Plotting it out: Preserving a Big production

Part I: The What (and the Who)

So when it came to making a list of what files and types of items needed to be kept, I immediately geeked out (just a little) and spent several hours some time working up a little flowchart.

Not the most straightforward flow chart

…it got complicated pretty quickly. For now, it’s broken down into three concepts of items to be collected, based on creator intention. I’ll go into some amount of detail here, but I’m going to try not to make this a massive essay, so if I gloss over something you’re curious about, please feel free to comment and I’ll happily go into more detail. The three areas overlap and cross over in places, but they basically break down into ‘the production as art,’ ‘the production as profit vehicle,’ and ‘the production as published by the creator.’ Suggestions for cooler names also welcome.

Product as Art

Here we’re discussing the specific production to be archived, and the aspects that were designed for this specific production: the set, costumes, lights, sounds, props, etc. Things that were worked out in concert between the director and the designers to bring to life the specific message the director wishes to convey, with the talent selected and the funds available. Not all of these will have digital assets, or analogue outputs of digital processes may be the aspect chosen for archiving, but the production as a whole must be considered when creating a preservation plan. The actions in this document, though, will focus on the digital elements, taking current standards for archiving the analogue as given.

Fortunately the digital aspects of theatre design tend to be designed for portability and reproducibility, so getting the files themselves in most cases I could think of shouldn’t prove to be a problem. The question, however, of file type and playback is more of an issue, which I will get into more below. But first, the files themselves.

section of a light plot

Most design paperwork comes in drafts, and ideally several drafts would be collected:
-The initial concept drawings or descriptions, from bid/first production meeting. These would be received from the designers. If the designers were unable to supply, we would look to the production meeting notes to see if a detailed description was recorded.
-The first draft of the working renderings, as delivered to the shop. This could be retrieved from shop staff or the designer.
-The final post-opening draft with all changes/updates. This would be retrieved from theatre staff, as once load-in has taken place, they are in the best position to track changes to the physical implementation, over the designers. Examples of such staff members would be the technical director, master electrician, and sound engineer. If any additional in-between drafts are available, especially if they outline any significant changes (e.g. cutting a door), they could also have potential value for archiving, but the start and end points are the most key.
-Playback files such as lighting or sound cue stacks would be retrieved from the relevant department staff member, at any point after official opening, to ensure the final version is retrieved. Like other design work, multiple drafts would be useful, but here the final product is the most important thing.

Any digitally-based files would likely have been emailed or uploaded to a file-sharing service like Dropbox, so retrieval after the fact should be simple. In fact, after setting up a standardized listing of items to be archived, a copy could be sent to the archivist in the same fashion at the same time, or the archivist could establish periodical automated backups of the Dropbox. Playback files may require more work to add to the archive — as mentioned elsewhere, Adventure’s light board only exports to floppy disk, so getting the file onto a computer, even before verifying the file, would already take a little doing in today’s computer world.

Other elements that are more abstract, but equally important include the paperwork associated with people such as the director(s), dramaturg, and stage manager. These would be directly retrieved from the source creator, and may need to be filtered for privacy issues more so than other material. The director’s notes on both the play and production will provide essential insight into the motivations of actions onstage, while the dramaturg’s role is to provide illustrative research to the director, designers, and actors on key events of the setting. Sometimes basic information from these players is recorded in ephemera such as programs, but more detailed information must be collected from the source directly.

The stage manager’s book forms the key bible to recreating the production from night to night. It is designed such that if something were to happen to the stage manager, someone less familiar with the show could take the book and run the show, with no noticeable difference from the audience. It may also contain contents that don’t need to be archived, such as contact information or contracts, so the stage manager should be somewhat selective in what gets archived from their book, and they will be the one best equipped to make this decision.

Any physical artifacts/ephemera that are being kept or digitized:
-maquettes/white models (or 3D renderings)
-fabric samples (especially for instances where custom fabrics had to be made – see that one TD&D article)
-any analogue designs
-product info. This might also be digital, but in either case it is essential to record anything that ties into the affordances of the final design, such as limitations due to electrical resistance in the materials (this was the case for the LED tape, which limited how long a section could be), or simple availability of parts (how many color strollers are available, how many dimmers are available, weight capacity of casters, etc).

Product of the Creator

One important thing to note with the design work is what design elements are due to the designer, and which ones are requirements of the playwright (also possible is homages to earlier designs, but we will discard that option for now, treating it as part of the first category). While some playwrights’ descriptions of location and action are minimal or are mostly placed by editors, as is the case with Shakespeare (Thomson, 1988), other playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett, are notoriously exacting over elements of design, especially scenic (McDonagh, 2014). To that end, artistic statements or even a listing of elements specifically called out in the script by the playwright are another useful addition to the list of design elements. This can probably be compiled either as a separate document, or possibly flagged as a metadata element or class type in the individual design works.

It can also be useful to archive any communication with the creator in any instance where special exceptions to the general license has been made, such as any major change that has to be cleared so that proof can be provided of the special circumstances in case of later litigation. Exact records of what version of the script was used can also be useful, if it was newer version than the commonly published version (this happened with a Canadian play I stage managed in college), or if it’s a new play being produced for the first time. If the playwright habitually works with a certain theatre company, they may also find themselves generally associated with them, and having general information for researchers of that playwright would be an additional benefit.

Production as profit

In this section we come back to the reality that you’re not just making art, you also have to get an audience. You have to sell the production. The most key element here for our purposes is production stills, but it’s far from the only element that could be archived.

Production stills are either staged shots of key moments in the play, or photos taken of a running production, often a final dress rehearsal. They are used to advertise the production, and distributed to designers for their portfolios. These would be retrieved either from the photographer or a selected person in the publicity department.

Some theatres may also put together a press packet during the course of the run, which collects all the reviews of the show, to be given to any cast or crew member who desires one. Adventure doesn’t participate in this, but one or two other DC theatres I’ve worked with do this. One copy could be sent to be archived as well.

One element that I didn’t mention in the first section, but could potentially fit there as well as here, is the filmed production. Filming a performance for strictly archival reasons is relatively common practice in many places, though filming for distribution less so.

The publicity department might also have logos and merchandising designs to archive.

Something that might be useful for larger production companies to keep – I’m not sure about this, this is something if anyone has some input on I’d love to hear it – is cost info. Production bids, etc. This would probably be more useful in a general archive of the workings of a theatre company rather than in the archives of a specific show, but they could potentially be cross-linked, and it would still be useful information for restaging purposes, or when deciding what elements to save versus recycle or scrap.

Part II: The How

File formats:

Once we have the files, we then have the issue of determining whether or not the files are in a proprietary format, and the stability of those formats. Is the file type readable by other programs? How much does the software cost? How backwards-compatible is it? Does the proprietary format need to be kept? Or can simplified versions be kept? Or possibly both. Where is it more important to keep the intent or the final outcome of the tool rather than the manner in which it was created?

For example, in Adventure Theatre’s production of Big, the sound designer put all his sound cues for playback into a program called QLab. In the program you can do things like set sound levels, the start and stop times out of a larger file, which speakers the sound will go to, fade level and rate, and more. But if the show was being done in a more low-tech environment, with say a CD player and a manual board, then having all those QLab files perfectly archived wouldn’t do as much good as a listing of fade times, levels, etc. On the other hand, while having CAD file formats for the set drawings is certainly useful, as digital versions of physical blueprints, conversion to and storing of simple PDFs doesn’t present as much risk. Keeping the vector files of any logos created by marketing is useful, but if any future productions would be recast (a necessity with shows with children), then keeping the full set of files for the program is less useful.


While up to now we’ve primarily been talking about the people behind the scenes, we can’t forget those onstage. If the actors are equity they have rights over their image. The standard Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) contract has special waivers for recording, either for archival purposes or distribution, as mentioned above. There are several kinds of contracts available, depending on the type of theatre, and Adventure Theatre is not a union house, but we will use the League of Resident Theatres handbook for our purposes here. The handbook should also be referred to for general usage of an actor’s image, and of course AEA always has representatives available to contact if there are still uncertainties. All the potentially involved unions (directors, dramaturgs, playwrights, stage hands, etc) can be contacted as necessary.

Draft of lit set pieces

Designs remain copyright of the designers, so even in cases where we get files from theatre staff, approval to archive must still be negotiated with designers. Advertising material, programs, etc, however, would remain copyright of the theatre.

Big logo

There are a couple options for dealing with copyright in the archive: wherever possible, copyright and access to archived files should be included in the language of the initial designer contract. Standard exceptions should be made. Files should be given copyright/access restriction metadata, so that different levels of DIPs can be created. Distribution can also be controlled via requiring login for certain types of information, which registered accounts can be granted access to, with supporting documentation if needed. This way content can be distributed at a level the designer feels comfortable with – final renderings and static images only to the public, and working files only accessible to people associated with the original production, for example.

Next steps:

I’ve been considering contacting some larger theatres that already have archives, and are known to have technically complex productions, to see if they have a set procedure for archiving shows. For example, the National Theatre in the UK has its own archive, and a highly complicated technical system that goes well with their complex rep staging setup. I discovered this after I stumbled across their page on iTunes U, which has a lot of great introductory videos for their technical accomplishments.

I also need to do some brushing up on the FRBR model, and think about the best way to organize the archived information. And I have some software to explore. Software such as Rekall, which was created with the performance arts in mind, would be ideal. I’m looking for more performance arts oriented software; Rekall isn’t the only one, but it’s the most intriguing. Traditional archival software is another option that I’ll look into — it might integrate better with the larger archival structure.

Works cited:

McDonagh, L. (2014). Plays, Performances and Power Struggles – Examining Copyright’s “Integrity” in the Field of Theatre. The Modern Law Review, 77(4), 533–562.

Thomson, L. (1988). Broken Brackets and ’Mended Texts: Stage Directions in the Oxford Shakespeare. Renaissance Drama, 19, 175–193. Retrieved from

4 Replies to “Plotting it out: Preserving a Big production”

  1. This is really solid. I think you’ve done a nice job laying all of this out. To your last point of thinking through how to describe this or what way to approach metadata, I would note that in my mind what you are talking about feels more like archives/special collection material than like more straightforward finished works. In which case, it would likely make more sense to think about creating a sort of finding aid for this content instead of working up an approach to item level description.

    1. Well, there are so many individual parts to a completed project that I think it’d have to be treated as archival collections and subcollections. How detailed a finding aid might be would depend on how many shows a collection is composed of – theoretically if each one was archived as it was finished, a finding aid could be fairly complete, but doing the backlog not so much.

  2. I really like the three “Production as…” angles you take in this project, combining several appraisal approaches that can then be reflected in how the collection is described and navigable.

    Looks like the Resident Theatres handbook has a public expiration date. Maybe collecting institutions could adopt this convention for donor agreements and any other policy documentation that gets specific about technical details.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I think the expiration date is supposed to go hand-in-hand with renewing Union contracts, but to my recollection the rate at which the new contracts go out are not so speedy.

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