What is a theatre archive?

“Theatre history begins when last night’s performance ends.”dewit2

…so reads the Royal Holloway’s web page on Theatre History Research. It’s a great statement which captures the need to explore and document performances as close to their performance date as possible, and by doing so improve the reliability of evidence that we have. But it also points to the very transient nature of performing arts themselves. A performance is one night, never to be repeated, despite adherence to prompt books, directions, technical cues, blocking, etc. As Timothy Wiles wrote in his book The Theatre Event:

 The artwork which is contained in any theatre event changes with each performance: some of the difference stems from changes in the actor’s behaviour, intonation, emotional state, and so on, but an equal part of the theatre event’s uniqueness stems from the differing composition of its audience, the personal contributions made by each audience member as an individual.

As anyone who has been to two or three performances of the same production can testify, one night is rarely like another. This does make performance history something difficult to pin down. Many researchers will go and see a production of a play several times if they are going to write about it. Often, if given the opportunity, they will discuss the production with director, cast and crew, they will sit in on the rehearsals; immerse themselves in the creative process and in doing so enrich their understanding and depth of analysis with that particular production. Of course, that is doable with a production that’s here and now but not so with productions in the past – last month, last year, last century.


Thomas Postlewait, Professor in the School of Drama at the University of Washington points out that:

Various factors contribute to the survival of documents, but seldom is this process systematic and comprehensive. Although concerted effort is often made to preserve certain types of records, as with governmental records, the process of documentation in the archives are almost always incomplete. And they are often faulty. Large national theatres in modern times do a reasonable job of preserving records, but most theatre companies through the centuries, always short of funds, often fail to maintain sufficient records.

Even when records are saved, and perhaps make their way to an archive, they often remain uncatalogued, buried away in boxes. The navigation of so many theatre archives is often heavily dependent on the knowledge of the staff who work with them. Theatre archives also have a hierarchy around what is collected and kept by the company. For example, most theatre archives will maintain prompt books, photographs, reviews, programmes, archival videos, audio recordings, for example. But, what about all the other documentation generated by creative members of the team which all contribute to the end result. What stories are being prioritised and what lost? Digital content and its function in documenting, promoting and engaging audiences is a new media that theatre archives are struggling to contend with – how to store it, access, share it. The print archive has traditionally been seen as the memorialised trace of the now dead theatre production; the digital archive is instead the living, porous, re-interpretable complement to the energy of the original production. Blogs, twitter feeds, production trailers, filmed interviews with directors and actors, online educational resources, sound bites and oral histories, all add to the evidence around a particular interpretation of a play. Nowadays we often find illuminating material from the rehearsal stage onwards on theatre company’s web sites.

ShakespeareThis is an era of transition for theatre archives where the digital and physical meet. As a result it calls for a re-evaluation of current practices, of the way archive material is collected and stored. If theatre companies want to keep ahead of these changes the archive should ideally be created and curated in advance of, or as a part of the live production rather than following as its post hoc supplement. Many theatre professionals see the value of the archive and utilise it in rehearsals and the development of their productions. I for one would like to see theatre archives as ‘live’ and vital – a recognised and important part of the creative process. There are documents which lie unexplored in every theatre. We need to test the future relevance of the archive and examine how it can inform what we collect in the present to share with future generations. Watch this space…

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian

The Cambridge companion to theatre history / edited by David Wiles and Christine Dymkowski. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Interpreting the theatrical past: essays in the historiography of performance / edited by Thomas Postlewait & Bruce A. McConachie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989)

Postlewait, Thomas. The Cambridge introduction to theatre historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Representing the past: essays in performance historiography / edited by Charlotte M. Canning & Thomas Postlewait (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2010)

Shakespeare, memory and performance / edited by Peter Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Theater historiography: critical interventions / Henry Bial and Scott Magelssen, editors.
(Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press 2010)

Twentieth century British and American theatre: a critical guide to archives / Christopher Innes with Katherine Carlstrom, Scott Fraser (Aldershot: Ashgate 1999)

Wiles, Timothy J. The Theater Event: modern theories of performance (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1980)


One thought on “What is a theatre archive?

  1. Thank you for this great post and its very useful bibliography! As you say, Karin, things are changing fast with so much additional material such as actors blogs and rehearsal clips now being made available during rehearsals. These might be intended to encourage interest among potential audiences, but they provide valuable material for the archive.

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