In 1970, Betty L. Corwin created the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT), on a mission to preserve theatre for generations. Now, more than 50 years later, the archive has grown to include thousands of filmed theatrical productions, ranging from small regional shows, to some of the biggest hits in Broadway's history.
Housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the archive is currently celebrating its belated 50th anniversary with a multi-floor exhibit exploring the history of the archive, and its many valuable offerings. When Corwin retired in 2000, current TOFT director Patrick Hoffman stepped in to fill the vacuum, guiding the archive since 2001 through digitization, a global pandemic, and now, it's golden jubilee.
The TOFT archive, which is publicly available to anyone with a library card (provisional cards can be obtained day-of by non-New York residents), is one of the largest theatre archives in the world, with preserved productions ranging from Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel to The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. In addition to the live recorded productions, the archive also houses the tapes for many publicly broadcast productions, such as Mary Martin in South Pacific. There are also filmed interviews with many great theatre makers, including longtime champion of the archive Hal Prince.
Now, the library is exhibiting Focus Center Stage: 50 Years of the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that exhibits artifacts from the archives history, ranging from the tools used to make the preservation possible, to video bays where snippets of the preserved material may be viewed. Taking up two floors, the exhibition is housed in corridor galleries that are accessible through the front entrance of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
In celebration of the Focus Center Stage: 50 Years of the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive exhibit, now extended through June 24, Hoffman met with Playbill to discuss the archives history, its future, and how it hopes to support theatre makers from every corner of the world.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
There are a lot of misconceptions about what the archive contains. Care to clear any of that up?
Patrick Hoffman: Well, we are the first archive of its kind in the world. We remain today the foremost archive of its kind in the world, and we are now in our 52nd year entering our 53rd year of documenting live theatrical performance on Broadway, Off Broadway, and in major regional theaters around the country. While it is a New York centric collection, we do span the country.
Under the LORT contract [a work contract for professional actors], regional theatres are permitted to donate a copy of their archival video recording to us. When we have funding, we have also travelled to tape in Minneapolis, Washington DC, Boston, Hartford, Los Angeles, San Francisco, many different theatres across the country.
Some of the myths of the collection is that we tape every Broadway show. While we wish that were the case, we can't afford to do that. We always tape more Off-Broadway than we do on Broadway; for example, we got In the Heights when no one had heard of it, long before there was a plan to move it to Broadway. There are many examples where we were early to get the video: we have the original production of A Chorus Line at the Public Theater, the New York Theatre Workshop version of RENT, and so on.
You don't just record the hits though; there are plenty of recordings in the archive for shows that didn't net Pulitzers.
The beloved Betty Corwin would often say that you can learn as much, if not more, from a flop show, as a hit show. Plus, sometimes, things aren't recognized until time has passed. There are nine highlight reels in the exhibition, and one of them is the rarities; these are things that had a short run, like the original productions of Chess, or A Man of No Importance, or Bright Star. There are also things like Encores, where they only run for five days, but they're just extraordinary. In the reel, there is a snippet of Sutton Foster, Raúl Esparza, and Donna Murphy in Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle; it is so fascinating, and it ran less than a week! But we caught it.
What do you say to theatre fans who want the archive to be streamable?
People can always come up and watch the entirety of a video in the TOFT screening room, but streaming just isn't possible for us. We hear you, but our contracts [with the theatrical unions] forbid it.
Are there any productions you wanted to tape, but missed?
Oh, a knife in my heart! Yes, I've had several heartbreakers over the years, usually because we didn't have the funding at the time. One was Billy Crudup in The Elephant Man. It had a very brief run, and we didn't have time to secure all of the necessary permissions, to line things up with the theatrical union and guilds, hiring the video crew... the window was too tight, but I still think about that production!
Hal Prince was a huge champion of the archive. How closely is the archive connected to todays producers?
We are still very connected: I get phone calls and emails from producers all the time, asking us to preserve their work. Sometimes, if the producers are in a position to do so, they will make a donation to the archive that enables us to document their production, which frees up grant funding for another production that might not be in the financial position to pay for it themselves.
I cannot praise Disney Theatricals enough. They have been extraordinarily generous, and have actually donated the funding for every one of their theatre productions, from Beauty and the Beast on. They recognize the importance and the value of documenting their productions and preserving them for theatre history with the original casts, and their generosity helps us to preserve so many other productions as well.
When the archive began, things were being recorded on film reels. Now, the display system has been digitized. What has that process been like, in terms of preserving 50 years of changing technology alongside the history?
In the TOFT exhibit, there is a section devoted to the evolution of our technology. We've had to do so many migrations of the collection through the years, but our biggest transition has been over the last 15 years, when we digitized everything. We finally completed that last year, so everything is preserved in a digital file, and can't degrade. It required special grants, because of how expensive it is to transfer such a large amount of material, but now nothing can be destroyed. I used to lose sleep at night thinking about a fire!
The digitization process has also made a huge amount of material available online, depending on the contractual agreement, correct?
Yes! Since the beginning, TOFT has taped interviews with notable theatrical figures, and there are some extraordinary interviews that you can watch right now on your laptop or device. You may not be able to stream a show, but you can stream an interview!
Who is the archive for?
Everyone! Anyone can come to the library, to see the exhibition or to use the archive. If you're a New Yorker, you can get a library card that lasts for three years, and if you don't live in New York, you can get a temporary library card. If you're in town for a week, you're welcome to come up and see a show with us, free of charge.
Think of how expensive New York City is—there's not that much that is free. You can go take a walk in Central Park for free, or you can come to the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive and see Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, and Kevin Kline in The Seagull. It's pretty mind boggling what we have here, and we want everyone to visit us to enjoy it.
See photos from the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive's retrospective exhibit below.