In our February blog, Erin Lee, Head of Archive, National Theatre, explains how a new exhibition being staged at the London theatre, is celebrating the 25th birthday of its archive and responses to the treasures held within.
In 2019, the National Theatre Archive turns 25. Established in 1994, the Archive aims to document, preserve and make accessible everything related to the National Theatre and its ongoing activities.
To mark our birthday, we wanted to celebrate our history, our audience and our content. We wanted to curate something fun, dynamic and forward looking. The result is the exhibition Theatre Treasures: National Theatre Archive Unboxed.
We invited theatre-makers, playwrights and researchers into the Archive to choose an object which inspired them from the collection. They had a choice of how to respond from writing a short paragraph to creating new work. We found the take-up of responses really encouraging and heartening. I was pleasantly surprised by how many people were willing to give up their time to learn more about the Archive and help us to celebrate our birthday.
I’ll lay out a few of the responses to give you a taste of the exhibition. One of the graphic designers from our Graphics Studio, Bastian Mueller, selected the iconic 1973 Equusposter, designed by Moura George Briggs in collaboration with Gilbert Lesser as his object. In response, he created an interactive tangram for visitors with the shapes of the horse in the poster out of thin pieces of plastic and fixed with magnets on a metal board allowing visitors to experiment and create compositions of their own.
Michael Billington, theatre critic, selected the Clytemnestra mask from The Oresteia(1981) designed by Jocelyn Herbert. In his response, he writes about seeing this production and the importance of ritualistic theatre in an age devoted to naturalism.
The designer Soutra Gilmour has created a visual spider diagram following her trip to watch Guys and Dollsin 1984. This was the first show Soutra attended at the NT when she was only 12 years of age and a seed was sown. Her diagram shows her links to this original production and the intricacies of the relationships that permeate our lives.
Other contributors have selected objects such as prompt scripts, projection slides, programmes and photographs and have responded in writing, collage, song, video and spoken word. I think the most rewarding thing about the exhibition, other than the wonderful opportunity to showcase our collections front of house, is the overwhelming appreciation for the Archive that has come from our contributors. We asked them to answer a few stock questions about the Archive and its importance and here are a few that really capture what we in the Archive aim to achieve:
‘A treasure trove of unbridled imagination.’ (Cherelle Sappleton, Artist)
‘It’s a quiet, creative oasis well worth getting to know.’ (Emily Lim, Director)
‘All those thoughts an endeavours – boxed, ready and waiting, it’s as if even though its containers and corridors are inanimate they somehow jiggle with the histories that fill them.’ (Kobna Holbrook-Smith, Actor)
‘Our tradition is as old as the hills. Let’s celebrate that. And use knowledge of the past to innovate in the present.’ (Patrick Marber, Director)
Theatre Treasures is on display in the Lyttelton Lounge, National Theatre, from now until mid April and is open all day Monday-Saturday free of charge.
Erin Lee, Head of Archive, National Theatre