Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Documenting An Elusive Art

Contributed by Tiffany Nixon

As a time-based art form, theatre is an elusive medium: each day there are nuanced changes in performance, variances in running times, spontaneous cast replacements, and a multitude of factors informing the experience. Archivists employed at theatre companies are concerned with these variables and tasked with cataloging an endless volume of documentation (production bibles, costumes, orchestrations, marketing, etc.). So while performance is inherently ephemeral, the material product of theatre is not.

Inside the Roundabout Theatre Archives with Rick, the Archives' Mannequin

Documenting Theatre

The role of the theatre archive is not to reproduce the theatre experience but to capture its essence. Archives provide evidence of the work for historic accuracy and scholarship, and offer tools to (1) examine production through objects and documents that embody the spirit of the piece and (2) understand institutions through departmental records that reveal operations in different regional areas, under different leadership, and in response to changing trends. We archive the material output of theatre because it is an extremely important cultural art form: through creation of company archives, we provide an invaluable resource for future generations to learn from and be inspired by our work.

Theatre production today relies heavily on traditional and non-traditional creation methods. We have to consider storing a fragile beaded dress and how best to tackle the ever-evolving changes in technology. Staying informed of best practices in permanent retention of all document formats is an ongoing challenge. You must be trained to know what to look for and how best to inventory/store it. In my work at Roundabout Theatre, I employ a collection policy and checklist that guides acceptance of incoming material and I work closely with staff and theatre crews to ensure that the documents created during a season are well represented in our collection. There is clear protocol directing storage and access, and the what/where/who of archiving informs every part of my work.

What Should Be Kept?
Documents and objects retained should accurately reflect your company’s mission and output; provide evidence of trends/styles in programming of dramatic works; and tell the story of your company’s place in theatre history. Saving photographs, playbills, and marketing flyers satisfies one aspect; saving costumes, performance reports, budgets, and all manner of departmental files satisfies an even larger aspect of your performance/institutional history. 
Tip: Create a checklist that departmental and stage staff use to identify significant documents. The checklist should cover all documents your company wants to permanently retain, and should be used with every production and at the close of each year. Items might include stage manager bibles, contracts, set/lighting/sound/costume designs, scripts, artistic files, photographs, video, fundraising and marketing campaigns, etc. Keep in mind - archiving requires consistency, order, and time. Make a commitment to maintaining your legacy documents.  
Roundabout Theatre Archives' costumes awaiting permanent storage

Where Should We Keep It?

Knowing where your archival documents are located significantly saves search time and supports access to documents that populate websites/social media sites, celebrate milestones, underscore fundraising, and serve reference. Ideally, archival documentation should be stored in an environmentally safe area (secure storage on or off site) and monitored regularly to maintain continued life.   
Tip: Wherever you decide to store archival documents, make sure they are well-inventoried and easily accessible. Storing documents at a distance from your company makes access costly and challenging, so consider access when you settle on a location. Store paper/textile based documents in sturdy boxes with lids, and don’t over-stuff boxes. Box contents should be well inventoried and clearly labeled. Keep a master contents list up-to-date and stored on a senior staff members’ computer. Digitally created documents should be aggregated on an archives-designated storage device and incorporated into company-wide back-up protocol with clear folder/naming conventions of digital files to provide information as to data/file contents (for instance: production name/season year/major campaign, etc.).

Who Are We Saving It For?
Theatre archives are created for staff and collaborators to provide a resource for in-house research and fact checking, and to support public outreach through display of archival photographs, video, etc. They also support future research by providing a glimpse into trends and styles of performance and performers, as evidenced on different stages and within different genres. Theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum – the work of one company impacts and informs the work of others. Researchers of tomorrow will be interested in these exchanges and your archives will place your company within the larger historic theatre context.
Tip: Imagine yourself as a researcher 35 years from now. Which documents would you review, and how do the documents support your understanding of the work? Is it full-capture video? Costume bibles? Artistic files? When you’re retaining documentation, keep these questions foremost in your mind and build your archives around the notion of providing a discovery tool into your company’s legacy – the more historically accurate/all-encompassing the representation, the better.    
Roundabout Theatre Archives; posters, boxes drums


Tiffany Nixon: Since 2008, Nixon has been the archivist for Roundabout Theatre Company, steadily documenting the company’s nearly 50 year history as a New York producer of Off-Off Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Broadway productions. She can be reached at

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