Hic et ubique: reflections on a week in the archives

I foolishly set myself the task of writing a chapter of my dissertation on the six productions of The Changeling that took place virtually simultaneously in the 1978/79 theatre season. The six include the RSC’s first production of the play, along with productions at the Riverside Studios (London), Bristol Old Vic, Birmingham Midland Arts Centre, Victoria Theatre (Stoke-on-Trent), and University Theatre (Manchester). I say “foolishly” because, as a great many scholars warned me in advance, studying productions which happened outside of London and/or which were mounted by small companies usually means that the archival materials available will be, at best, limited and, at worst, non-existent.

Geography, archive theory, and bank balance be damned!, said I. These productions happened. They’re recorded. They’re not some phantasmic figments of my imagination. If I just go to the places where they happened, there will be something useful waiting for me.

…Right?

Well, yes, in a way. Everywhere except Birmingham yielded something helpful (The Library of Birmingham suggested that I check the British Library newspaper collections. Sigh.). This is partly because, following my initial zeal, I realised that “bank balance be damned!” was not a practical methodology. I needed to plan. So I started emailing and calling up places and people that I thought might have helpful materials. In Manchester, this led me to a PhD student writing a history of the theatre company that did The Changeling in ’78. In the case of Stoke-on-Trent, I got a tip from another academic about an archive held at Staffordshire University. It was the kind of piecemeal work that tends to make me feel like a “real scholar”. At the very least, I knew I’d have no worries about claiming an original contribution to knowledge in this chapter.

My chapter is infinitely richer for having taken the trip, but not entirely because of the material I found. That was very hit and miss: the available materials in Manchester consisted of a couple dozen newspaper cuttings related to the company that produced the play; in Stoke-on-Trent, I was was luckier, and the archive held a prompt book, photos, the programme, and press details; in Birmingham, half a day scrolling through microfilm yielded nothing at all. What was more interesting was the real difference that money, location, and influence make where histories of regional theatres are concerned.

A friend noted that the RSC has recently been promised £2 million of Arts Council funding to revamp The Other Place, whilst Edward Hall’s company Propeller–by no means a small or insignificant company–got nothing at all. This kind of inequality in Arts Council and other subsidy funds was apparent on my archive jaunt–and it’s not a new problem. If anything, the situation has actually improved since the ’70s, at least for regional theatres, which collectively received less than 20% of the Arts Council’s total grant in 1979/80 (Olivia Turnbull has meticulously detailed the problems of being a regional theatre in her book Bringing Down the House).

Still, despite a more even distribution of financial resources, regional theatres struggle to keep up with the big guns in the capital, and one of the ways that they keep costs down is by not requiring space and staff for an archive. This is a great loss to the study of British theatre. Consider, for example, that the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent claims to be both the first company to perform permanently in the round and one of the pioneers of verbatim theatre (what the company’s founder Peter Cheeseman referred to as “documentary theatre”). I had never heard of it before I came across its 1979 production of The Changeling. Now, this partly betrays my lack of knowledge with regard to British Theatre in the twentieth century (although I’m catching up quickly). More importantly, however, it emphasises the fact that theatres which aren’t in London and aren’t well-known to those outside of their own audience base or scholars of theatre history can and do make important, paradigm-shifting, innovative work.

The Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent is lucky in that Cheeseman kept everything, creating a personal archive which makes the scholar’s job much easier. But very few people make use of the Victoria Theatre Collection’s, evidenced both by the fact that I was the only one there when I visited and by the fact that it’s managed by a small team of volunteers and open for very limited hours. It’s something of a catch-22: opening the archive for longer hours requires more staff and more money, but limiting its opening hours deters those who have to travel any great distance to examine its treasures. And treasures there are: Romy Cheeseman, manager of the archive and Peter’s widow, told me that the collection includes audio recordings made by the company for their verbatim/documentary work, for example.

What treasures have been lost because other companies were not lucky enough to have a hoarding AD? It’s a pointless question, like asking what was lost when the library at Alexandria burnt down. But I think it is worth asking what can be done in the future to ensure that regional theatres are included in the history of British theatre.

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1 Comment

  1. This is so frustrating but invigorating at the same time. It makes your work harder, but it also makes it more meaningful–the documentation your diss and research provides helps save, a little bit, the sense that those productions “happened, dammit!” You’re carving out a little place for them for posterity.

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