The Society for Theatre Research: Celebrating 70 years of recording fascinating theatre history
Throughout its existence, the Society for Theatre Research has sought to document and detail a colourful industry, garnering support from high-profile actors, directors and designers. Its chairman tells Nick Smurthwaite about the society’s renewed mission to forge closer links between theatre enthusiasts and academics
The Society for Theatre Research celebrates its 70th birthday this year and to mark this venerable age is reaching out to a younger, broader constituency.
This move, which includes a relaunch of its website, is due in large part to its dynamic chairman Simon Sladen, senior curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Theatre and Performance Collections. Sladen is a lifelong theatre buff who has been involved with the society since leaving university nearly 10 years ago.
Outsiders might be forgiven for supposing that the STR is an arcane organisation made up of data geeks and theatregoers who keep every programme they’ve ever bought carefully catalogued in boxes in the attic.
In fact, since its foundation in 1948, the STR has been proactive in key areas of British theatre practice and history. These include advocating for the abolition of theatre censorship in 1968, the establishment of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, and the formation of the Theatres Trust, the body that safeguards theatres in the UK, in 1976.
Sladen says the society’s membership today is evenly divided between theatre academics and enthusiasts. He adds: “It’s not all about Shakespeare and the classics. We serve a scholarly community, but you don’t have to be an academic to be a scholar. Our new website aims to provide closer links between the enthusiasts and the academics. It is often the enthusiasts who amass these wonderful collections of material that make up the STR’s archive.”
One such enthusiast was Gabrielle Enthoven (1868-1950), founding chairman of the STR, a playwright, amateur actor, close friend of Oscar Wilde and a prolific collector of theatre ephemera. In 1924, the V&A accepted her private collection of playbills, prints, books and engravings, which became the basis for the museum’s theatre and performance archive.
The following year, Enthoven turned up at the V&A with three assistants to begin cataloguing and indexing the collection, paying her staff out of her own pocket. The work continued for the next 25 years, with the glamorous benefactor presenting herself at the museum at 10am each morning to start the day’s labours. After the Second World War, the government agreed to provide her with two paid assistants.
‘Enthusiasts often amass wonderful collections of material for the STR’s archive’ – Simon Sladen, chairman
The founding of the STR was prompted by the publication of Theatre Notebook, the UK’s first scholarly journal for theatre, in 1945, by three enthusiasts, none of them academics. Indeed there were no university drama departments at the time. Issued three times a year, it remains one of the mainstays of the society.The publishers of Theatre Notebook pushed for a members’ organisation to “promote and encourage research and bring people interested in any aspect of the history and technique of the theatre into closer touch both nationally and internationally”. Its supporters included the actors Ralph Richardson and Edith Evans, the director Tyrone Guthrie and the designer Edward Gordon Craig.
The first 10 years of the STR were extremely busy. In addition to a programme of lectures and publications, there were events celebrating the centenary of the actor-manager and dramatist William Poel (which led to the establishing of the Poel Memorial Prize), an international conference on theatre research in 1955, leading to the setting up of the International Federation of Theatre Research, and a public meeting on whether or not there should be a theatre museum in London.
After the abolition of theatre censorship, the society insisted that the British Library should continue to hold a copy of every new playscript performed, whether published or not, to ensure a continuing record of performance.
In 1983, the Poel Prize, reinvented as the non-competitive Poel Festival, relocated to the National Theatre, favouring duologues rather than monologues. It has now morphed into the Poel Workshops, in partnership with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, led by luminaries from all stage disciplines.
STR members had campaigned long and hard for a separate theatre museum, and an institution was created in 1974, from the collections in the V&A and others and moved into its Covent Garden home in 1987. However, those that had advocated it were bitterly disappointed when the troubled site closed its doors in 2007.
Vice-president Eileen Cottis, an STR member since the 1950s, regrets its closure, though she recalls an attendant at Covent Garden telling her: “If you sit here long enough, you’ll probably see a rat wandering past.”
The museum’s collection moved lock, stock and barrel to designated galleries at the V&A. Sladen says: “Nothing was lost or discarded. It is all either displayed or in storage, and there are actually more artefacts on display at the V&A than there were at Covent Garden.”
Current president Timothy West has called members a “varied and interesting bunch”, but added: “We could do with some younger faces.”
One of the highest-profile STR events is the annual Theatre Book Prize, established in 1998. The first winner was Colin Chambers for Peggy: The Life of Margaret Ramsay, Play Agent.
This year’s shortlist includes Daniel Rosenthal’s Dramatic Exchanges, Amber Massie-Blomfield’s Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die and Antony Sher’s Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries. The winner will be announced at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre on June 11.
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