Theatrical records with practical and historical value are frequently lost or destroyed.
Create a support network for theatres to set up their own archives.
Pairing trained archivists with theatre staffs; setting gradual, realistic goals.
The funding model had to be reimagined after large grant proposals were rejected.
Establishing more regional teams; holding “hot topic” seminars.
The question is simple enough: Who played Iago at your theatre in 1982? “The old programs are in that closet…somewhere,” you’re told. You drag open the door and choke on a cloud of dust. The first box you grab collapses, pelting you with dead spiders, rehearsal snapshots and crumpled scripts. Another box promisingly labeled “eighties” contains neon scrunchies from last year’s retro fundraiser. An hour later, Iago’s still MIA. (But hey, someone should frame these set renderings!)
The “closet” may be an overstuffed storage unit or a corner of the artistic director’s flood-damaged basement, but chances are most theatre staffers have faced this frustrating scenario. It’s a hindrance in the day-to-day running of a company, a setback for scholars, and a lost opportunity to share a company’s legacy with its community.
That’s the problem the American Theatre Archive Project—dreamed up in 2009 by members of the American Society for Theatre Research—seeks to solve. ATAP’s message is that all theatres—not just large or old ones—can and should take manageable, affordable steps toward organizing their records and artifacts. And ATAP offers concrete help: regional teams of archivists, librarians, dramaturgs and scholars who have volunteered to guide theatres through the process, and a 45-page DIY manual. The manual outlines basic archival concepts, such as respect des fonds, and doles out preservation tips like, “If the film is giving off a vinegar scent, isolate the materials.” It also includes a sample of a record-retention policy, essential for distinguishing among documents with short-term legal vs. long-term historical relevance. And it points users to additional resources, such as Roundabout Theatre Company and Brooklyn Academy of Music’s open-source inventory templates, available at www.collectiveaccess.org.
The word about ATAP has spread quickly with the help of such organizations as Theatre Library Association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, the Performing Arts Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists and Theatre Communications Group. So far 30 teams have established themselves across the U.S., plus one in Canada.
The New York City team was the first to test its assessment model, surveying the state of records at three Off-Broadway houses: Atlantic Theater Company, Cherry Lane Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop. Stephanie Warren, NYTW’s marketing associate, recalls that assembling the entire staff for the orientation was key, since records lived within every department. “We hadn’t brought it together and it wasn’t very accessible,” she remembers. “I don’t think anybody had an idea of how to begin.” With ATAP’s guidance, she says, “We were able to start small and current.”
A second workshop was piloted at NYTW, mapping a way forward based on recommendations from the assessment. The theatre now regularly convenes an interdepartmental committee that sets goals it can reach by the next meeting. “We’ve had success in meeting all those little milestones,” Warren says, “and that’s what has kept it going.”
The first victory was cleaning out 150 boxes, freeing up valuable space. Treasures resurfaced—including several early versions of a libretto titled Rent, and cassettes with demos by the show’s young composer, Jonathan Larson, who did not live to see his production make Off-Broadway and then Broadway history.
The new NYTW archives are organized by production. With input from Tiffany Nixon, the experienced archivist at the uptown Roundabout Theatre, NYTW staff established a what-to-save checklist. The list takes the guesswork out of archiving future shows, and provides a framework for tracking down missing items from the past (a task for which interns were specially recruited). The company’s next puzzle is how to categorize documents not connected to specific productions, such as education materials or correspondence with artists.
Most correspondence happens via e-mail these days, of course, but electronic files bring their own complications. “The assumption is that if it’s digital it’s permanent, which is not the case, because technologies change all the time,” points out ATAP steering committee member Ken Cerniglia, the dramaturg and literary manager at Disney Theatrical Group. Periodic migrations to new formats will be required, he says, which means that “even though paper doesn’t last forever, it’s still more permanent than digital documents.”
The ATAP website and listserv are useful forums for theatre pros and a community of advisors to hash out such topics. “There are walls between practitioners and scholars,” Cerniglia says, “and we’re trying to break those down.” This also happens through one-off ATAP events, such as a 2012 symposium on New Mexican theatre history organized with the assistance of the Albuquerque Theatre Guild and the New Mexico Humanities Council, or by putting theatres in dialogue with local repositories, as is happening in Seattle at the University of Washington thanks to a Friends of the UW Libraries grant. Regional ATAP teams are encouraged to host seminars on “hot topics” nascent archivists may encounter. (For example, should we collect oral history? Should we allow public access?)
This may all sound daunting to a small troupe with a bursting closet and skinny budget but, maintains Cerniglia, “It isn’t that expensive to get started.” ATAP put a $1,000 price tag on its four-week Initiation Program, which covers basic supplies and nominal fees for two trained professionals to spend 10 or so hours orienting a company on archival best practices, assessing its holdings and helping it formulate a plan. Regional funders have been willing to chip in as well. The New York pilot program was covered by a grant from the Lucille Lortel Foundation, for example, and the initiation of three companies in Austin—ZACH Theatre, Rude Mechs and Teatro Vivo—was subsidized by the University of Texas at Austin’s Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism. The important thing, Cerniglia emphasizes, is that theatres start building the line item into their budget, “even if that’s just five bucks for a box.”
This one-step-at-a-time ethos was reinforced early on when ATAP’s organizers were unable to secure a major grant from the NEA. The project’s ambition remains big, but the modest, local funding model that’s evolving to support it suits the overall grassroots spirit of the project. “At the beginning,” Cerniglia reflects, “we had the notion that if we had this grand plan, we’d attract a lot of money. We didn’t get the money, and that forced us to be more resourceful. Now we’re really focused on making it sustainable.”
Nicole Estvanik Taylor is a former managing editor of this magazine.
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