Of course some people, who apparently have a lot of space and time, probably organize theater programs in more permanent and orderly arrangements, but I’ve never been one of those people.
So it was a relief when, years ago, the longtime Los Angeles Times theater critic Dan Sullivan introduced me to a different destination as a final resting place for programs — the Los Angeles Public Library.
I and the other Times free-lance critics were told to please leave a program with the editors, initially for fact-checking purposes during the copy editing process. After that, the programs would be filed away and eventually donated to the library.
I don’t think the system ever worked quite as smoothly as anticipated, and it began to fall apart with the online age, in which free-lancers hardly ever entered the Times building. However, by then I was a Times staff member. Every day, I went to the Times office, where I became quite aware of those files. Sullivan had left by then, and I was the one who occasionally hauled old programs to the library.
After I left the Times in 2006, the frequency of my theatergoing actually increased in my new positions with LA CityBeat and then LA STAGE Times — and so did the number of programs I collected. But I no longer had an outside office, so shopping bags full of programs started filling up odd spaces in a closet in my home. At the end of each year, I tried to find time to take the bags to the library, but recently I noticed that I had at least four years of programs cluttering that closet.
So, last Wednesday, I took the bags of programs from 2008-2010 productions to the library. (I kept the 2011 programs, primarily in case I need to look up something while compiling my best-of-2011 list, which will probably post on Dec. 19).
For the first time, I decided to look around the library’s collection while I was there. David Kelly, the senior librarian in the literature and fiction department on the third floor of the Central Library, was glad to show me some of the highlights. But in retrospect, I realize that I didn’t allow nearly enough time to get more than a cursory glimpse of the library’s holdings.
The library has more than 30,000 programs, mostly from Southern California productions, dating back to the 1880s, as well as some programs from other parts of the world. And it has a lot more items, beyond programs, that should attract attention from the LA theatrical community.
The Audrey Skirball-Kenis Unpublished Play Collection contains more than 800 bound scripts of unpublished plays that have been produced in the LA area, with reviews and bios of the playwrights. Scrapbooks, maintained over decades, include reviews and less opinionated articles about LA theater dating back to 1937.
Theater is, of course, one of the most ephemeral of art forms. The essence of theater exists in one space, at one moment in time. Attempts to electronically record performances, while of varying quality, don’t capture that essence of the theatrical experience. At times, that’s part of the excitement of theater — the feeling that no one else will again experience it in exactly the same way.
At other times, however, I wish we had more historical records on exactly what went on in LA theater. Hardly anyone has ever written a book on the subject — in contrast to many volumes of books written on New York or national theater. It would be useful — perhaps in many unpredictable ways — to know what has happened in LA theater over the decades. And it would be reassuring to know that others — let’s be downright Chekhovian and say that those who are around here a hundred years from now — will some day have some way of looking back on what has been accomplished in LA theatrical circles in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Virtually unknown to most theater practitioners, the mother lode of information on the subject that already exists in the LA Public Library collection has already made giant steps toward compiling that historical record. I had no idea that the collection’s holdings go so far back in time. Much of the early material was part of a donation made in 1940 by Florence Dobinson, the widow of one of LA’s pioneering theater critics, George A. Dobinson.
True, different segments of the collection seem a bit scattered right now. Parts of it are available to the public without special access, and parts are not. Some of the parts probably duplicate each other to a certain extent, but better to duplicate a record than to lose it. Kelly told me that he hopes that one day the collection will be properly recorded and catalogued on digital media, so that access to particular components of the collection becomes much easier and that gradually deteriorating paper copies can eventually be discarded. But that, of course, requires money and time.
In the meantime, however, LA theater companies and fans could take a few steps right now that could help ensure that the collection remains current and as complete as possible.
The donations come primarily from individuals like me or from library staff members who take their theater programs to work with them. That’s a scattershot approach. Why can’t the theaters of LA start donating programs on a regular basis?
The LA STAGE Alliance, which publishes LA STAGE Times, is ideally situated to take a leadership role in organizing regular program contributions. Perhaps the major publishers of programs could be persuaded to donate a copy of each production’s program. But of course some theaters still publish their own programs.
Douglas Clayton, LASA’s director of programming and operations, likes the idea. “As much as theater is a performing art that exists in a moment in time and then only exists in the memories of those present,” he says, “it is at the same time true that all art created today is the result of all the history of past art and artists in our community — and the work they have done to bring us to this point. This unknown resource at the library represents both our shared past and a fantastic opportunity to bring us forward into our future with a deep and broad foundation of information.
“LA STAGE Alliance is now working with the library and the performing arts community to find ways to facilitate the comprehensive and orderly addition of material to their collection, and perhaps combining it with the LA STAGE historical records that we have in our offices.”
Regardless of whatever action is taken on an organized basis, the theater companies themselves should make sure that their efforts are being documented in the library’s collection. Eventually representatives from each company should visit the collection (but not all at once, please) to see if their theaters’ previous programs are there. They might want to look at some of the unpublished scripts while they’re there — they might get a few ideas for interesting revivals next season.
Be aware that some of the already contributed programs have not yet been processed — which brings us to another area in which theater lovers might help. The library could use diligent and dedicated volunteers to help process the contributions. Kelly warns that some of this work might seem a little tedious, but I can’t help but think that volunteers who are specifically devoted to LA theater would find it less tedious and more rewarding than other kinds of volunteers would. If volunteers have expertise in the LA theater scene, that might also come in handy.
This is the time of the year when many people start make charitable contributions for end-of-the-year tax deductions. Kelly says that while the library can provide a receipt certifying that a donor has given programs, the library cannot estimate the worth of the programs. I can’t advise you on how to handle the deductions of such gifts, but I can say that theater historians of the 21st century and theater lovers of the 22nd century (when such artifacts from 2011 might actually be worth real money) might be very grateful for your contribution.
LA theater so often seems to be a far-flung phenomenon, with many disparate parts that are barely aware of each other, not to mention theaters and theater artists who are long since deceased. But the LA theater collection in our downtown library could become a metaphorical glue, reminding the LA theater community of its roots, and thereby helping it become more of an actual community.
The collection is housed primarily in the literature and fiction section of Central Library, 630 W. 5th Street, although some artifacts pertaining to musical theater are in the art, music and recreation department. www.lapl.org. 213-228-7325.