APAC Symposium: Breaking with Tradition: New approaches to Performance Collections

Report by Stephanie Rolt

On Wednesday 20th June 2018, APAC held its annual Symposium at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

The John Rylands Library looks like a traditional library, complete with Victorian Gothic architecture, wood-panelled meeting rooms and rows upon rows of historical rare books. But the library also holds a wealth of contemporary performing arts collections, covering topics such as radical theatre companies, provocative performance art and electronic music, making it the perfect setting for our Symposium.

It was a day of two halves; in the morning, two talks focused on innovative approaches to working with collections. In the afternoon, we discussed the challenges of working with non-traditional performance archives and received some practical top tips for setting up and managing small archives.

Tim Procter and Emma Gee from the University of Leeds began the day, speaking about Emma’s archives internship with the Red Ladder Theatre Collection. The collection has previously been catalogued, but the University Library secured funding from an internal project fund called Ignite! to undertake further research into the archive, with the support of an intern. Much has been written about Red Ladder Theatre Company, but this project offers the chance to examine original archival sources to see what the company thinks about itself, rather than what other people think about it.

The project’s originally proposed outputs included running a workshop and producing an education report and directory. But as the research progressed, it became clear that not all of these outputs were suitable. Red Ladder has always been an educative theatre company, so separating out its education work in to a report (rather than treating it as a fundamental part of the company’s identity) didn’t seem appropriate. Additionally, the company’s recent history wasn’t reflected in the archive.

Fortunately, the Ignite! funders were flexible, and allowed the project outputs to be changed to include oral history interviews to bring the archive up to date. It was refreshing to hear that a funder was willing to take this risk, and inspiring to see archivists taking the initiative to fill gaps in their collections, emphasising the importance of the present in the narrative of the company’s history. This was highlighted by changing the focus of the project’s exhibition to begin by looking at where the company is now, rather than running chronologically through its history.

The project has also challenged aspects of archival theory; as a ‘warts and all’ archive, it tells the story of a radical and creative company, but also showing its ethos and its day-to-day operation. Should archivists try to reflect this in the arrangement of the archive, even if it is not the archive’s ‘original order’? I really liked Tim and Emma’s view of the archive being a mirror into the company, with the structure reflecting its ways of working.

Our second speaker was Erin Lee, archivist of the National Theatre, who spoke about a project led by set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour to investigate new ways of documenting theatre craft. Erin took part in Soutra’s two-day workshop with people involved in the process of making theatre, discussing how to document often forgotten elements of theatre. This includes technical aspects of putting on a performance, the human relationships that make it possible, or the wealth of information stored in people’s heads.

The workshop stimulated interesting discussions, particularly around who decides what is of value to be preserved in an archive. Erin explained that Soutra was surprised that one of her theatrical models had been retained and conserved by the National Theatre Archive, as she felt this implied that the work was high status. Usually, the archivist appraises the collection; this is supposed to be an objective decision, but is it? And should it be? There needs to be more engagement and collaboration between archivists and depositors. Erin explored the idea of an ‘embedded archivist’: an observer of the creative process who would therefore be able to document it better.

After a networking lunch, Janette Martin curator at the John Rylands Library spoke about the challenges of the Jeff Nuttall and Rose Maguire Papers of provocative seventies performance art. Janette explained that the Rose Maguire collection had recently been obtained specifically to deal with the absence of women’s voices in the Jeff Nuttall collection. In the collections encounter and tour which followed, we saw up close some of the items Janette had been speaking about, and experienced the challenges of storing and providing access to special collections in an historic building.

A key challenge Janette faced when working with these collections was understanding what occurred in the performances, or which performance was being depicted or referred to. Like the Red Ladder Theatre internship, Janette has made use of oral history interviews to provide supplementary evidence, and Jeff Nuttall’s books and scripts offer much needed context. One interesting example of an item without context was an angry letter apparently sent to Jeff Nuttall by someone appalled at the content of a performance. Was this really a disgusted customer or was it a spoof, a piece of performance art in its own right? The provenance of this angry letter remains a mystery, but perhaps that adds to its appeal.

Karen Brayshaw, Head of Special Collections at the University of Kent continued the theme of non-traditional archives with an exploration of the Mark Thomas Collection, part of the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive. Many aspects of stand-up comedy make it difficult to document, particularly the use of audience engagement and response, and the challenges of capturing the humour and atmosphere of the performance. Stand-up comedy is often topical and of-the-moment (like radical or political theatre), so context is essential to ensure the subject matter remains relevant to new generations. This was a particular challenge when working with students too young to remember some of the events Mark Thomas was responding to in his performance.

Another challenge has been to make people aware of the collection. Having a champion in the drama department was an excellent way to inspire students to use the collection, and to encourage other comedians to donate material. The University has started the ‘A History of Comedy in Several Objects’ podcast, raising awareness of the British Stand-up Comedy Archive and helping to create new content for the archive by providing important context.

Our final speaker was Heather Roberts from HerArchivist, who has worked as an archive consultant for a number of organisations, including Manchester’s Contact Theatre. Heather’s energetic talk focused on tips for managing an archive, particularly when setting it up from scratch. Heather has created a toolkit on ‘Creating Your Own Archive’, an excellent resource for anyone starting out.

A good place to begin is to review the organisation’s structure and talk to the record creators, to ensure that the system developed suits their needs. This system needs to be flexible and simple enough to add new records, or all the hard work organising the historical archive will quickly be undone. Once this research is complete, visualising the archive can help, as well as planning a suitable cataloguing spreadsheet and listing the collections. Heather’s top tips include:

  • Noting any copyright information in the cataloguing spreadsheet, to save time later on
  • Avoid rushing which can cause damage or tears to the material, especially if it has been stored in a damp location
  • Make sure what is written on the outside of the box reflects the content of the box
  • Crucially, when ordering archive boxes, make sure they will fit on the shelves!

The Symposium covered a diverse range of subjects around the theme of ‘breaking with tradition’. I now feel more confident to work with collections containing difficult to understand subject matter and how to promote these collections. I also feel more comfortable to challenge established ways of working. Standards and agreed methods are there for a reason, but experimentation can be valuable too. We won’t improve our practice unless we try new ways of doing things.

The key points I took away from the day were:

  • Context is key to understanding; it can be gained through published sources, oral histories, or good relationships with depositors
  • Archivists need to forge better relationships with creators of material so we can make better appraisal decisions, understand creative processes and document them better
  • Change project objectives if they aren’t working – managers and funders should be flexible and supportive to get the best outputs from the project
  • Be proactive and fill gaps in collections: acquire additional collections where possible, or create content through oral history interviews

Stephanie Rolt is an individual member and Secretary of APAC.