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Rob Halliday: Move forward but don’t forget the dyeline days

Preserving history: The Theatre Royal Drury Lane light console from 1950. Photo: Backstage Heritage Collection

So, what the great computer death of 2015 (see last month’s column for the gory details) also revealed is that I’m a bit of a digital data hoarder. Safely extracted from the old machine: all the details of every show I’ve worked on, ever – at least in the digital age, which extends from about 1990 onwards.

Now that really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise: a visit to my loft will show that I’m an analogue hoarder, too, with boxes full of old scripts, old cue sheets, old paper lighting plans carrying that gentle whiff of dyeline – truly the smell of theatrical nostalgia.

It should probably all go. Does anyone really care where I put the cues in a production of Hair at LAMDA in 1998? Theatre is ephemeral – shows come, then (except Phantom and Les Mis) they go – so you no longer need the paperwork to maintain or support them. But ditching it all feels wrong.

The problem is, while I enjoy embracing the future of lighting technology, I also delight in the ghosts of the past, whether seeing production managers Richard Bullimore and Jason Barnes’ signatures on a 1970s National Theatre internal mail envelope (see the new book Concrete Reality, p88) or sitting behind the Drury Lane light console.

And as for old lighting plans – well, I started learning about lighting by poring over them in books and magazines, and they still hold the same fascination today. Look at the Backstage Heritage website [1] and you’ll find high-res scans of the light plots of shows at Drury Lane, from Joe Davis’ 1959 My Fair Lady to David Hersey’s Miss Saigon 30 years later. They chart how both technology and design styles have evolved over the years. I know I’m not the only one enjoying their survival. But if it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of David W Kidd, who rescued them, they might be gone.

Unless their creators also hung on to their work, of course – except these are the LD’s working copies, the scribbled notes and changes showing how the designs evolved during tech, as most good designs do. Miss Saigon is the exception, marking another technological shift by being computer-designed, rather than hand-drawn. The file probably still exists somewhere, though finding a computer that would run the software to actually open that file now would be quite an exercise. There’s a reason professional archivists obsess over ‘open’ data formats.

What I realised, as I trawled through my digital hoard, is that I go to look every now and again: to reference a colour, for a return visit to a theatre, or (is this cheating?) to reuse old cue points when working on a different production of the same show. Sometimes just to reminisce – it is, after all, my professional history. That’s good enough for me, so it’s all sticking around for now.

Maybe I will try to digitise the paper stuff, just so I can reclaim some space. I wonder how I capture that scent of dyeline, though?