Mystery Item in the Archive

This month, Erin Lee, Archivist at the National Theatre (NT), introduces us to a mystery object given to the NT’s archive and how the team had some help to identify its use.

The mystery box

Around 6 months ago, I received an email from the National Theatre’s (NT) Lighting department saying that they had found an old box with a light in it and wondered if I was interested in taking it off their hands.  After a few exchanges of photos of the box, it was delivered to the Archive.  The contents were intriguing – what looked like a lamp, some slides and instructions in German.  It included a label for ‘Theatre Projects Limited’ and a note that it should be returned to Waterloo station.

The NT Archive holds the papers of the Theatre Projects Consultants from the build of the National Theatre in the 1970s onwards, and so we knew that we were dealing with an early item from the lighting department but couldn’t get much further in our deductions.  Luckily, in October 2016 the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) held a symposium day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Theatre (The National Theatre: A Place for Plays). This provided us with an opportunity to pick the brains of those involved with the building of the NT all those years ago.

The mystery box formed part of the display at the ABTT symposium.

The NT Archive provided a handling session of materials at the symposium, including our mystery box, which attracted lots of comments.  It was quickly identified as a Blitz-gerat, or Blitz light, and there was a gentleman present who was fluent in German, who was able to translate the instructions.  Since then we have found the object in Stage Lighting (1970) by Richard Pilbrow and learned that it was made by Reiche & Vogel of Berlin. It is a small projector which uses an electronic flash gun for its light source.  At the press of a button it emits a very bright flash that passes through a lightning fork slide to produce a lighting effect on stage.

We took the opportunity at the ABTT symposium to gather details of anyone who would be willing to be contacted about materials in our collections, so that they could assist us, whether that be by identifying or describing objects.  We are currently cataloguing the Theatre Projects Consultants papers: once complete, this will give researchers an excellent ‘way in’ to studying the technical history of the National Theatre building, particularly the design and construction of the drum revolve in the Olivier stage.

 

Thanks to Pawel Jaskulski, Digital Archive Assistant, for the photographs