For our next installment in the NRN blog series, we’re pleased to feature Barry Houlihan! Barry is an archivist at the James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway. Current projects include the archive of Druid Theatre Company. Barry is a member of the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive Project Group and Executive Committee member of APAC (Association for Performing Arts Collections). Barry is also a PhD candidate in the School of English, NUI Galway, researching a sociological history of Irish theatre and everyday life, 1950s – 1970s. For more information see http://library.nuigalway.ie/archives/ and Twitter: @nuigarchives and @stagedreaction.
I work as an archivist at the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Within the Archives and Special Collections we hold an ever-growing collection of unique and wonderful archives of Irish theatre and performance. These collections range from single items (a framed playbill from a production at Kirwan’s Lane Theatre, Galway, 1783, which featured among the cast the Irish revolutionary, Theobald Wolfe Tone) to the largest digital theatre archive in the world – The Abbey Theatre Digital Archive, at over 1 million multi-media items, spanning over 110 years of Irish cultural history, from 1904 to present day.
Other theatre collections at NUI Galway include the archives of Tony-award winning Druid Theatre Company, Macnas, the playwright Thomas Kilroy, actors Siobhan McKenna and Arthur Shields, archive of the national Irish language theatre, Taibhdhearc Na Gaillimhe and also the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, often described as an unofficial ‘national’ theatre for Northern Ireland. Taken individually, these collections are themselves incredible resources for researchers studying any aspect of Irish theatre history, performance or production. Taken as a collective and interlinked unit, the sum of all these parts is an unrivalled record and memory of the theatre of a nation that predates the establishment of the State itself.
The most time consuming but also most rewarding aspect of being a theatre archivist is reconstructing what was never meant to be saved in the first place. The passion and desire to see theatre is to witness something and be part of something that is unique to that one night and to that one performance. What is happening outside of the theatre – in society or politics, or within your own job or in the relationships you have with friends, family or partners, can all affect how you see but also how you remember a performance. The archive is as personal to the audience as it is to the actor or playwright.
Quite commonly an archive arrives for cataloguing in a mass state of disarray. Boxes upon boxes of records, with little organisation (or none at all) and can represent the life’s work of a playwright or the output of a theatre. The archivist must become the medium between this material and the researcher who will study it in detail. I would compare this task of rebuilding the archive to trying to complete the largest jigsaw you could imagine – tens of thousands of individual pieces, but without having the picture on the box to work from. You will never know how ‘the archive’ will look until it is completed and catalogued in full.
I would always approach this task from the point of view as a researcher. Archivists often love ultra-complex hierarchies of structures that make perfect sense to other archivists – those whose job it is to build a skeleton for an archive onto which the material can sit. I would think primarily (of any collection) as if I was a researcher of e.g. Abbey Theatre tours of the 1930s, and how visible can I make that material be in the midst of thousands of items? No matter the person or level of experience, the first question I frequently meet is “What material do you have on XXXX?” How can I structure that archive to faithfully represent that theatre or director that created it and which is still navigable for a first-year undergraduate to an experienced Professor?
As well as being a facilitator of preservation and access, a key job of the archivist is to be an interpreter of the archive. I often see researchers disappointed when I say a video or photograph does not exist for a particular production. While that may be the case, it does not mean the information you would get from visual sources does not exist in other forms, you just have to look hard enough and ask the right questions of the archive.
Prompt-scripts, for example, are invaluable resources that contain so much evidence, of text, speech, direction, design and even sound. You can plot and place each character’s entrance and exit points, you can follow the timing of lighting and sound cues, you can track the director’s edits and decisions and even ‘listen’ to the speech patterns of an actor who may note specific phrases, accent or regional variances to their lines. Press coverage will often carry images or descriptions of the set design and character’s costumes and of individual performances. Posters and tickets will tell you how plays were marketed and priced and so who the audience typically were. The play programmes can even tell you what chocolates couples shared during the interval. If you interrogate the archive in different ways, it can reveal really interesting insights into how not just a performance looked but also how it felt it to be there and how it might have been received.
Through digitisation and digital access we can also make available formerly inaccessible material. Reels, beta tapes, DV tapes, floppy disks cassettes and mini-disks are all obsolete media but which retain their original evidence. For instance, if we listen to the sound score of Tomás MacAnna’s production of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Abbey Theatre in 1972, we learn the play opens to the sound of a train whistle departing a platform, which then morphs into the sound of a jet engine. This signifies the play and the theme of Irish emigration has been updated from the train/boat imagery of traditional Irish emigration to the modern arrival of transatlantic flights.
Text searching across the script archive of the Abbey Theatre by means of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) means every script (typescript at least) is word searchable. This throws up a lot of interesting points about Ireland and various aspects of culture. For example, the depiction of drugs and drug-taking in Irish (Abbey) playscripts – In the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, the word ‘heroin’ appears 58 times in the context of drug-taking. The earliest mention of cocaine, however, is actually seen as early as 1942, in An Apple a Day by Elizabeth Connor. This may have been a surprise to Abbey audiences in the midst of ‘Emergency’ Dublin, where even fresh fruit was a black-market commodity (the period of World War II in Ireland was called ‘the Emergency’). A search of words and phrases can show not just what plays but where exactly within each play audiences meet certain events, actions and people.
The digital theatre archive can be searched by a single click to reveal the place of female characters or male characters, Catholics or Protestants, bankers or politicians, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, emigrants, murderer or thief. By tracking the touring records of Druid Theatre company, we can see, for example, how and when they toured certain plays to certain locations in specific times, such as the reception of The Playboy of the Western World in Tokyo (2007), the Playboy of the Western World on Inis Mór island (1982) or a touring production of Famine by Tom Murphy, (1984) within the West of Ireland, the area worst affected by the Great Famine of the 1840s.
In piecing all of this back together, the memory of performance and all its elements becomes clearer. We learn more about how theatres and playwrights sought to depict everyday life in Ireland, how various European design styles may have influenced stage design, how women were not afforded a clear voice by a lack of access for female playwrights at the national theatre. History does become clearer but importantly the archive also keeps offering more questions. The answers are not always so easy to find but they are certainly worth opening the archive for and looking for the answers yourself.
How does your practice inform your research? What new discoveries have you made in the archives? Talk to Emer and Kate at email@example.com and your work might be featured here at a later date!