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Interview with the theatre archivist at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

Having first arrived at the theatre nearly six decades ago, Murray Melvin tells Georgia Snow how sorting through memorabilia turned into a job.

What does your role entail?
I’ve been the Theatre Royal’s voluntary archivist for 25 years. I work here two days a week when I’m not working as an actor. Having come for three weeks to sort out the Joan Littlewood archive, 25 years later I have an archive from the very first show on December 17, 1884, right up to the present day – 132 years of shows on the main stage. The records have now been taken in by the British Library, which makes it all worthwhile.

What do you spend your time doing?
I catalogue programmes, photographs, reviews, put them away in acid-free boxes and cross-reference things. It takes forever. There’s lots of personal memorabilia from people who have worked here and recollections by members of the public who have come to see shows. Some stories still amaze me. It’s no hardship, just fascinating.

How did you become involved with the archive?
I originally came to TRSE as a student to work for for Joan Littlewood in 1957. I came as an assistant stage manager so I know the building very well. A few years later, I became an archivist when a member of Joan’s company left a lot of memorabilia and it needed putting  in order. That’s why I came originally, but then it took over.

Do you have any favourite stories you have discovered?
Usually my favourite stories are from the time of [Joan Littlewood’s] Theatre Workshop, when people were working in the box office and then doing the show on stage, or painting the dressing rooms and then going on stage and sewing buttons on their own costumes. In those early days everyone had another job other than being an actor in the show – even cooking for the company.

How is the archive used today?
People come in all the time. I get requests from all over the world, from people doing their PhDs or dissertations. More books are being written because of the access to the archives so it really has a practical use. I think it’s so important for people to be able to look back on history so they know what to do in the future. I think there’s a direct link. This theatre has a wonderful story and it intrigues me every time I come in.

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