|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