Affordances of the future

The thing I appreciate about this class the most is the fact that it gave me a chance to work with art again, and investigate how that medium works vis a vis the information sciences. And the best tool it gave me to do that is introducing me to the concept of affordances.

What I like so much about affordances is the way that they’re a sort of double-edged sword: they help you identify the limitations of the hardware or software behind a particular item, but they also help you identify how to exploit it, how to wring every last drop of utility out of it, either during the creation and use of the item, or later while attempting to preserve or restore it. They can be physical affordances, as we learned about through Kirschenbaum and Montfort and Bogost, or more theoretical, as discussed in Rinehart and Ippolito.

Dan Flavin's works come to mind as an example of affordance.
Dan Flavin’s works come to mind as an example of affordance.

For analog materials, the affordances are pretty simple: a book is bound and only readable in one direction, it’s not searchable, and if printed in quires has certain page requirements. But on the other hand, if you take an early print book apart, you might find the remnants of earlier pre-print manuscripts in the binding. Or if you digitize one using certain image techniques, you might discover it’s actually reused parchment, a palimpsest. But these things are considered to be a bonus when found, whereas for a digital work taking the affordances into account is pretty much a necessity.

The biggest affordance to consider, and again I feel it’s one that is also in play with analog works, but not as strongly, is creator’s intent. Is a certain unexpected expression of the program code a bug or an Easter egg? Should it be preserved as a cheat or removed to preserve authenticity? Is recreating a font exactly important, in order to reproduce imagery and emotional atmosphere, or will any font do? This term has fallen out of favor — should it be replaced? When can we throw artistic intent out the window entirely, and truly kill the author? The reinforcement of the idea that knowledge of the situation in which a work was created is key is one that seems critical to me.

One affordance that I wish we had been able to discuss more, in one of the few classes I’ve taken that isn’t pure theory, is budgetary. It got touched on a few times, but financial restrictions play a large part in not only the creation of an item, but how well it can be maintained and how it can be preserved. Is there a fan community who can or has done a portion of the work, as with creating emulators for ROM-based video games? Does your institution have a donor (or potential donor) who is deeply involved with your intended subject? Or are you already over budget and facing more cuts?

We’re still exploring what the digital world is and how it works, coming up with new ways to exploit it all the time. So far we’ve done a lot of applying techniques from traditional art forms to this new medium, and we’ve even exploited the new media types to help us make the most of our analog media. But we still often fall into the trap of considering new media in the same vein as traditional media, and missing opportunities inherent in its nature. As more digital natives make their way into the preservation and curation fields, I hope that they will help create a new way of thinking about these media types that will be truly mold-breaking.

Archiving for Theatre: a Production of Its Own

Files and file structure

I’m going to direct you to an updated version of my lovely flowchart, which has a couple new additions and a few more callout notes to explain the intent behind certain categories. The same breakdown of item responsibilities and locations would reflect the file structure for saved items, and inherently the finding aid. The list of desired elements is framed in such a way that it also acts as a checklist for a digital finding aid. Any non-digital item that would only be located in a physical archive would still have an entry, containing the archival metadata and having a physical location notated instead of a URI. In this way, like the production itself, the digital and the analog continue to work side by side.

Shown here are some examples of some of the file types and backup files. In this instance while the stage manager's files are in proper file naming conventions, the master electrician's files need some work.
Shown here are some examples of some of the file types and backup files. In this instance while the stage manager’s files are in proper file naming conventions, the master electrician’s files need some work.

Files will have a common naming convention, determined as required by the metadata used by the holding archive. If the holding archive does not specify, Dublin Core standards will apply.

Structuring the files in the same way as the finding aid will help with accessibility, but proper metadata will also be important, as some files or aspect types are key in how they overlap: what design choices are requirements of the original creator of the work versus a choice by the designer; cue lights are set up and maintained by the master electrician, but controlled during a performance by the stage manager, and recorded only in their cuing script. The ability to sort and filter objects not only by file type or contributor, but design area or intent aspect (practical, timing, emotional, etc) are the kinds of details that not only will be useful to those recreating a performance, but to those studying the working intent of the designers and directors producing it.

Accessibility of files

The original files will be saved and treated as the preservation copy, while additional lower level access versions of the files will also be created. These will serve not only as the web-available access copies, in some cases, but also to ensure that some readable version will be available if the specialized software the theatre created its originals on is no longer accessible. To that end, CAD files will be exported (at full scale) to PDF/A-2, cue stacks will be converted to database or spreadsheet form, and any specialized visual effects that cannot be exported to other forms will be accompanied by a written artist’s statement describing not only the effect (and how it was created, where possible), but also the intent behind it. Designer’s statements should be included wherever possible, but they are most important for works that cannot be guaranteed to be sustainable. When created, these access files will automatically inherit the metadata of the parent file, in terms of performance information. Access rights and file information metadata will of course differ.

Metadata & archive selection

In terms of what archive this would go in, that kind of depends on a number of factors. Ideally it’d go into something like GloPAD or ECLAP, but it could also go into a local database like WAPAVA, in Big’s case, or the theatre company’s own archive, though the chances of them being able to fully exploit the metadata available is in that case less likely. However, by basing the metadata and extraction on open source tools and shared standards, collecting and displaying as much metadata as possible should be a simple matter.

Fortunately both GloPAD and ECLAP come with suggested metadata models, which employ standards from a variety of regular schema, most notably Dublin Core and VRA Core, but several other models as well. ECLAP also makes use of Linked Open Data (LOD), and generally seems to be more advanced, and actively developed, no doubt in great part due to its status as part of Europeana. However, both models should be scalable (or adjustable in terms of the OAI-PMH) to ensure that even while the holdings records of the online archives may be shared to larger Europeana-type collections, the items themselves may not, dependent on the reproduction rights, which are carefully documented in the metadata schemae. Ideally, in addition to reproduction and transmission rights, general dissemination permissions, of various levels, would be attached to the files, so that different DIPs could be created for the general public, scholars, and the individuals involved in the creation of the work.

In terms of collecting the metadata from the various digital files, a combination of traditional archival metadata extractors would be used. I had hoped to find some theatre-specific tools, but the biggest one I found, Rekall (mentioned in my last post), while at first promising, failed to recognize common lighting-specific file types, including CAD program files, instead lumping anything it didn’t recognize into an ‘octet stream’ category. Additionally I could see no obvious way to export the information out of the program, and documentation or support for the application doesn’t seem to be apparent — it looks like another case of a promising application that dried out with its funding. At least it’s open source, though, so if someone wanted to take it up they’d have a good foundation to build on.

Rekall pulls some amazing metadata out of the files on my hard drive, but it doesn't know any of the standard lighting file types (CAD, paperwork databases, or light board exports).
Rekall pulls some amazing metadata out of the files on my hard drive, but it doesn’t know any of the standard lighting file types (CAD, paperwork databases, or light board exports).

Additional materials

In addition to but archived separately from the show files are general documentation on the metadata schema, the various softwares used in the creation of the performance, and in the creation or acquisition of the metadata. These should all be incorporated somewhere into the larger archive, either in an ‘about’ section or a technical metadata section. The general file structure for each show, once completely uploaded, should be saved as a PDF/A-2 to act as a finding aid, in addition to the general searchability of a digital archive.

Other useful items to archive would be the various union contracts, also mentioned in my last post. If it were a large-scale archive, covering more than one specific theatre, having a section covering the various contracts longitudinally and departmentally would be an invaluable resource. Of course, in a similar fashion to the detailed information in the stage manager’s and directors’ portions of the archived works, privacy concerns would probably mean that a generalized standard contract, rather than one with any specific concessions for a specific theatre, would be most appropriate to archive.

Hopefully, though, some aspects of the archive would continue to grow over time. Allowing for a user-contribution section, as CircusOZ’s Living Archive does, will allow for additional reviews outside the scope of the professional theatre world, and commentary on all aspects of the endeavor to be added at any time even after the initial upload, to ensure that as new connections are made, by people working on the project or simply viewing it, they are not lost. The show may have been struck, but how the show strikes you will never go away.


Fandom and innovation

I was trying to figure out just what to write about for this blog post on fandom/folk culture and creative self-expression, and I’m afraid that there might be a little too much for this to be a very coherent post. To start with, I feel like some of the articles we read betrayed their own bias in not actually being written by fannish practitioners so much as people interested in fandom as a concept. Or maybe just an extremely different definition of fandom than the milieu I work in. And that PBS video we watched? Felt extremely off the mark in terms of who fanart creators are and what fanart is really about — not only was the film populated entirely by guys, when one of the subjects of the video doesn’t know why Watson likes jam, something is wrong. Fandom is about queering the text, and I didn’t feel that most of the texts we read reflected that.

Kate Beaton sees what's up with Sherlock and Watson.
Kate Beaton sees what’s up with Sherlock and Watson.

And, as a side-note (and sorry for linking!) I really would have liked to see what folklorists like Trevor Blank have to say about TV Tropes. Not only is there a fascinating study in what tropes become popular in what media and over what kind of time period, but aren’t so many of these just ways to give Campbell’s hero another thousand faces? And so many ways to mix tropes (domestic zombies) and poke at the flaws in a story or act as a conduit for new stories (Star Trek: Wagon Train to the stars!).

Which is what fandom’s really all about. Asking ‘what if?’ What if Twin Peaks hadn’t been cancelled after 2 seasons? What if so-and-so had died in that cliffhanger? What if so-and-so hadn’t died? (#coulsonlives being a prime example) What would an NPR broadcast during a zombie apocalypse sound like? What happened to Mulder and Krychek while they working together? ‘Working.’ Right. What would it be like if the gender and sexual identity ratio in this show was closer to the norm? In a cast of 10, there should be at least 2 queer people, right? And more than one non-white person.

Etcetera. Fandom lets you kill the author (and the characters) time and again, and explore all the aspects of a show that you want to, whether it’s a serious exploration or you just really like these characters and want them to be happy for a while instead of constantly angsting and getting shot at, so you decide to explore what it would be like if Bruce Wayne dealt with his parents’ death in a responsible and sane manner, adopted a bunch of kids who’d also had parental issues, and ran a coffee shop, with reeeeally good dark roast.
God bless you, Ryan North

If there’s a scenario you’ve wondered about, chances are, fandom has created some form of media work that treats on that topic. There’s, uh a lot of stuff out there. And that makes it a little hard to find. Shannon Fay Johnson’s article (2014) does a great job of laying out the basics of systems of tagging that have been used over the years to create discovery systems for fanfics, podfics, fanart, and more over the years, but I’d like to fill in some of the details, especially in regards to how limitations and affordances of various digital platforms have affected fannish discovery systems over the years.

Daniel Perkel (2011) correctly points out that while each individual website has its own culture, they don’t exist in isolation. The fanfiction and creative end of fandom moved from zines and paper-based fan clubs and slide decks set to music to Usenet and dubbed VHS tapes to email lists (not necessarily invite only, but membership could be controlled) to journaling sites (which had various privacy levels, allowing selectivity in who could see posts, and had the additional affordance of requiring membership, which until 2003 required getting an invite to join Livejournal), with personal sites hosting vids and fandom-specific fanfic sites existing alongside. Now people publish fanfic and post fanart on a multiplicity of platforms, from pics and microfics on Twitter to works longer than War and Peace on the Archive of Our Own (AO3), and everything in between.

The affordances of the technology and the community both influenced what was considered important metadata. In addition to the examples listed by Johnson, which continue to be important, the size of the work is also an important consideration in the digital age, where you can’t size up a work by the size of the printed work. In archives prevalent in the dial-up age, the important thing was file size: how long would it take to download the work. So older sites like the X-Files archive Gossamer (which has a fascinating history of its own from a long-term digital archival perspective) the metadata would contain the usual title, author, pairings, fandom-specific tag concepts, and the file size. With no context, someone coming to the archive today (or even in the 00s and you just weren’t the one paying the internet bill, or someone from today just used to current fannish metadata) might look at a work labeled ‘vignette’ and wonder how it could be 125k. Hint: that’s not word count. That’s kilobytes.

I couldn't help myself, OK? I'm not even a Sherlock fan.
I couldn’t help myself, OK? I’m not even a Sherlock fan.

Johnson mentioned LJ’s switch to free tagging post platform adoption by fandom, but an additional detail is that when it was introduced in 2005, tags also had a length limitation, and you could only filter by one tag. At a later date filtering via multiple (read: two) tags was introduced at a later date, but as a for-profit site with tiered membership, there still exist plenty of other artificial restrictions on tagging. These limitations were part of the appeal of tagging-oriented bookmark sites such as Delicious. Even more popular, in the face of that platform’s decline, is Pinboard. Maciej Cegłowski just intended to create a bookmarking site. When he discovered how much fandom had taken to his site, and asked them what features they were interested in, you won’t believe what happens next.

By 2012, LJ was developing a poor relationship with fandom, and a forked version, Dreamwidth, was developed by fandom-involved former LJ workers and volunteers. At around the same time, due to similar frustrations, many related to DMCA, others were working to develop the OTW and the AO3.

I could go on about the AO3 and its tagging system all day long, but I’m going to try to keep myself limited to expanding on affordance limitations. If you’re curious about further details about specific aspects of working within the AO3’s structure, please feel free to comment or otherwise contact me, or if you’re really interested, maybe post some of your own work! Meta (fans writing about fandom) is on the AO3 too.

Like every site that gets popular quickly, the AO3 has had its share of performance issues. And this has, from time to time, influenced user-tag interaction. In mid-2012, server and scalability issues meant that the entire tag filtering interface had to be disabled while the database filters were restructured (and I believe at the end of that it involved re-indexing the entire database of tags. There are — a lot of tags on the AO3). Currently, due to similar back-end issues, wrangling of tags that can belong to any fandom (which are some of the most frequently-used, and complex) has been extremely restricted, which means there is a long list of changes waiting to be made. Manual tag editing has its downsides.

Another desired feature that is still somewhere a ways down the development roadmap is ‘parallel’ tags. The AO3 is meant to have international appeal, but canonical tags tend to be in English, unless it’s dealing with a fandom that originates in another country, and even then it tends to prefer Latin characters. Canonical tags in multiple languages would require a way to make equivalent canonical tags, which at this time the code cannot do. Another helpful tool that is also not yet on the horizon: an API. Being staffed entirely by volunteers, often working around full-time jobs, the AO3 doesn’t have the kind of quick turnaround time a commercial venture does. And until the servers are more consistently resting on stable ground, the increased hits of an API would only be a drawback.

One of the more unforeseen influences on tagging practices on the AO3 has been the advent of Tumblr. The visibility of fanart has increased as fandom has moved to Tumblr, and while the ease of reblogging something on tumblr is quite high, for text-based media there are slightly more issues. For one, unlike journaling platforms, there are no threaded comments or in-post replies. Also, privacy settings are scant if available at all. Secondly, for some reason, on tumblr a large number of people decided to start putting text reactions to posts in the tags instead of in the text of the post. Unfortunately, tumblr’s tagging system is not the greatest (warning: strong language). This extremely casual and freeform style of tagging has made its way into many of the tags introduced by users of the AO3, which has been a cause for great debate. The AO3’s official response was to reiterate that users are free to tag however they want, but some still feel that the current method of tag wrangling is unsustainable.

Only time will tell. Possibly fandom will move on to a new platform before it becomes too great an issue, and the metadata debate will start all over again when we need to figure out how to tag with appropriate warnings on our brain-sharing server.


Two treats: one of my favorite vids, which is currently in a museum show about remixing in Vancouver, and a fic involving fandom and folksonomies/cultural references: Oolon Colluphid Was Right.

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

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.