“Theatre history is a way of understanding of what’s going on in the world,” says Dr. Eric Colleary, the Cline Curator of Theatre and Performing Arts at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a snapshot. You can look at a play or a musical, and you can understand what’s going on in the country and world in that moment. You’re able to read a broader sense of social and political history.”
Dr. Colleary knows all about the importance of documenting history—or rather documenting the present, forecasting what will go on to become history. In his role at Harry Ransom Center (HRC), he manages the theatre-related archives, providing researchers with the opportunity to immerse themselves in a particular moment in time through a theatre history lens. That’s why industry members looked to him in March 2020 for answers in an uncertain time.
“I was getting a lot of artists and producers who were asking, ‘When has this ever happened before? How did we respond?’,” recalls Dr. Colleary. “Even in the [1918 Influenza] pandemic, New York theatre didn’t close like this; after 9/11, New York theatre didn’t close like this.”
These questions sent Dr. Colleary diving into various historical resources, including issues of Variety from 1918, to see how theatre survived tumultuous times of the past.
“It got me thinking about how we documented those past situations and what documents survive,” says Dr. Colleary. “It was actually vitally meaningful in the present, not just as a historical question but as concern for the current moment. Is there something we can learn from the past that can help us in the present?”
And thus, the Theatre 2020 Project was born: Dr. Colleary set out to document what theatre has been like during the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding theatre shutdown. The mission has involved lots of emails and lots of spreadsheets, but based on his learnings about how items from previous historical events were preserved, Dr. Colleary believes it was necessary.
“Looking at the current moment, everything is so digital. I knew we couldn’t depend on just physical items—we’d have to be proactive about documenting digital files,” says Dr. Colleary. “I think there’s this perception that digital is around forever and easily accessible, but that’s not at all the case.”
Initially sending out hundreds of invites across the industry, inclusion was a key priority for Dr. Colleary, looking at demographics like race and geographic location, as well as “a diversity in profession.” The Theatre 2020 Project's goal is to encompass all of the industry, acknowledging theatre workers from “backstage, front of house, admin, theatre criticism, charities, non-profits, and organizations that support theatre like Broadway Advocacy Coalition.” The sphere of contributors continues to expand and records chronicling this unprecedented era continue to roll in.
In order to properly preserve the submissions, Dr. Colleary has been collaborating closely with Brenna Edwards, HRC’s Manager of Digital Archives, whose work is crucial in avoiding digital obsolescence. “People say, ‘I’ve got all of this up on YouTube,’ but if something happens to YouTube—it gets sold or the account is closed—the link is gone. It’s important we have the original files.”
Think of it as digital time capsule—with each keepsake put inside needing protection from external elements that could cause deterioration. In the real world, would-be preservationists use airtight containers, in the digital world it’s file formats that won’t expire, like PDFs, Word documents, and video files. This requirement will allow the collection to remain treasured and accessible for generations to come.
“Access is really important to us,” says Dr. Colleary. “This isn’t just for academics. Artists, people in the community, anyone with an interest in this can come and use the collection.”
The entirety of the collection will be available through secure laptops that can only be accessed on site in Austin. Dr. Colleary enthusiastically invites researchers (which, by his definition, is “anyone with a sense of curiosity and a photo ID”), to come engage with the materials in-person. If a trek to Austin isn’t possible, fear not; specific submissions (with permission from the contributors) will live online in HRC’s digital collections portal that can be accessed globally.
In imagining the arrival of future researchers with their metaphorical shovels, what type of items should theatremakers submit for inclusion in the Theatre 2020 Project's time capsule? “I’m very insistent on not being prescriptive,” Dr. Colleary says. “Theatre people are natural-born storytellers, I don’t want to be telling them how to tell their story.”
Nothing is off limits—Dr. Colleary respects that the experiences of 2020 differ person to person and isn’t expecting to receive only stories with a “PR gloss.” Witnessing the struggles, observing the conversations, and now actively logging the events from the past year, Dr. Colleary is intent on honest representation and examination. From the evolution of streaming performances to the movement for industry-wide equity to the participation in social media trends, he encourages submissions—from both individuals and organizations—that reflect any and all of it.
Which begs the question: What is your story of theatre in 2020? If you didn't keep a detailed diary or scrolling through your camera roll seems daunting, Dr. Colleary’s idea-starters include drafts of creative projects, grant applications, canceled season announcements, emails, press releases, social media posts, and even safety procedure documents. Any item that demonstrates how you experienced theatre or the intense impact the shutdown had on the industry is fair game.
Those hundreds of emails Dr. Colleary sent has paid off with a robust return of insightful and compelling material, including submissions like Adam Gwon’s prototype recording of the virtual Tony Awards’ opening number that was scheduled for June 2020. From across the pond, Nina Dunn provided a look at The Dark Theatres Project, National Theatre offered a glimpse at their cleaning procedures, and Hijinx sent Zoom recordings of their workshops and virtual performances. “[What Hijinx’s submission] highlights is that theatre companies aren’t just producing bodies, but they’re community spaces where people come together,” says Dr. Colleary. “People needed to continue to find ways to connect during the pandemic. Being able to get on Zoom and play theatre games [allowed people] to find stability and consistency.”
When Nzinga Williams, Atlantic Theater Company’s company manager and founder of the New Black Mutual Aid Fund, submitted files, she inspired Dr. Colleary to add oral interviews as a component of the Theatre 2020 Project. “Nzinga’s work was so incredible but not easy to document,” says Dr. Colleary. “[For the New Black Mutual Aid Fund], there’s a Google spreadsheet, a form, and maybe some social media posts. You don’t want to archive people’s personal information, but it’s such an important project that reflects what’s going on in the moment, so an oral interview was vital.” (The first oral interview has been released in the HRC portal, which you can watch here.)
In curating these archives and conducting these interviews, Dr. Colleary discovered that in trying to answer, “What was theatre in 2020 like?”, the collection has uncovered new questions. “This moment brought up all of these conversations of, ‘What is performance?’” says Dr. Colleary. “Is it bodies in space? Is it audiences and performers sharing the same breath? Or are there ways that technology connects us in a similar way to our experiences in a theatre building?”
As the definition of performance continues to expand, the innovation seen in theatrical presentations over the last 14 months has solidified that larger discussions about accessibility need to be a part of the conversation. “People have said, ‘I have health issues so I can’t sit in a theatre for two hours with a small bathroom in the back that I have to go downstairs to get to, so the first time I’ve been able to see theatre from this place is through a virtual performance,’” shares Dr. Colleary. “Or assessing the offering of closed captions and visual-audio descriptions—technology is making theatre potentially more accessible if they continue to think about it as we go back into the buildings and ask ourselves, ‘What are these spaces meant for?’”
If, as Dr. Colleary said, theatre history is a snapshot, then the Theatre 2020 Project is widening the lens. The project began with look at how the past could help us in the present, but the view now includes how the present can help the future. “It’s been about understanding why and how theatre has changed when we come out of it,” says Dr. Colleary.
We are living history, and the Theatre 2020 Project is offering us the opportunity to determine what’s in the frame. Theatremakers and artists of all kinds are welcomed to contribute to Theatre 2020, with Dr. Colleary eagerly adding, “The more the merrier!” If you’d like to register for document submission or an oral interview, you can do so here.
Flip through the gallery below to see samples of Theatre 2020 contributions.