NRN Blog: Making Friends with the Archive


Elizabeth Howard

The NRN Blog returns, this time with an entry from Elizabeth Howard. After completing an MA in Performance Making at Goldsmiths College, London and a BA in Drama and Counselling from the University of Chester, Elizabeth was awarded a PhD scholarship from Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland. Entitled Performing the Region, her research project uses the Red Kettle archive as a primary source and examines regional theatre in relation to cultural policy through a performance studies methodology. Elizabeth is a theatre maker and teaches on the theatre studies programme at WIT. She has presented papers at seven conferences over the past two years, and her first publication will be with Palgrave Macmillan next year. 

It might be best to start this story off with the admission that it was only out of a mixture of desperation and naivety that I started studying for a PhD that used an archive as its main research source. After graduating from an MA in Performance Making I thought about going on to do a PhD, but dismissed the idea because I thought I could never have afforded it. Grants and bursaries always seemed to belong to someone else, and honestly, the thought of being a student for ANOTHER three/four/five (how many?) years was just not an attractive financial option.

However, after spending a soul-destroying year scratching around trying to make a living in the arts, I was so desperate for an opportunity to move my career forward in some way (any way), that a fully funded PhD scholarship felt like the golden ticket. I was employed to conduct research into the practices of a theatre company that I worked with in the past, and in my naivety I was thrilled to work with an archive that contained over two hundred dirty, dusty, uncatalogued box files that documented over thirty years of performance. My initial relationship with the archive was like one you might have with a wild animal that is much bigger and stronger than you. We entered into quite a few wrestling matches that ended with me being the sneezing and grimy-fingered loser. However, I battled on, and one day about six months ago the archive came up to me, shook me by the hand, and said ‘Hello friend. What can I do for ye?’

For the first time, I saw the beauty inside the beast, and realised that in order to manage the archive in the most effective way, I needed to understand its true nature. What I recognised at last was that the archive is more than a sum of its parts and has a dynamic, contextual and political dramaturgy of its own that requires interpretation. At that moment my whole thesis became clear to me, and the philosophies of performance that gripped me at undergraduate and master’s level finally synthesised with my PhD research. Remote days that I spent examining evidence that seemed to have no relevance suddenly became worthwhile and significant.

My identity as a researcher, and dare I say it, academic, poked its head out after this discovery, and as my confidence grows this identity becomes stronger. Sometimes I even feel that I know what I am talking about! If it wasn’t for that initial desperation and naivety that spurred me on to the beginning point, I would never have discovered what a gloriously rich and generous friend the archive can be. My bank balance has yet to benefit, but the adventures the archive has brought me on and the places we’ve visited together make me realise that I could never have afforded NOT to immerse myself in the, grimy, grungy, gripping world that is archival research.

How have the archives helped you in your research? How have you navigated them? Share your experience on the NRN blog: e-mail Emer and Kate at to talk about potential submissions. 


CFP: New Researchers’ Network Second Annual Symposium — ‘Dumb objects, spoken for’? On Archives and Documentation

We are proud to announce details of our upcoming annual symposium, to be held at the Shard on 19th June 2015. Please share this widely with your networks and contacts.


The Society for Theatre Research

New Researchers’ Network

Second Annual Symposium

Call for Papers:

“Dumb objects, spoken for”? On Performance Archives and Documentation

Friday 19th June 2015

The Shard

17th Floor, Warwick Business School

32 London Bridge Street, London, SE1 9SG

The Society for Theatre Research’s (STR) New Researchers’ Network (NRN) is pleased to announce their second annual symposium, which will centre on the theme of Archives and Documentation.

In recent years scholars have taken greater interest in the documentation of live performance and the construction and curation of archives. The foundations of these ideas can be found in Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) and Derrida’s Archive Fever (1995), as well as more recent texts by Carolyn Steedman (Dust, 2001) and Helen Freshwater (‘The Allure of the Archive,’ 2003). Matthew Reason (‘Archive or Memory,’ 2003) suggests that a more nuanced understanding of human memory may offer ways to further explore the relationship between the live performance and its documents, and argues that an honest assessment of the archive must overtly perform the fact that it consists of ‘dumb objects not allowed to speak for themselves, but spoken for’.

These discussions have been recurring themes at the NRN’s events this year, in part due to the development of new technologies which simplify both the archiving and accessing of material. As new researchers, we are at the forefront of the developing field of new and exciting archival technologies, and whilst these new ways of archiving can bring exciting discoveries and increased accessibility, they also bring new challenges and difficulties. For example, digitisation is an expensive and time-consuming process, and as a result, which archives are catalogued, searchable, and accessible online is an increasingly political matter.

Other questions, raised at an NRN study day at the Live Art Development Agency, relate to the relationship between live performance and the ‘mad fragmentations’ (Steedman 2001) which form the collections of theatre archives. What does it mean to intentionally document a performance? How much can we really learn about past performance through the ephemera (flyers, prompt-scripts, photographs) which somehow, against all odds, now possess call numbers and item descriptions in our archives? How do those who curate theatre collections decide which of these scraps of paper merit preservation? What does it mean for those of us researching past performance that these processes of selection remain largely opaque?

In a recent talk as part of the STR’s Annual Lecture Series, Prof. Heike Roms acknowledged the trend for theatre and performance historians to abandon the archive in favour of more performative methods of research. While Jacky Bratton has used walking as a research tool in her book The Making of the West End Stage, others have used reenactment or reconstruction as part of their methodology to answer questions about theatre and performance. As a result, Roms asked ‘what is at stake in approaching historical evidence as event?’.

We invite proposals for papers that may consider, but are not limited to, the following topics:

  • Historical evidence as event

  • Archives in the digital age and the future of the archive

  • The archivist as curator

  • The benefits and problems of legalising and copyrighting art work

  • The performativity of the archive

  • The detritus of performance

  • Beyond the archive: Walking, Mapping and Re-Enacting

The NRN Committee welcomes proposals for papers of up to fifteen minutes from new scholars, postgraduates, and early career researchers, on any aspect of the conference theme, broadly interpreted.  Abstracts of up to 250 words should be submitted to by 20th March 2015. Successful applicants will be contacted by 20th April. The papers will be arranged into panel groups sharing a common theme; although we anticipate receiving a majority of proposals as single papers, we will also accept proposals for three-paper curated panels.

For queries, please contact Claire Read and Nora Williams on behalf of the NRN Committee:

For more details on the NRN, see

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Twitter: @nrn_str and @TheSTR

Study Day at the British Library: Working with the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, 11th February 2015


We’re very pleased to announce our first event for 2015! Email us at to sign up: places are limited, so sign up quickly! If you cannot make the study day but wish to join us for the casual dinner afterwards, email us so that we can provide an accurate reservation at the restaurant. If you can only join us for the lecture, that is fine too!

Anyway, read on for more…

Postgraduates and new researchers are invited to join the Society for Theatre Research’s New Researchers’ Network for a study day at the British Library.

The day will focus on the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, which is a fascinating resource for scholars studying theatre in any period from 1737 to 1968. During this time, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was responsible for licensing all plays performed in London and later other parts of Britain, and thus acted as the censor of the stage. A copy of each play submitted to the Lord Chamberlain survives in the collection at the British Library, as well as various private papers, including correspondence to and from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.

The study day will inevitably touch on issues and debates around censorship, the archive, material evidence and documenting performance. It will begin with an introduction to the collection given by the curator of the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays, Kathryn Johnson. Kathryn will also discuss some of the most important and interesting artifacts within the collection and their impact on the writing of theatre history.

Participants will then have two one and a half hour slots to work on materials they have ordered to view from the collection. All participants will be in a space away from the main reading rooms, and delegates will be able to collaborate and discuss their processes and findings as they work on the documents.  After these two research sessions, the group will come together to discuss the materials they’ve been interacting with  and its significance to their own research.

All participants are then invited to dinner at Zizzi, Central St Giles, before attending the Society for Theatre Research’s evening lecture titled ‘Eventful Evidence’ which will be delivered by Prof. Heike Roms. Undoubtedly, the lecture will compliment the study day activities by offering alternative methods of research for the theatre and performance historian beyond the archive.

Please see the full schedule of the study day and the abstract for this lecture below.

In order to sign up for the study day at the British Library, please email

If you’d like to become a member of the New Researchers’ Network or find out more about the Network, take a look at our webpage:

or our Facebook account:

Or you can follow us on Twitter:

Schedule for the Day: Introduction to the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection – Kathryn Johnson, British Library

11.30am: Consulting the Collection – Session 1

1pm: Lunch Break

1.45pm: Consulting the Collection – Session 2

3.15pm: Coffee Break

3.30pm: Discussion

4.15pm: Close

5pm: Social Dinner with the New Researchers’ Network

7.30pm: Professor Heike Roms: ‘Eventful Evidence’ at the Swedenborg Hall, Holborn.

8.30pm: Close

Reconstructing and re-enacting, exhibiting and curating, mapping and walking – increasingly theatre and performance historians are leaving the archive and engaging in forms of research that have a distinctly artistic-performative and often public character. At the same time ‘traditional’ methods such as archival research and close reading practices are considered as performative acts that not just reveal but actually create and figure evidence.

This presentation will examine what is at stake in approaching historical evidence as an event. Do such approaches signal a productive shift in our understanding of how we produce knowledge, especially knowledge of theatre and performance, and of who participates in that production? Or are they mere indicators of a new knowledge-economy for which it has become imperative to be seen to be ‘performing’ research? The presentation will draw extensively on Heike’s own current research on the history of performance art in Wales in the 1960s and 1970s, which uses a range of performance-based methods.

Heike Roms is Professor in Performance Studies at Aberystwyth University. She has published widely on contemporary performance practice (particularly on work emanating from Wales), the history of performance art in a British context, performance historiography, documentation and performance archiving. Heike is director of What’s Welsh for Performance?, a major research initiative devoted to uncovering and archiving the history of performance art in Wales. The project was funded by a large Research Grant from the British Arts and Humanities Research Council AHRC (2009-2011) and won the David Bradby TaPRA Award for Outstanding Research in International Theatre and Performance 2011.