Barry Houlihan

Sound and Vision: Recovering movement, gesture and the actor’s craft from NUI Galway Digital Theatre Collections.

Barry Houlihan

Archivist, NUI, Galway

As recently as 2004, performance theorist Richard Schechner warned that instead of too little material existing in the archives of performance, there is now too much. He warned that it had the potential to act as a flood of fact and incorruptible evidence that would stymie any space for creative thought and intellectual inquisition:

The interplay between the past and the present was extremely active because so much of the past, in terms of hard evidence, was so partial. But with the advent of increasingly detailed first-hand archiving—I mean film, video, and digital memory—the whole archival enterprise has changed. Instead of too little, there is too much. Instead of an open net, there is now the record of the event itself.[1]

By addressing Schechner’s concern through the course of this paper, I will discuss conceptual points regarding the archive of contemporary theatre versus the contemporary theatre archive (two disparate things), assess the structural make-up of the moving image archive and how it reflects change in the theatre-making process witnessed in Ireland in recent years, and address how digital and technological interventions and the rise of “theatre-makers” have resulted in a shift in provenance and classification of the archival record, particularly in an Irish context.

The digital theatre collections, comprising the Abbey Theatre (the national Theatre of Ireland) The Gate Theatre, Dublin and Galway’s Druid Theatre Company comprise one of the world’s largest digital theatre collections. With over 1.5 million digital items including over 1,500 hours of digitised video recordings and 3,000 hours of audio material, the collections give a unique perspective on the models of documenting the action of performance but also its transmission to audience and its further reception.

The archive of contemporary performance today is fluid and reactive in its form and constitution. It has moved past being only the “text as archive,” now comprising multimedia and mass scale amalgamation of tangible items and intangible born-digital elements, such as email, youtube videos, podcasts and other social media posts as well as high-definition live recordings. Intervention and archivist mediation is essential to ensure a comprehensive, democratic and impartial record, conscious of its shifting materiality and also of its reception and consumption as much as its production.

The paper will draw on evidence form historic and contemporary digital records at NUI Galway and present new findings and methodologies on engaging with moving image archives of theatre and performance. Concepts such as the trace of individual actors and the transmission of performance across time and through  documentation, even in ‘silent archives’ are central to how this reflects the communal but yet individual experience of viewing performance, be it in archival reconstruction or in its live form online or before a live audience.

This paper draws on recent published scholarship by Houlihan including “Endless Art: The Contemporary Archive of Performance”, published in the Palgrave Handbook to Contemporary Irish Theatre and Performance (Palgrave, 2018) Houlihan is also the editor of the forthcoming volume Navigating Ireland’s Theatre Archive: Theory, Practice, Performance (Peter Lang Academic Press, 2018) and is completing Phd research focusing on the archives of lost plays, society and politics in modernising Ireland, 1950 – 1979. (Discipline of English, NUI Galway) Barry works as an archivist at the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway and is a project board member of the Abbey Theatre and Gate Theatre Digitisation Projects and also lectures on M.A. and Phd programmes at the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, NUI Galway.

[1] Richard Schechner, Quo Vadis, Performance History, Theatre Survey 45:2 (November 2004): 272.