It’s an exquisite tragedy — that every time you see theater, you receive something new, but that gift is immediately chased by a loss. It can’t be replicated. Memory is imperfect. As a critic, I experience productions in a super-heightened state. I try to make sure every detail adheres to my memory — the lights, the movement, the sounds, the scenery. But no matter what, it’s like trying to catch water in my hands. By the time I was heading home, under the punishing lights of an F train car, I’d already feel it slipping, just a little bit, as the world outside the theater poured back into me.
In my collection I saw Playbills for shows I only vaguely remembered and ones I didn’t recall at all. I looked at each one and the feeling was something like heartbreak, a tiny dose of grief. I don’t even have programs for every show I’ve seen; some I’ve lost, some I failed to pick up and some, to my dismay, were digital.
Years ago the Times critic Walter Kerr wrote about his not keeping Playbills, considering the psychology of the collector, saying it “isn’t a matter of wallowing in nostalgia”; it’s always about looking for the next addition to the collection. I have to disagree. When my friends suggest putting my programs in binders or frames or transforming them into chic Instagrammable décor, I resist, because I’m not the collector Kerr imagined. I do wallow — or I’d say, more accurately, bask — in my memories, and I don’t want those past performances to be displayed like trophies; I want to touch them, as though I could take those moments themselves into my hands. It’s my little act of witchcraft: I thumb through the pages and suddenly it’s resurrected — my feeling at 18, sitting with my aunt in the Richard Rodgers Theater watching “In the Heights.”
I know it may sound silly to be so attached to a little promotional booklet — or, in some cases, a single unadorned piece of folded card stock or sheet of printer paper — and imagine it represents mourning when there are many other things to mourn at the moment. And by now I know I’m stalling, am still staring at piles of Playbills on the bed instead of packing plates and mugs. It occurs to me that right now, if it were a normal Sunday a year ago, I’d be leaving for a Sunday matinee.
One of the biggest challenges of being a critic is accounting for the art being made in the present but also recalling the past. We bear witness to art, writing about it so people know it is there, that it’s happening, that it happened. But as I’ve already said, memory is flawed, and so are we. We’re always in the process of forgetting some detail or another: last Wednesday’s breakfast, the phone number of a childhood home, the opening number of a musical from 2013, the color of a dress an actress wore onstage just last year. They go one by one.
So, I pack up my Playbills for the productions I recall and the ones I don’t. When theater returns, I will accumulate more to shelve with the others and look through them when I’m feeling nostalgic. And I’ll know that even though I may not remember the particulars of every single performance or set, there’s still something precious in the knowledge that for one specific moment in time, something special happened, I saw it, I was there.