Friday, 17 June 2016

'Reading the Digital Theatre Archive'

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a symposium held by Central Scool of Speech and Drama focusing on the Abbey Theatre's digitisation project led by NUI Galway.  Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, gave the lecture Reading the Digital Theatre Archive: New Approaches to the Abbey Theatre 1904-2014 and took us through what has been digitised and what research can now be done using these collections.  It has taken three years to get to the completion of the digitisation and only now are the team beginning to look at research possibilities, and there are many.

While I was attending the NUI Galway conference Performing the Archive around this time last year I heard the Archivist and her team at the Abbey speak about the archive-side of the project so it was particularly interesting to hear an academic's view on how the collections can now be used.  The Abbey Theatre digital archive is available for use at NUI Galway's John Hardiman Library and the university have just announced a second large digitisation project with the Gate Theatre in Dublin.  This is really putting NUI Galway on the map for Irish theatre academia.

NUI Galway campus

The data that can be extrapolated from these collections is far-reaching but Patrick focused in on gender studies to show how looking at the history of an institution can help inform the present and future.  The Abbey is currently marking the anniversary of the Easter Rising with a project called Waking the Nation, which has had backlash from the public concerning the gender imbalance in programming, sparking the Waking the Feminists movement.  Patrick used this as a springboard from where he jumped into his data sets to look at the engagement that the Abbey has had historically with female writers, authors and actors.  It made for a fascinating hour of graphs, tables and comparisons.

I found one model of research around a production very interesting, I think sourced from Richard Knowles book Reading the Material Theatre (2004):

This model shows the context required when studying a production and this network is the sort of thing that I try to get across in Archive inductions, particularly with people who aren't used to using archives and are unaware of the relevance to studies.  Looking at part of a production such as the recording, is only a small part of a much larger picture surrounding the staging of the play.

I was particularly interested in what Patrick had to say about theatre archives being huge data sets showing how theatres have performed over long periods of time.  They can reflect their community and can use their status to perform within society and to make statements about their situation.  This is particularly pertinent for a national theatre, like the NT.  Our National Theatre is 53 years old and it is really interesting to look at what is in the Archive and what we are archiving now to see what story we are preserving and what other voices we should be capturing for those historians of the future.

One thought that I came away with was a bit of a 'keeping up with the Joneses' - an awareness that if research of this sort could be done with the Abbey's collection, which is termed the national theatre of Ireland, then I need to be ready for researchers expecting the same access to our National Theatre's collections.  While this information is in our collections, really how accessible is it to researchers and how do they know what sort of work they can conduct in the Archive?  It was really good food for thought as I plan and prioritise future projects for my team.

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