How do we archive theatre?

Horse’s head designed by John Napier for Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, 1973. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum Horse’s head designed by John Napier for Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, 1973. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum
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Theatre is a transitory art form, and in many ways we celebrate that. One of the great joys of seeing a play is the ‘live’ nature of the event, knowing that never again will that performance happen in quite that way, with quite that group of people. But if that live element of a production can never be captured, how do we record theatre, and the process of making theatre for future generations? What record do we leave behind of the work we produced and how we produced it?

One of the most consistent records we have comes from journalists. Far more people will read about the opening of Sarah Kane’s Blasted through the eyes of the critics than ever saw the original production in the tiny Theatre Upstairs at London’s Royal Court. The legend of that opening night, and countless others, are recorded by critics, and subsequently referred to for years to come, quoted by students and studied by academics; if you want an account of a former production, one of the first places you’ll look will be the critics’ responses.

Journalists and writers don’t just record what they see on stage: they have also chronicled how theatre is put together. The Stage’s own archive going back more than 130 years holds a wealth of information about how live performance has been put together, financed, gone right and gone wrong. We can see how the world has changed, and how it has stayed the same.

Vivid descriptions of the theatre industry can be found in William Goldman’s The Season – A Candid Look at Broadway. This account of the 1967-68 season on Broadway, during which Goldman saw every production that opened – often more than once, and taking in out of town tryouts and previews – gives an extraordinary insight into theatre in America in the 1960s, chronicling productions of historical significance as well as those that are all but forgotten. It isn’t just about the shows. With the acerbic wit you might expect from the man who penned The Princess Bride, Goldman captures every aspect of the graft behind Broadway, of its ecology. He describes the newspapermen filing their reviews, and Bleek’s, a restaurant on West 40th Street that was popular with the critics. In the next chapter he describes the producers, and later in the book he breaks down how $500,000 was spent on a production of Here’s Where I Belong.

These glimpses of the nuts and bolts are often more telling than the official records. The National Theatre’s fantastic archive was much used by Daniel Rosenthal when writing The National Theatre Story. In that book he quotes a number of show reports from the archive. After every performance, stage management will write a report, which is sent to the creative team and the management of the theatre. When a production is running smoothly a show report will look fairly empty, but on productions with a troubled history (such as Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream) the reports offer a tangible sense of the mood and resilience of the company.

When it comes to design, many production items can end up being archived, as shown by the Society of British Theatre Designers’ exhibition, Make Believe, currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is striking how the presentation of designs for theatre become separate works of art in themselves. A quick sketch, a model box, a sound recording: all are there to help create a bigger work of art on stage, but when presented in a formal exhibition space they become works of art themselves.

No one knows this better than Robert Wilson. Five years ago I assisted him on his production of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovich. During workshops, Wilson would frequently jot down quick sketches or present a storyboard. The images were produced at speed and were a practical means of communicating his intentions to his team. He discarded the images quickly and they would be collected by his closest associates. A couple of years later, the images were exhibited independently of the production, considered works of art in their own right.

Wilson doesn’t think of himself as a director. He aligns himself much more closely with the world of visual and performance arts, describing himself as a painter whose medium is light and whose canvas is usually a stage. Visual and performance artists are adept at archiving their work, but in theatre there is such a concern for present-day challenges – from funding cuts, to programming problems, to issues with a venue – that archiving is a luxury few companies can afford to take seriously. We’ve all heard stories of people finding collectibles dumped in a skip outside a stage door: programmes and posters, or props and costumes with historical significance. Who can blame them? Archiving is not at the top of their agenda.

Looking to the future, we should consider how to leave records of significant work, good and bad. Since theatre plays such a central role in the cultural landscape of this country, do we not have a duty to leave a good archive for future generations? As an institution devoted as much to academic research as to live performance, Shakespeare’s Globe takes archiving seriously. The V&A’s extensive collection dates back to the 1920s.

Advances in digital technology have enabled archives to be readily catalogued and widely accessible. Google’s recent partnership with 60 international arts organisations promises to create a digital exhibition presenting the archives of companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in an immersive and involving way. This will bring archives to life, and hopefully open these otherwise ‘off-limits’ archives for the world to explore.

Archives should not be the sole preserve of richer, national companies. The history of theatre is not, after all, confined to these theatres, and it is essential that we keep a record of work on the fringe, regionally and in drama schools.

In 2012, New Perspectives Theatre Company (a rural touring company in the East Midlands) partnered with Nottingham University, and with the aid of Arts and Humanities Research Council was able to create its own archive. This kind of record, detailing a company founded in 1972 and still going strong, is essential to understanding theatre in this country.

Such partnerships are vital to the future of theatre, and with ever more opportunities to record and store information digitally it is time we started taking the archiving of performance, rehearsals and training seriously.

National Theatre Archive
The creative, technical and administrative records of the National Theatre.

RSC Collection Resources
Access to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s online archive of plays, actors and productions.
From June 2016 the RSC presents a major exhibition of treasures from its archive. Priority booking opens on February 22

Victoria and Albert Museum – Theatre and Performance Collection
Some exhibits are on permanent display to the public.
Make Believe: UK Design for Performance is currently at the V&A, then touring from March 2016

University of Bristol Theatre Collection
This collection now includes the Mander and Mitchenson collection, making it one of the country’s largest.

Google Cultural Institute
With collections from all over the world, including performing arts galleries.

The Stage Archive
Online, digitised archive of back issues of The Stage, dating back to 1880.