Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fourth Rule of Archiving: What to Keep


As New Yorkers space is at a premium. Most of us do not have a basement or an attic or even an extra closet that we can dedicate to our company archives. So being judicious about what artifacts we keep is important.

When deciding what information to keep, ask yourself the following questions:
  1. How will the archive be used?
    You may be documenting your productions as a way of establishing a company history or providing a report to funders. Perhaps you are compiling information for a publicity campaign or research for an academic project. Maybe you want to inspire future company members or, maybe you are contributing your company information to a larger community-wide archive. Whatever the reason, each of these intentions require different pieces of information. For example, a researcher may not need press quotes, but a publicity campaign would definitely benefit from that resource.

  2. Who will be using this archive?
    This is sort of an extension of 'How' the archive will be used, but it is important to take into consideration that different people access information differently. For example you have a production photo. If the photo is going to be used by a graphic designer, you may need a digital file that is available in 72dpi and 300dpi. If the photo is going to be sent to a funder, you may need high a quality printed copy.

  3. Will this item/information have value or provide insight or be of relevance in the future?
    An audience member scribbles a note on the back of their program, "Great show. You should all be very proud." This is something that may not have a logistical place in your archive, but if the signature accompanying the note is Edward Albee's, this artifact may have a different kind of relevance. A small painting used as set dressing may end up getting donated to the Good Will unless the painting was contributed by Banksy, in which case there may be some value in keeping it.

  4. What does your gut tell you?
    Maybe that painting was not contributed by Banksy, but by your six year old nieces and you just have a strong personal connection to the piece. Or there is just something about that scarf from the third act. Gut reactions don't always have to be logical.

  5. What realistically will you be able to preserve?
    Deciding what to keep is one of the most difficult part of archiving. The unfortunate reality is that you will not be able to preserve everything. You may have had the most incredible giant paper mâché head, but you simply do not have the room to store it. Take lots of pictures and be at peace with the fact that you can only do what you can do.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Burning to Communicate: Part 1

Contributed by Frank Kuzler, DecadesOut

‘Independent’ or ‘Off-Off-Broadway’— Honestly, I like both. One is steeped in history and has attached to it that 1950’s Greenwich Village/East Village visual, the advent of a new American theatre which helped foment revolutions and create a place for the poetic and courageous voices who showed us that we could too. That time-worn term evolved eventually into the other where self-defined inheritors of the legacy continue to change the world through the landscape of theatre and decided to drop the label placed on the community by a contract code or the media. Some artists prefer no label at all.

The force — ignited in the late 1940's as a post WWII activation, sprouted strongly in the 1950s at places like The Living Theatre, Caffe Cino, La Mama, Theatre Genesis, Judson Poets — now stretches from the Village to Williamsburg, Bushwick, Astoria, the Bronx, Gowanus, Staten Island, Jersey City…. you get the idea. It has spread across the country and arguably the world.

However one describes their role, each needs to be innovative in their work and in their personal life. Today’s independent theatre artist willingly commits themself to a certain lifestyle and philosophy that can only be understood through the resolution and action of doing it. They view existence at night and weekends as their primary life, and their existence the rest of the time as a necessity to live another day when they will be able to create again. The commodity of the independent theatre world is human energy, the force of creativity and of course the audience’s experience of this kind of theatre. What results is a vibrancy and unique expression of the world that can not be rivaled by any other media, new or old, and that lifestyle of art and activism is infectious.

I caught the bug fifteen years ago, and I’ve had the pleasure of being part of the community as a writer, director, producer and now as a documentarian. I worked for many years with Tim Errickson, the Artistic Director of the Boomerang Theatre Company  — Boomerang recently celebrated its 15th anniversary which makes them a fantastic example of the commitment of the independent theatre community. I’ve worked closely with the NY International Fringe Festival to discover there another venue of intense love where committed volunteers and artists struggle each year to give international shows a home in New York City if only for 16 days and nights.

As I became more entrenched in the world, I became more and more fascinated by its history, and I wanted to explore the lure that had ensnared me. Why did I want to devote so much of my energy to this kind of theatre? Why did I feel it was so important to the cultural life of New York City and the United States? There was something in the collective unconscious and unspoken attraction that operated on a different level, and I wanted to find our more about it all. Without trying to pick the wings off the butterfly, there was a fascinating sociological element in the fact that this was a cultural movement of art and activism that has been growing for 50 years, driven by the burning need of these artists to speak to their world and fueled by their creativity. How and why had these elements come together to create this community and how could I help share it with that part of the world who didn’t know about it?

Let’s make a film, and use a phrase from an interview with Judith Malina and call it Burning to Communicate.


Frank Kuzler is the Executive Director and a Producer at DecadesOut. For the past fifteen years, Frank has been writing, directing and producing independent films, theatre and video. Most recently, Frank has been working on the feature length documentaries related to theatre: FringeNYC, the Film about the dynamic world surrounding the NY International Fringe Festival and Burning to Communicate about NYC’s independent theatre scene. DecadesOut ( is an organization dedicated to producing and supporting art that is inspired by science and science related themes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Third Rule of Archiving: Save the Original


Handset program from Mother Hubbard performed at the Caffe Cino
complete with hand drawing

Many times we want the public to only see the final, finished, polished product. However, there is value in the process and saving the original can be as informative as the completed item.

For example a final script is a wonderful item to include in an archive file for a production, but the rehearsal script might be just as important. It could include notes about characters or line changes that provide an intimate glimpse into the playwright's process. Handwritten notes between production staff might bring to light an amusing anecdote. These types of personal imprints make the collection much more immediate and accessible.

A designer may have created a piece that was then copied and reprinted for use during performances. While it is great to have the performance version, the original work with it's glued on pieces, whited out corrections and magic marker details can provide insight into how it was constructed and might show nuances that the reprinted version can not.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you never know how meaningful or valuable something might be down the road. Many props or backdrops for example, are in reality original works of art.

"We have show posters that were painted by people who weren’t even artists at the time but later went on to became very important."
                         ~ Ozzie Rodriguez, Director of the Archive at La MaMa

TIP: Make sure originals are clearly labeled as "ORIGINAL" to avoid inadvertently discarding or otherwise losing track of it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Beginning the Dee-Davis Archives

Contributed by Arminda Thomas, Curator for the Ruby Dee/Ossie Davis Archives

Photo from the documentary Life's Essentials with Ruby Dee, courtesy of Muta'Ali Muhammad

I began working with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in 1997. They were in the process of writing a joint autobiography to be published just ahead of their fiftieth anniversary, and I was brought in as a research assistant to help keep the dates and decades straight. I had assumed I would basically be living in the New York Public Library for the summer, but a couple of weeks into the assignment Ms. Dee suggested that I could find almost everything I needed in their home. She set up a temporary workspace for me in the basement and proceeded to have dozens of boxes and bags of newspapers, magazines, letters, clippings, programs and photos sent down for my perusal. Ms. Dee also thought it would be helpful if the materials were easily available to them in the evenings and weekends, so I began organizing it into binders and cleared some shelf space to store them. By the time the book was published, I had put together 32 binders that I was proud to call the Dee-Davis Archives. The Davises, also pleased, decided they might as well show me the rest of it. And I have been in the basement ever since.

In addition to its memory-jogging benefits, having the archives proved advantageous to the Davises in making accessible a more complete view of their legacy to the various organizations seeking to honor and award them, particularly in these later years. If retrospectives were going to happen anyway, it was important to Mr. Davis and Ms. Dee that they didn’t begin with A Raisin in the Sun and end with Do the Right Thing. The archives became a tool they could use to shine a light on some of the lesser-recognized productions, colleagues, and causes that they believed merited attention. With their history in hand, it was possible to share with those who came calling—through scanned material, a visit to the premises, or a virtual trip to their website (designed with the aim of giving context to their credits) and YouTube channel

Photo from the documentary Life's Essentials with Ruby Dee, courtesy of Muta'Ali Muhammad

The Davises were active on many fronts, artistically and civically, so I think it is worth noting that a significant amount of the archives reflects their lives as theatre artists and provides fascinating glimpses into New York’s various theatrical corners—on Broadway and Off-Broadway, in the libraries and in the union halls.  And in addition to the productions they took part in, we have over 400 programs and playbills saved from their own theatre-goings (some with their impressions noted on the covers). As a dramaturg, I have often felt that my job is one long amazing Continuing Ed program.

Photo from the documentary Life's Essentials with Ruby Dee, courtesy of Muta'Ali Muhammad

I began with basically no archival knowledge, and little I could find on the Internet to guide me. I was winging it, and while I believe the end results hold up pretty well, in some respects my ignorance is apparent. I say that not to flog myself, but to note that a novice in my position now has many more resources available. The American Theatre Archive Project (of which I am a member) has developed an archiving manual for theatre companies which I would heartily recommend to anyone faced with the task of organizing several decades—or even several months—of a theatre’s history.

Photo by Arminda Thomas

Since 1997, Arminda Thomas has worked at Dee-Davis Enterprises as archivist, dramaturg, and literary associate. She served as executive producer and abridger for the Grammy-winning audio book With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (Hachette, 2006) and as in-house editor of Life Lit By Some Large Vision (Atria, 2006), a collection of Davis' speeches and essays.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tribute to Ellen Stewart

We want to thank Ozzie Rodriguez for sitting down with us and contributing so much insightful and helpful information to our blog this last week.

Ellen Stewart receives the 2005 Stewardship Award

"Artists have ancestors. We are on the shoulders of very talented, bold, fearless and important people. They have given you the license to create and it is your responsibility to take it further. That is the heirloom that they are passing down to this generation."
                                   ~ Ozzie Rodriguez, Director of the Archive at La MaMa

Applications are currently being accepted for the 2014 Honorary Awards. Help us recognize the amazing work, artists, companies, leaders, and champions that make up Off-Off-Broadway.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Archiving Insights

An interview with the Director of the Archive at La MaMa, Ozzie Rodriguez

Ellen Stewart, Ozzie Rodriguez and Robert Patrick, in the Archive 1989

What is your favorite part of the archive?

Having a favorite item or thing in the archive is worse than having a favorite child. I arrived here as an actor, then became a director, then went on to found my own company, then went away and founded another company and then came back. My memories are entangled with so many things here. I can’t look at something without having a memory attached to it.

I put together a couple of videos of La MaMa as seen through Ellen’s eyes and I think maybe I’m the most proud of that work. I’m especially proud of them because they give you a much broader look at the organization and its evolution and how it influenced and was influenced by what was happening at the time. These clips put you there in the moment. You see Ellen in 1969 at the opening of the new La MaMa space and she jokes about the plumbing not being in yet and tells the audience that they could pay two buck and see as many shows as they wanted that week. It makes it very immediate. It captures those moments in a very real way. I know that every college in the world would like to have a copy of that video. I can’t give it to them because getting permissions from everyone involved wouldn’t be possible.

Having access to that resource however can lead you to other important movements. If, for instance, you wanted to see more about the Playhouse for the Ridiculous or Andrei Serban’s The Trilogy, you have a snippet of it in that collection that could whet your appetite for more information. You can say “Oh, I want to learn more about that.” And we have those files and you can look further into that and see how it was all put together.

What advice would you give theatre artists starting their own archive?

My advice to people who are starting archives is do the best you can, but understand you’ll have to let go of some things and you’ll be able to keep some things. Ellen was indiscriminate in preserving as much of what she thought was valuable; to her credit. However, knowing what to keep and what to get rid of is extraordinarily difficult and it becomes more and more difficult.

We don’t need fifty copies of a program. We can use five in a physical file and one digital copy on the computer that everyone has access to. However, the original artwork for that program may have been done by somebody who later on became an important artist. So that kind of thing becomes relevant. You have to be both judicious and careful.

Identification is important. For our earlier work, there are not that many people around any more who were a part of it. I can call Robert Patrick and send him a photograph and say, “Who are these people.” He was there so he knows, but I am losing those kinds of resources quickly.

Archiving for the theatre is extraordinarily difficult because you have so many tangents. You know, theatre is not one art form, it is every art form. La MaMa is all inclusive in many respects. We have dance and poetry festivals, we have celebrations of plays…. it adds up to a humongous amount of information and there is not one universal way to document all of that.

I guess my advice is, be persistent and do the best you can.

What is next for the archive?

At the end of every season there is an avalanche of material that comes down to the archive. This is an ongoing situation. It’s never going to end. We’ll never be the library for the performing arts because we don’t have that kind of an endowment. If and when that does happen, we are prepared to allocate funds to preserving the most fragile artifacts. In the meantime, we are preserving and presenting what we can.

The steps that we are taking now are that all of our records are being saved on a hard drive that can be accessed remotely by the public.

I don’t know where it ultimately is all going, but we are striving to keep it going. We feel we have something extraordinarily valuable; not only educationally valuable, but culturally valuable.


The La MaMa Archives is a not-for-profit organization sustained by La MaMa E.T.C. The Archives are made available to the public as an educational service to the performing arts community, the press, scholars, historians, emerging artists, and students of theatre the world over. The Archives are open to the public Monday-Friday, Noon to 5PM and are located at 66 East 4th Street on the Mezzanine level.

Interview conducted by Shay Gines