What role has technology played in the work you’ve done with the archive?
There is this ever expanding technology and we are racing to preserve and to capture both current and historic performances.
La MaMa started a half of a century ago. You have to imagine a time when the phone was on the wall and you could not take pictures with it. There was no internet. You could not send selfies. You could not do tweeting. You could not do Facebook. All you could do was talk to one person on the phone. I'll say this to students sometimes and they look at me as though I’m talking about cavemen. It’s true. The Xerox machine was a godsend to all the playwrights because it meant that instead of having carbon copies or mimeograph machines that faded, they could make 25 copies of a script.
When the archive first started we had a computer that you wound with a crank, as far as I was concerned. The archive has always been the stepchild and we got hand-me-down technology. I’ve never had top-of-the-line, industrial equipment. But, with our first computer, I was able to make the first spreadsheet and start to organize things. When we got a slightly better computer, I was able to add more information and we become a little more sophisticated.
You never know what is coming next with technology. However, if the information is preserved now, then it can be transferred to whatever technology is coming down the pike and made available for future generations.
We have original art work and ephemera, scores, photographs, et cetera and all of that now needs to be scanned and digitized. It is a never ending process. Look, because we work in a living art medium, there is never going to be a homogenous situation in terms of the kind of media that theatre will generate or in terms of the kind of technology it needs to be transferred to. Unfortunately the archives’ ability to do this really depends on how well funded we are. We’re doing the best we can but, contemporary technology is continually newer and better and smaller. What is popular today may not be so useful in the future. For example, we have reel-to-reel videos, which at the time were an innovative way of capturing our work and those are becoming more-and-more expensive to save and salvage.
In the late 60’s / early 70’s a group of students from NYU came to La MaMa and said, “We’re shooting film / video about New York City, but the machinery is so heavy that we can’t just walk around with it.” So they wanted to shoot our shows. Ellen said “Yes, with two conditions (1) it can not be used for anything other than for your studies and (2) you give us a copy.” So we ended up videoing a lot of the early La MaMa works that were being performed in the late 60’s and 70’s.
Ellen opened the door to the possibility of filming those performances. If people like Tom Eyen or Sam Shepard, had something they could look at, they could improve upon it. Having a copy of a video was invaluable to playwrights who could scrutinize their work in a way that wasn’t available to them before. They could look at their own work and say, “you know, this one-act could be a full-length play” or “I could expand that idea because it was successful, but it needs more.” And I won’t even mention the value it was for dance and choreography where videos can be used to show or teach. The artists had this resource available to them so that they could improve or build upon their work. So this kind of documentation became very important to the people here at La MaMa.
And that has continued for many years. Now, Equity and other unions have rules against this, but those rules were not in place when we started. Once again we were at the forefront of using this medium that had not yet been employed by theatre artists and had not been codified.
As we grew, Ellen became more-and-more aware of the need to communicate on a global level. Many of our most important pieces suddenly required a presentation that was not based on the English language alone, but also needed sound and visuals to fully understand it and the recordings were invaluable for that. A lot of that is reel-to-reel and we are desperately trying to find a way to preserve that now.
We are in a process of digitizing everything to making it available online. The list of La MaMa productions on our website is growing; continually growing. That is an important resource, but I also think that the ever encroaching technologically creates gaps between generations, which I guess is inevitable. You have to be technically savvy to access many materials now. That is another reason I feel that the physical archive is so important. You can’t put everything in to a computer.
It is a constant question of how you can retain as much as you can. And you don’t always know the answer to that. You do the best you can with the tools that are available right now.
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