Vault Winner: Theatre Archives


Originally written for The Stage.

Think of the archive and the images that typically jump to mind are of dusty vaults and painstakingly catalogued documents. This picture could not be further from the ephemeral immediacy of performance, which for many is defined by its liveness. But what about the traces that theatre leaves behind?

After the final curtain call, a production leaves in its wake a whole swathe of material: costumes, scripts, director’s notes, programmes, set designs. For many theatres and companies, collecting and saving these objects is a central part of their work, establishing huge archives for future practitioners, students, researchers and theatregoers. How these archives are assembled, managed and disseminated can therefore have a significant impact on the theatrical influences passed down to the next generation of artists and audiences.

For theatremakers, the archive can be an invaluable source of research and inspiration, as well as a reminder of the tradition in which they are working. Geraldine Collinge, Director of Events and Exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, places the emphasis on “seeing the archive and the collection as part of our ongoing body of work”, positioning their current productions within the context of the company’s history. She also explains that the archive forms an important part of the creative process, often acting as a first port of call for directors starting work on a new production.

Similarly, the archives at Shakespeare’s Globe are a vital part of the ongoing life of the theatre. As Head of Courses and Research Dr Farah Karim-Cooper explains, supporting the creative team in the researching of new productions is one of the key roles played by the theatre’s archival material. “The main thing about the archive is that it’s not just a repository,” she stresses, “it’s a place where research is actually produced and feeds into the work of the organisation.”

And theatre archives are not just a useful resource for practitioners. Kate Dorney, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, notes that the appeal of their collections is surprisingly broad. “It’s a fairly even split between practitioners and researchers,” she tells me. “Directors and actors often come in to see videos to prepare for shows or auditions, designers come in for inspiration, we get lots of students, academics, TV and film researchers, family historians, authors – all sorts.”

With the advance of ever more sophisticated digital archiving systems, however, the way in which this material is accessed is shifting. Although Collinger thinks the move to digital has not affected archives quite as dramatically as it has other areas of the theatre industry, she says that “what is transformational is that more people will have access to them and they won’t be so rarefied”. As archives gradually become digitised, the information that they contain is increasingly accessible without the need to go to a physical archive, which often involves a complex registration process.

Dorney equally points to a “process of democratisation” around the online archive and to new opportunities for engagement. The V&A, for instance, recently produced Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays as an iPad app, collecting material from its archives in an interactive format. “The idea of the app was to give you the experience of coming into the reading room but having everything at your fingertips,” says Dorney. “It’s our attempt to make people understand how you can relate the different areas of the collection to something that you’re interested in.”

For other organisations, digital now sits at the heart of their archiving project. Sarah Grochala joined Headlong as an Associate Artist in August 2012 to work with the theatre company on their online presence, both around the shows they are currently producing and their production archive. The idea, Grochala explains, is “about giving people who didn’t have a chance to see the show a chance to look at some of the material that went into it, above and beyond a script, and to be able to create an idea of it in their head”. This material might include production images, programme notes, set designs or lists of research used by the creative team. The aim is to “give people a sense of the ingredients, not the cake”.

Continuing in that spirit of democratisation, Grochala is also clear that Headlong sees this material as having a potentially wide reach. Talking about making information “immediate and easily accessible” through the web, Grochala identifies the production archives as being of interest to audiences as well as to practitioners and academics. “It’s a sort of deepening of audience engagement and making sure that that engagement can exist both before and after the show as well as during it,” she explains.

However, the digitising of the archive brings challenges as well as opportunities. Grochala emphasises that Headlong’s project is a slow one, involving a painstaking process of recovery and curation, while Dorney doubts that another app will be produced by the V&A in the near future simply because of how time-consuming it is. Money is another issue, as the process of digitising is not cheap. As Karim-Cooper explains, it’s a project that “requires huge amounts of funding”, which for a non-subsidised theatre like the Globe forms a significant barrier. The desire to digitise is clear; it is simply a case of time and funds.

Despite all these digital developments, though, Collinge is doubtful that digitised archives will ever fully supplant the real thing. “That moment when an archivist pulls the First Folio out and you’re looking at those pages – there’s something very special there,” she says. “Admittedly having a digitised First Folio would be wonderful, but I think it would be a different and a new experience rather than one that would replace physical archives.”

Photo: RSC Archive. From the 1981 production of All’s Well That Ends Well.