The heart and soul of an archive


As we’ve already discovered this semester, the performing arts have a long history of documentation, so in this sense my project will be nothing new. But the readings we’ve had thus far have mostly covered how the performing arts deals with archiving works anchored in the temporal, not how it deals with the digital aspects of those temporal works.

My project this semester is going to focus on exploring avenues for archiving all the different production and design elements, the paperwork and properties that go into creating and running a theatre show. I am going to use a specific musical I worked on a few years ago as a case study. I picked this show because I was more involved in the design process than I usually am as a master electrician, since the load-in was especially complicated and I also ended up assisting by programming the show for the lighting designer, but I also recently discovered that the theatre company in question actually lost a good amount of their archival material on the musical while they were in the process of archiving their own copies, so it also serves as a good object lesson in what can be lost.

The production in question is a bit of an adaptation of an adaptation: the 1988 movie Big was adapted into a musical for Broadway in 1996, and this is the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) version. Yeah, this wouldn’t be my first choice for a TYA production either, but there’s also a TYA version of Avenue Q, so here we are. And the libretto isn’t really why we’re here, though we’ll archive that too. I’m interested in the more technical aspects.

Big was a bit of a game-changer for Adventure Theatre, since they had recently acquired a new lighting product, to be implemented on this show, and used in subsequent shows: flexible LED tape, that had red, blue, and green LEDs on it, allowing for near-infinite color mixing. This low-profile ‘tape’ could be attached directly to set pieces, so there was a high amount of coordination between the scenic designer and the lighting designer, and in fact reviewers often attributed the LED tape more to the scenic designer than the lighting designer. It also had the unintended consequence of making the lighting programming so complicated that we actually ran out of internal memory on the lighting console before we could finish building the show. The lighting console which was several generations out of date, ran on DOS, and only took floppy drives as external memory.

This was compounded (compounded!) by timeline issues: IMG_0187we had to find a board that would read the existing show file and execute it in the same manner as we didn’t have time to rewrite the whole thing, and the show was so fast-moving that there was no pause in the cue sequence long enough to swap disks during the run (the load process was estimated at 2 minutes, there wasn’t a single page on the script that didn’t have cues). The LED tape was being controlled by programming boxes made from scratch by the (amazing) technical director, so documentation was minimal and fixes were only accomplishable by that one individual, and I believe that to still be the case to this day (especially in terms of documentation). Other digital elements include the projections, the basic CAD files for the set and the ‘regular’ part of the lighting, and the sound cues, which were run entirely through a digital program. The sound designer and the lighting designer often worked together to time lighting cues or adjust the length of sound effects so they would complete together.

These are essential elements that were born digital and must stay digital in order to maintain their essential qualities. Focusing on the preservation of these elements and exploring what resources are out there to support them that are aimed at or affordable for the non-profit community would allow not only for better archiving of cultural history, but for sharing innovation as well — the digital equivalent of reaching over someone’s shoulder and typing in code from memory.

The stakeholders obviously include the theatre company, the designers and actors, but also potentially those interested in studying theatre on a variety of levels: the work, the design, or the designers. It also includes the general public.

The theatre company: Theatre companies will use items from past productions for many reasons: moving or still images can be used in advertisements for the theatre as a whole or in promotional or fund-seeking material for the company; the company may need the design elements if they want to stage a revival; certain set or props pieces may need to be re-worked for another show, or a tricky effect or certain board pre-sets may be re-used by a designer from an earlier show they worked on. Good records of a show and how it works are also important during the run — for example, if an actor is injured or the stage manager needs to be replaced (an actual emergency that happened mid-tech on this show).

Designers and actors: Portfolios are an integral part of a designer’s self-promotional arsenal, they act as visual supplements to a resume or CV. Photography is generally discourage during live theatre, both to prevent the actors from being distracted, and to ensure the design integrity. Promotional photography will usually be taken during one of the last few dress rehearsals, with set specific moments if called for afterwards. This guarantees that production stills will be of the best quality, and designers and actors alike can get professional images of their craft, to promote it to other talent-seekers. Designers will have their copy of the paperwork submitted to the company, but may also receive (if they desire) the plot work for the finished pieces, which account for any differences or adjustments that may have happened between basically the first draft and the finished product.

Researchers: Theatre research tends to be either script-based (studying a playwright’s oeuvre), or methodology-based (Stanislavski method, Alexander technique), but the history of the physical craft of theatre has its investigators as well. Available materials, techniques, and design influences can all be read longitudinally through a theatre company’s collective archive.

General Public: Some theatre archives, like the TOFT archive at the NYPL, require users to prove that they are in the industry, but not all film and tape archives have that requirement, and even then, if you are in the performance industry, or a student of it, you can still watch something just for entertainment. Also, having these archives available for designers to work from helps build a better production for audiences in the future to enjoy.

Brendan DeBonis as Billy and Greg Maheu as Josh in Big, The Musical TYA. Photos by Bruce DouglasThe ‘magic of theatre’ is, most of the time, just endless hours of manual labor and seat-of-your-pants improvisation to get the show up and running, and to keep it that way, especially amongst smaller theatres that don’t have the same budget as Broadway or the Kennedy Center or Disney World. But they still want to put on a good show. Big is about finding out you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and discovering what’s great about what you are. Discovering things you didn’t know you had the capacity to do is exactly the kind of goal theatre archives are here to serve.

12 Replies to “The heart and soul of an archive”

  1. I think the interesting part of your project will be that you are preserving the digital part (the production/design elements) to a multimedia whole (the performance of Big). So in this case it’s not only about figuring out what and how to preserve the production and design elements, but also considering how to provide enough context so that the relationship between these materials and the performance is established clearly. I think this is where FRBR might come in handy!

  2. I think the interesting part of your project will be that you are preserving the digital part (the production/design elements) to a multimedia whole (the performance of Big). So in this case it’s not only about figuring out what and how to preserve the production and design elements, but also considering how to provide enough context so that the relationship between these materials and the performance is established clearly. I think this is where FRBR might come in handy if you need it!

      1. Haha, that’s okay! Yeah, context-dependency is going to be really interesting, because of course unless you’re doing a restaging in the same space with the same equipment, then some things are still going to be different — for example, the automated moving light is programmed in with the other things, in the very simple X-Y coordinate system this board can handle. But it’s X and Y angles of pan and tilt for the mirror on the thing hung off the front of the light — if the light gets moved at all, or is hung slightly differently (which will inevitably be the case), then those X-Y coordinates are no longer valid, and those cues are no longer valid. They depend on the context of where/how the light is hung, and where the performer actually is.

        1. This is where your knowledge/intimacy with the performance will be of great benefit. Since you are pretty familiar with the materials and the art of that performance, you’ll have a better idea of what is going to change no matter how precisely you contextualize (and so you shouldn’t waste too much energy in contextualizing it) and what is going to be crucial to contextualize as much as possible for a possible re-production.

        2. I think this context-dependency aspect is interesting, especially with these works that mix digital with analog materials. Maybe this is a case where preserving the intent or the effect is more important than preserving the actual programmed code? It reminds me of the discussions in Kirschenbum and elsewhere about screen essentialism…whether the visible effect is more important than the technical background of how the effect was achieved.
          It reminds me of platform studies too, as in Raising the Beam’s discussion of a video game that was released for two different platforms, with different affordances. In this case each specific theater’s stage is the (somewhat more literal) platform, and similar questions arise in determining how to preserve a work that might ultimately be ported to a variety of contexts.
          It puts a focus on the importance of knowing (or guessing) how the preserved work might be used… if it’s to restage a play, than the end result may be more important. However, it it’s to make an accurate record of a specific production accessible to future scholars, or to assist future professionals in achieving a similar effect in a similar space, then the details of the physical production are more relevant.

          1. Exactly! Context is also important in the sense of how the design elements relate to each other — if the adaptation has a different wallpaper because they couldn’t reproduce the original, the colors or patterns might need to change. Or even to balance skin tone, you might need to make adjustments. Another important thing, since this is design we’re talking about, is negative space: what is the light not hitting? We’re trying to light the stage, but not offstage, but we’re also trying to hide the piece of scenery that’s not in use yet, or we’ve cut the edges of the light so nothing above the wainscoting is lit with X-Z lights. General purpose notes are written into light plots, but exact shutter cuts usually are not, those would be left up to reinterpretation.

  3. You do a nice job establishing what the significance of this particular production is in the context of Adventure Theater. It sounds like you have a good handle on the range of potential digital assets you could work from, and from the readings we’ve done on the sustainability of different digital formats I think you should have a good basis for thinking through what formats to keep these sorts of things in. Per our discussion in class, a key element here is likely the extent to which it matters to maintain the original likely very wonky file formats for these, or to which it would make more sense to migrate or transform them in to more common formats.

    I would hazard to guess that this isn’t that massive an amount of content, so you could likely go with the best of both words approach and keep the originals but also do some work to create some derivatives in much more common formats that you have a better chance of being easily accessible in the future. If you do go that route, it is worth underscoring the value of doing quality assurance on the production of those derivative files to make sure that what you end up with in them is still good enough for what they are supposed to do.

    The three different stakeholders you identify make a lot of sense and I think you rightly capture some of the different needs and interests they would have. I’m looking forward to reading your preservation intent statement.

    1. Part of me is wondering if I should do two examples, from different theatres, to help give an idea of range/make sure I’m not accidentally focusing much on the specifics of one production. I don’t think I’d want to do a theatre and a dance show, or theatre & music concert, but two shows in general might be wise?

      Most of the creative derivatives would probably be some form of PDF or simplified CAD, since basically theatre has just technologized hand-drafting.

    1. This is actually the project I’m hoping to work on as my field study! I contacted Doug about a month ago, and at that point he was basically waiting to hear back on the grant award decision — I don’t know how much they hoped for versus how much they were awarded, so there’s still a chance that I’ll be working with them but not on this specific project, but yes, this is exactly the kind of thing I’m interested in, and this article does a pretty good job of laying it out.

  4. Sarah, this is a fantastic project and I can’t wait to see where you take it. This is small, but I appreciated your note about “essential elements that were born digital and must stay digital in order to maintain their essential qualities.” It’s not just the idea that decisions need to be made that’s great here, but also that they can be made on a component-by-component basis following careful consideration of what digital-ness contributes to each component. I’m seeing a potential shift in how we frame significance and preservation for different stakeholders. It’s starting to seem like more of a negotiation process.

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