Archiving Theater – An Ephemeral Art

by Jessica Green

As I watch and catalog the Elliot Norton Reviews as part of my internship in the WGBH Archives, I am constantly reminded of the ephemeral nature of theater. One of the distinguishing aspects of theater, and of the performing arts in general, is its willingness to change and grow every night, as each new audience fills the room.

Elliot Norton. Copyright WGBH Educational Foundation

A performance is in a state of continual flux from the first day of rehearsal through the last curtain call, even if attempts are made to reproduce the exact same show every night. The temperature is different, the lead actor has a cold, the lead actress ad-libs a few lines, the audience is bored, the audience cheers loudly, the country’s president was assassinated the day before… Any number of things can affect the mood in the theater and the experience of the performance for the actors and audience. Some of these changes are intentional and some are beyond our control, but every run of a show is a string of singular experiences; there is no definitive artistic product, no archival record for future generations to experience.

Several of the Elliot Norton Reviews I have come across so far discuss changes that were made to a play between different productions or during the run of the show. Norton valued the ability of the audience to judge a performanceand determine what does and does not work, what is too long, and what is not funny. He encouraged the testing of plays in different cities with different audiences before taking them to Broadway.

In his book, Broadway Down East: An Informal Account of the Players and Playhouses of Boston from Puritan Times to the Present, Norton gives us a dramatic retelling of Boston theater history as it rose to become:

…a city where plays and musicals are tested, prepared, often revised, and made ready, not for us but very often at our expense, for New York.

Respected in the Boston theater world in the 1950s-1980s for his ability to recognize aspects of a show that could be changed to improve its quality, Norton was invited to premieres and his advice was taken into consideration before the producers from New York arrived.

Perhaps the most famous Norton story is when he suggested a pivotal change to Neil Simon’s smash hit, The Odd Couple: the return of the Pigeon sisters in the third act. This revision transformed the initially boring third act and the show became the tremendous success we know so well today (probably through the TV or film version).

In WGBH’s Elliot Norton Reviews programs, Norton discusses his likes, dislikes, and questions about performances he has seen with the actors, director, and other theater makers who produced it. Together, they work through script analysis and give us a glimpse into the creation and reception of theater pieces we know and love today such as The King and I, Richard III, and Annie with such talented actors as Yul Brynner, Al Pacino, and Reid Shelton in Boston theaters between 1958 and 1982.

Since there is no way to preserve each and every performance of a production, especially considering strict Equity rules for production recordings, the Elliot Norton Reviews are an invaluable resource for documenting the evolution of plays. The slippery nature of theater and the performing arts in general discourages its complete preservation in the way we think of archiving film or photography. We cannot archive the actual experience, but we can capture ephemera and recordings that capture aspects of the show.

One group that I am involved with that is attempting to preserve the American theater tradition through archiving theater materials is the American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP), an initiative of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). A collaboration between regional teams spread out all over the US (with New York’s team paving the way), ATAP is working with theaters of all sizes to assess what types of records are being produced, held onto, and used for a variety of purposes ranging from research to marketing. The mission is to assist these theaters in archiving their records through workshops on best practices, in order to make them available to researchers and theater makers, and to preserve their legacy for future generations.

As Co-Chair for the Boston Team of ATAP, making the Elliot Norton Reviews available to the public, first in catalog form and then hopefully as digitized episodes down the line (fingers crossed), is a fun and worthwhile undertaking. They offer incredible insight into the history of Boston theater productions in a dynamic way that cannot be experienced through reviews and photographs. Check out ATAP’s beta site to read about their mission, see what teams in your area are working on, and even get involved!

by Jessica Green

References:

  • Norton, Elliot. Broadway down East: an Informal Account of the Plays, Players, and Playhouses of Boston from Puritan times to the Present: Lectures Delivered for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Boston Public Library Learning Library Program. Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1978. 8. Print.
  • Collier, Jay. “One of the Deans of Theater Criticism, Elliot Norton, Exits the Stage.” WGBH Alumni, Pioneers in Public Media. WGBH, 20 Oct. 2003. Web. 10 June 2011..

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