Dr. Barry Houlihan, archivist at the National University of Ireland, Galway, discusses the digitisation of the Druid Theatre Performance Archive and how digital technologies may influence contemporary performance practices.

The Druid Theatre Digital Performance Archive is now available at the Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. The collection comprises the digitised recordings made by Druid Theatre Company from  1984 to 2005 and which were stored cross 84 VHS tapes. The digitised output adds over 240 hours of digitised performance to the existing body of over 2,000 hours of digitised performance recordings within the Abbey Theatre and Gate Theatre archives.

The VHS tapes were designated as priority for both conservation and preservation in a stable and migrated format. A digital master copy, with generative access copies in Mpeg4 format, was created. All items are stored and accessible within the Hardiman Library digital repository. By reason of copyright and donor agreement the copies are accessible within the reading room under a dedicated network of digital access PCs limited by IP address. This ensures a controlled but user-orientated research setting. It also allows for simultaneous access to textual and audio-visual material within the digital archives of the Abbey and Gate Theatres, available on the same computer terminals. Readers are able to access digital recordings from all these theatres, enabling the development of new studies based on an animated record and digital soundscape of acting and design from one of Ireland’s longest standing independent theatre companies.

The methodologies of approaching digital historiography of performance have been addressed in recent scholarship by scholars such as Sarah Bay-Cheng. In considering the effects of emerging technologies on the writing of theatre history, specifically the intersection of digital history with contemporary performance practices, Bay-Cheng identifies two related rhetorical threads present within debates on such historiographic processes: that digital technologies change the ways in which we record, write, and recall the history of performance; and that such technologies also have the effect of transforming historical narratives from primarily written and visual forms into modes of performance.[1]

The digital archive is also a means to assess the live reception of Druid performances and productions. Many of the digitised recordings are captured within an elevated viewpoint over the auditorium and performance space, providing a glimpse into the past collective experience of Druid audiences. This is achieved through a vantage point that simultaneously shows the break of the fourth wall and the movement of performance, and its production of being, from on-to-off stage presences.

The continuity of the viewing experience, and the binaries of ‘spectator-participant’ are blurred through Druid’s staging of marathon performances of multiple plays in sequence by the likes of Martin McDonagh (The Leenane Trilogy, 1997); John Millington Synge (DruidSynge, 2005); Tom Murphy (DruidMurphy, 2013) and most recently, (DruidShakespeare, 2016). These cycle productions commonly reach a total performance time of between eight and nine hours, ensuring their digital recording is itself a file which requires bespoke curatorial intervention in terms of metadata generation and segmentation. i.e. for a cycle production of three plays as one unit, where and should one divide the total file into more manageable units? Does this then help or distort the experience of viewing a cycle production which lasts over nine hours? These are questions which curation of digital video performances present to both archivists and audiences of the performance archive.

Such collections of digitised performance also enhance understandings of stage management, stage design and scenography as well as deeper understanding of actor work and labour, through movement, costume, accent and an aural record of the performance soundscape through sound design. Users of such collections benefit from a multi-sensory and immersive research experience. The collection also includes valuable secondary source material such as a tape of recorded news and television footage and interviews relating to the celebrated actor and human rights campaigner, Siobhán McKenna. McKenna is best remembered for her last stage role, that of the bed-ridden Mommo in Tom Murphy’s 1985 play Bailgangaire. Sadly, within a year, McKenna would succumb to illness and was buried in Galway’s Rahoon cemetery in 1986.

The tape includes news coverage of McKenna’s funeral cortege and of a dedicated television panel discussion in tribute to McKenna’s legacy, featuring interviews with theatre luminaries, Garry Hynes, T.P. McKenna and Donal McCann. Similarly, documentary sources, such as a rare copy of the 1983 documentary, Back to the Cradle, filmed in the backdrop to the famous production of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World on Inis Mór Island, off the coast of Galway in 1983.

By reanimating and preserving a moving image archive of theatre in the west of Ireland, the Druid Theatre Digital Performance Archive is a valuable resource that is enabling new interventions in performance studies in Irish theatre. It also succeeds in creating and displaying a performance record of a theatre company, directed by Tony-award winner Garry Hynes, which seeks to challenge local and international perspectives of what and how Irish theatre can be received and produced. The project was supported by the Hardiman Library and the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance of NUI Galway and is now available to all researchers.

[1] Sarah Bay-Cheng, “Digital Historiography and Performance”, Theatre Journal, Volume 68, Number 4, December 2016. 509.


All images from the Druid Theatre Company Archive, Hardiman Library, NUI Galway.


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