Preserving history, one theater at a time

Archivists find value in things we often take for granted: old ticket stubs, playbills, and notes written in the margin of a script.

Today and tomorrow archivists, librarians and theater professionals from around the country are gathering at the University of Minnesota to talk about the importance of archiving the work of theaters.

University librarian Cecily Marcus, who organized “The Play Within a Play: Saving the Story of Your Theater’s Productions,” says people often don’t realize what’s at stake when the work of a theater company is lost to history:

As [the McKnight Foundation’s] Neal Cuthbert said in a recent talk, the question of what American culture is has not yet been fully answered. It’s theaters and the work of other arts organizations that are shaping the answers, and many of these companies operate outside of the walls of the country’s largest cultural institutions. Cuthbert said, “By preserving the legacy of theaters, it becomes possible that others can gain support, meaning, faith, and energy from the work theaters do today.”

Marcus says the current financial situation of Penumbra Theatre, and its decision to go dark for a season, underscores the urgency behind today and tomorrow’s conference:

The history of African American theater, from its earliest influences to its current artists and thinkers, is not common knowledge. It’s not taught in schools, it’s not part of university curricula, it’s not a well known part of American history. That means that the choices made by theaters of color–from the plays selected to choices made in set and costume design–are part of a larger, often unspoken context.

Marcus says context is important, especially for theaters of color, because their histories, if written at all, are too often written–and then revised–by others. She says it’s possible that the lasting, well preserved archive of a theater may do more for making history than even the productions themselves.

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