The heart and soul of an archive

lights

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 The lighting console which was several generations out of date, ran on DOS, and only took floppy drives as external memory.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.