Hyperlinks as the Pulse of the Past:Using and Teaching a Digital Theatre Archive
Introduction: Teaching Students to Wake the Dead
I often speak to students about awakening the dead spectres of theatre history. This idea derives from, but also engenders my own passion for research in theatre archives. Should we call ghosts to life? What good can come of theatre students learning to awaken the dead? And can the digital natives of today materialize phantoms in new ways? This essay aims to answer these questions by examining changing research practices in light of the challenges presented by digital archives of theatre and performance material. In the digital age, it may be that archival-based courses drawing on digital tools provide an exemplary space to allow students to engage with theatre history. Yet, the simplicity of hyperlinks, their ability to provide direct and rapid access to information, conceals the intricate work required to forge these connections. The industry needed to make meaningful such engagements with history can be, similarly, underestimated. Here, I pose questions and propose solutions on how students can be equipped with the skills needed to address the fast-changing contours of theatre historiography.
Waking the Dead is a BBC crime drama that aired between 2000 and 2011. It featured a team of police officers, a psychological profiler, and a forensic scientist, all led by Chief Inspector Peter Boyd. The rapport between the scientist and the investigator is key to the dramatic tension in the series, drawing as it does on the scientist’s dogged commitment to documented fact and the investigators’ need to speculate and fantasize. In my first class, I show students a scene from Series 3 of Waking the Dead. In this episode, there is tension because the forensic scientist is called to give evidence in court. She asserts that she cannot give an opinion, but only state facts. There is the following exchange between the scientist, Frankie, and Boyd:
Chief Inspector Boyd:
That’s where you’re limited, you see. Not you personally, but forensics. Detection, analysis and THEN solutions.Frankie:
So, you think forensics is just a tool. Do you want to talk about that?
Boyd goes on to argue that while forensics can be “conclusive,” such tools have limited usefulness, particularly when they are on their own. He says: “Lack of evidence or forensic should not prevent intellectual speculation. You start with IDEAS and then you use forensics as a tool to validate those ideas. Ideas, ideas, ideas” (ibid.).
There is laughter, but the analogy resonates with students: the archivist’s responsibility is to each and every piece of material; the researcher needs only the material relevant to the story she wants to tell. The relationship between these forms of work can, and perhaps should, be fraught and challenging; it is in such opposition that creativity and scholarship ignite. This forensic metaphor is a deliberately chosen introduction to my topic. It is an accessible lesson for students on the relationship [End Page E-1] between archival documentation (or quantifiable facts) and the researcher’s process. But in my use of dead bodies and cold cases to illustrate a point, I am drawing on a persistent metaphor of theatre as a living/dying organism that has wider implications for this field of research.
Evidence and ideas sit in relation to each other, but the relationship is not unidirectional. As stated in “Researching Theatre History and Historiography”: “The study of theatre history and historiography is something of an adventure, not so much a survey of what was, as an investigation of what might have been” (Davis et al. 97). Jim Davis and colleagues argue that theatre history comes alive only when “careful scholarship and detailed research merge with imaginative speculation to ignite a creative yet informed response to live data” (97). As Sarah Bay-Cheng and Amy Strahler-Holzapfel elucidate in “The Living Theater: A Brief History of the Bodily Metaphor,” theorizing theatre as a life form “may legitimate and reify canonical approaches to the subject” (10). In tracing the history of this metaphor, they show how the bodily metaphor has been used as both an ideal and a methodology in performance studies. These scholars point out that even in Diana Taylor’s landmark The Archive and the Repertoire, “performance (the repertoire) becomes analogous to an immortality created in and through performing bodies that stands counter to the mortal body of the theatre (the archive)” (14). Bay-Cheng and Strahler-Holzapfel come to discuss the new metaphor of data: fragile and unstable, yet offering direct access to and permanent records of the past. While bodies develop in relationship to their environments, the notion of data networks, they suggest, reveals “more conspicuous constructions, deliberate and explicit divisions” (24). These constructions and divisions both complicate and complement our understanding of theatre history.
In teaching graduate students during the last few years, I have noted that the language used to discuss archival research shifts during the course of the module I have developed. We begin with bodily notions: ghosts, fragments, and shadows of performances now vanished. These are often the terms of the students’ undergraduate theatre experiences, and such terminology allows discussion of writings such as those by Joseph Roach, who argues that juxtaposing living memory as restored behavior against a historical archive of records remains an important strategy of performance research today (Davis et al. 101). Roach, along with other performance studies scholars, sets the archive—the written and material text housed in an archive—against the repertoire, which is embodied traditions of performance. For Roach, these materials demand fundamentally different methodologies. However, Taylor, the preeminent scholar in separating the discursive from the performative, describes the relationship between the archive and the repertoire as “not by definition antagonistic or oppositional” (36); the two forms of knowledge, she states, “usually work in tandem” (21).
For Taylor, the focus on repertoire is a political act of resistance. The archive sustains power in its current form while the repertoire enacts social agency and thus is not amenable to being housed in an archive. Both Taylor and Roach champion the bodily and oral traditions as legitimate points of focus for future study (Davis et al. 92). At the same time, other commentators, most notably Peggy Phelan, resist the idea that performance can be archived or is reproducible in any form, because “[p]erformance’s only life is in the present” (146). She argues that “[p]erformance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance” (ibid.). In this line of thinking, the archiving of the repertoire makes it a part of the archive. Even where they may work in tandem they become two distinct forms of archive, where one is “authentic” or more “real” than the other. By setting out to find a more inclusive mode of study, Taylor and Roach arguably reiterate what Rebecca Schneider in Performing Remains calls the “tired mutual exclusivity between the ‘error-ridden theatrical’ and a pure form of the ‘real’” (18). Schneider’s work focuses on the possibilities offered by historical reenactment, and the temporal drag that comes when “in the syncopated time of reenactment … then and now punctuate each other” (2). She insists that theatricality is not a matter of the loss of some prior, purer actual. Instead, theatricality and mimesis are allied—neither threatens authenticity; rather, both are “vehicles for access to the transitive, performative and cross-temporal real” (30). Schneider, then, draws attention to the manner in which our present circumstances and [End Page E-2] current thinking shape our visions of the ghosts of the past in a vital way. If “then and now punctuate each other,” the critical and creative energy is flowing both ways (2). The connections to the past, one could say, are not unidirectional, but are creating a dynamic network between then and now, now and then. A particular form of connection, or bi-directional hyperlink, is required.
These fundamental questions about access to the authentic and the real are now further problematized by the presence of archives in digital form. Traditional archives store and present material in a strictly analogic fashion, while digital archives are more anarchic. In her essay “Save As …” Taylor questions “whether digital technologies merely extend what we do in embodied and print/material cultures (the repertoire and the archive) into cyberspace, or whether they constitute their very own system of transmission” (6). Taylor chooses to view the digital as a kind of “anti-archive” facilitating a shift from the confined, the institutionalized “to a new appreciation of embodiment and a guarantee of the authentic and enduring” (15). There is no doubt that “[d]igital tools can democratize the process of documentation, reception, and future appropriation, thereby exposing in much more detail the role of both historians and audiences” (Bay-Cheng 2012a, 7). But networks must be navigated, and the tools and methodologies to navigate and maximize our understanding of these networks continue to develop alongside our theoretical scholarship.
In contrast to Taylor’s “anti-archive,” Tara McPherson views the digital as an indication of a “post-archival moment,” and argues that this is a space of infinite dialectical possibilities. To be post-archival, for McPherson, is to reanimate the archive for new ends. In the post-archival era, she argues that digital media, social media, and experimental design should “inject the human” into the archive (n.p.). In this statement McPherson suggests that the “network” cannot eradicate either the bodily metaphor or the human factor; instead, it foregrounds the positioning of the researcher within the system as vital to consider.
The databases produced for digital theatre archives allow easily navigable access to all material. They generally also facilitate the production of metadata and the generation of surveys and statistics that were next to impossible to source without algorithms and digital features. Most crucially, this transformation in the format of archives has meant that “the traditional paths and processes of scholarship inevitably shift from discovery to creation—the re-performance of documentation” (Bay-Cheng 2012b, 32). This new mode of scholarship involves a more nuanced consideration of how archives document theatre history, and also involves investigating how archives themselves function as “performative fragments” (31).
In exploring this metaphor of theatre history research as reanimating ghosts that can be reanimated, it thus becomes apparent that the metaphor is not made redundant by the introduction of the digital database and a network of connections, but is fundamentally problematized. A straightforward “point-and-click” action can prove fatal or invigorating. The digital archive, and the paths and processes needed to navigate it, foregrounds the role of the researcher as an active participant in the archiving, telling, performing, and reperforming of theatre history.
Irish Archive Fever
In 1995 Jacques Derrida published a paper he had first given in English the year before titled “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.” The fever he exposes is the psychoanalytical drive to find, locate, or possess the origin—the beginning of things. The search for the ephemeral, the desire to hold it or its sediments in our hands, has always had particular resonances for theatre historians. Twenty years after Derrida warned of this dangerous desire, the Irish theatre community is gripped by “archive fever.” Scholars and practitioners are coming to terms with the wealth of textual and other remains of Irish performance history now being made available by digital and other means, and the possibilities these afford for creative practice and academic research. Theatre students, however, are likely to be overwhelmed by the material. [End Page E-3]
The National Library of Ireland, where many Irish students first explore archives, was established in 1877 and shares ground with the Irish government buildings of Leinster House in the center of Dublin. There, under domed ceilings and behind mahogany desks, scholars rest manuscripts on cushions and use white gloves to sift through papers. Much of the material relating to Irish theatre is still stored on microfiche. In a dark room off the main reading room, microfiche projectors glow and whirr as scholars scroll through the documents and squint with awkwardly rotated necks at the blurry words and images onscreen. This was the archival research I was familiar with before I discovered the home comforts and point-and-click system of digital systems.
The largest theatre digitization project ever undertaken commenced in early September 2012 in the James Hardiman Library on the NUI Galway campus, on the west coast of Ireland. As a partnership between NUI Galway and the Abbey Theatre set up to last 133 years (1904–2037), the project set out to digitize and preserve records of Irish theatre, history, culture, and society.1 When the project got underway I was close to completing a doctorate that drew extensively on another theatre collection held in the Hardiman Library. The Shields Family Papers held more than enough material for my thesis on Irish actresses from the 1930s, but the lure of the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive was huge—containing over 1.8 million items, including: programs for over 4,300 productions; over 28,000 press cuttings; video recordings of 430 productions; more than 6,000 scripts; 600 production posters; 1,000 production handbills; over 16,000 photographs; 600 music scores; over 2,600 hours of audio files from the productions; 6,000 pages of minute books; and an extensive collection of costume and set designs. The current archival material will be fully digitized by the end of 2016; the minute books from 1904 to 1939 are now available.2
Debra Caplan asserts that digital humanities methodologies are suited to theatre research for the factors that distinguish the subject matter from other fields: “the ephemerality of the performance event, the significance of its live presentation, the multisensory output produced, the need for an audience” (348). Furthermore, Nic Leonhardt’s keynote overview in June 2014 of digital humanities projects in theatre and performance studies across the globe shows the plethora of digital tools in the domain. But while many of these projects focus on particular areas—for instance, theatre architecture (Theatrefinder USA), projects on playbills (the Viennese Theaterzettel), and the digitization of archives (numerous New York Public Library projects)—the Abbey’s archive is unique in both its scale and how it combines elements of national history (such as Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising), performance studies (with videos of certain performances), and artifacts from literary history. Since its foundation in 1904 by W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, the Abbey has played a key role in the formation of the nation by challenging, questioning, and celebrating “Irish-ness” and Ireland. The digital archive celebrates the central role of the national theatre in the development of the state, and allows scholars to investigate and interrogate what that role has meant over the decades.
Journeys in the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive
In September 2013 I began teaching a module on the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive to graduate students from the Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance. With the archive digitization far from complete, the aim was to engender interest in the students and to introduce them to the material that was already available. They required the basic skills to enter the archive, structure their research in a productive and meaningful way, and use this material to further their own scholarly pursuits and creative practice. The archive of the Abbey—the National Theatre of Ireland—had to be approached with a healthy respect, but not, I argued, with reverence. The volume and potential of the material available for interrogation was a given, but this gave rise to a number of questions:
• How can a path be set through material so vast?
• How can the students be usefully guided through a twelve-week module when the nature of the work is so personal and the outcomes impossible to predict? [End Page E-4]
• How can the independent spirit of inquiry and curiosity needed for archival research be engendered in each student?
• How can this project provide the students with the skills and resources that are useful beyond the confines of learning the history of the Abbey Theatre?
I encourage students to expand their research and use other archival sources in the Hardiman Library and elsewhere, to ensure that they experience the sensation of the wafer-thin paper of a century-old scrapbook in their hands or the physical sense of shifting projector wheels to decipher information on a theatre program. We discuss the merits of this work: the patience imposed by the physical labor and the tactile connection with history; we also discuss its limitations and the possibilities offered by digital scanning and storage.
Students then must learn how to articulate what they have found, and to negotiate the ways that the materials might perform for a new and wider audience. Archival materials are given meaning through examination and definition—the pattern that the researcher builds around the evidence and the story told with it. I stress to students that potential meanings remain in flux during the research period, and a researcher must be open to where the materials may unexpectedly lead. They come to realize that in their private notes and thoughts, the materials so neatly regulated onscreen is re-cataloged, disconnected from something and reconnected to something else. There is a process of composition in the ways in which materials are sourced, collated, assessed, analyzed, and re-archived. It is in this process of composition that meaning is constructed and performed. The element of creative input in research is often something of a surprise to students who take this module; for meticulous historians it can be daunting. For those quick to embrace creative possibilities I stress the importance of rigorous research. The aim is to balance the respective propensities by the end of the term.
In developing this module, the first line of approach might have been to consider and list the rules and advice that I wish, as a naïve researcher, I had been taught before I delved into the archives. But to do so was to dismiss the importance of how I had learned along the way, the skills I had developed from mistakes and failures and occasionally serendipity. Rather, I needed to take a heuristic approach and aid the students in orientating themselves within the archive. I wanted to empower them, to provide a map by which they could navigate this network of information. The ultimate goal was to facilitate, but not to regulate, an encounter with the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive that was enticing and productive without becoming overwhelming or futile in its meandering.
The Abbey Theatre Digital Archive module focuses on students working with primary sources to assemble, describe, and recreate, but also to analyze performance histories. It does so in the understanding that, as Shannon Jackson pointed out, “A focus on the detail, the local, the particular has gendered history” (2897). She observes that throughout history, femininity has been associated with what was generally viewed as inconsequential detail—inconsequential either for being regarded as merely ornamental (Jackson uses the term decadence) or as mundane “prosiness.” The inordinate level of detail, now widely accessible through the digital database of the Abbey’s archive, contains a threatening power; such detail can work to destabilize a background that was seemingly solid and immutable so that the periphery can become central. Jackson elucidates the power of the detail: “its tendency to subvert an internal hierarchic ordering of the work of art which clearly subordinates the periphery to the centre, the accessory to the principal, the foreground to the background” (3157).
The discovery of hitherto little-known work has been one of the key draws of the module and the Abbey’s archive, particularly in relation to the work of female playwrights being recovered. In class we work with plays like Fox and Geese by Suzanne Cummins and Geraldine Day. Cross-referencing information from submissions books and the minutes of meetings of boards of directors, as well as correspondence, rehearsal, and production records, allows students to obtain a broad overview of the factors at play in staging work by female playwrights early in the twentieth century. [End Page E-5]
For instance, Fox and Geese was first produced at the Abbey in February 1917, and revived in December 1917. The play toured with the Abbey to Cork in February 1918, and was also selected for the 1918 “Abbey Season” in London. Records in the submissions book (now online) indicate that it was rejected in August 1913 and again in December 1915 (when it was submitted under a pseudonym) and was finally accepted in January 1916. After the 1917 production, there are no recorded productions of this comic caper about a bachelor trying to avoid marriage. Once the details have been sourced, the students stage a rehearsed reading in class of the key moments in the play, before discussing the authors and the playscript, both within and outside of this context. These classroom readings can develop into larger performance projects, which I will discuss below.
Encountering the Archives
In introducing my twelve-week module to the students, I explain that they will encounter the archive in three ways. First, they encounter it through theoretical concepts developed by historians, philosophers, and theatre scholars. Second, students encounter the archive through practical tasks and exercises. The module always involves a dedicated class with a full-time archivist from the Special Collections in the Hardiman Library. Finally, students’ most meaningful encounter with the archive will be a solitary one. In this, they must be sensitive to how the archive encounters them—their background and ideology. Although discussed here separately, these three modes of encounter are never discrete or consecutive; rather, they happen simultaneously with varying degrees of toil and discovery for each student.
The module conceptualizes the archive as material object and theoretical concept. It is vital to provide a conceptual framework to the practical work. This consideration of theory is not exhaustive, but allows students to discuss and debate key ideas in the study of theatre archives, such as those put forward by Taylor, Roach, Phelan, and Schneider, as well as Derrida’s foundational concept of archontic power and Carolyn Steedman’s writings on the enchantment of the archive. This theory is not used at the beginning of the process or confined to one area of the course, but instead I provide a reading list and allocate time across the term to discuss particular ideas or theoreticians. If a particular issue comes up naturally during class discussions, I address it and alter the schedule accordingly.
Practical Work: Hunting for Treasure
In order to allow the students to start using the interface immediately, the first exercise that the students are assigned is a “pop quiz” based on the holdings of the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive. We begin the quiz all together in the Special Collections room, but students must make time between classes to revisit the archive on their own and complete it. I call the quiz a “treasure hunt” because it is designed to give them a broad overview of the wealth of material included. There are no “correct” answers, although I do have my own selection of “solutions”; instead, much of the delight for the group (and for me) are the solutions found individually. There is treasure everywhere, the nature of it to be revealed by the researcher.
It may not be evident to the students as they set to work, but the questions are designed to allow them to trace their own research interests. To illustrate, here is an example of a question, followed by the possible solutions: Waterford playwright Elizabeth Connor often visited the theatre to see her work performed between 1940 and 1947. With little time between the arrival of her train and curtain up, she obtained meals close to or inside the Abbey to sustain her. What might she have eaten? [End Page E-6]
The details in the question (playwright’s name; period of connection) are specific, but there are a number of possible ways to answer it. Those with an interest in social context might realize that the theatre programs contained a number of advertisements for restaurants and shops close to the theatre. The business records from this time also contain details about the sales in the theatre’s foyer of chocolate, tea, and so on. For those who may think first of the rehearsal process and the relationship between the director and writer, correspondence files contain letters of invitation from Lennox Robinson or other directors to dine in particular restaurants. And for those who may have a biographical interest in the writer, there are links to archives of her personal papers in the National Library of Ireland. Again, her letters to actors and directors detail her personal and social lives. As students share their solutions in class, we discuss the various approaches and how they might serve their research focus with different sources of information.
There are also broader questions to introduce themes, rather than details. For instance: Are there any productions with a female director and playwright? And also this question, connecting the theatre with political events: The Dublin Lockout of 1913 and the Easter Rising of 1916 were significant events in Irish history. Both happened within walking distance of the theatre. Are these events referred to/depicted in any of the plays? Students must focus their search (for example, the time period) to find such information, and tracing the nature of theatrical output over the decades often reveals notions about political, gender issues, or the nature of the political or experimental work they wish to investigate further.
It is vital to ensure that students are comfortable with using all areas of the database. I include questions on stage/set designs so that they view the nature of material and spend time learning to decipher the information contained in the floor plans. For example: There are nine designs dating from productions during the 1970s. How many had musical instruments/areas on the stage?
Alongside conceptual concerns, students must learn practical skills like navigating the interface and recording material accurately and quickly. Away from the database, we practice using other forms of processing information, such as mind maps, where there is no logical, linear direction to the research. Often, this is the most arduous though rewarding section of the course for students. Tackling research from the perspective of such “networks” shifts the mindset, often revealing innovative and creative methods of working that invigorate students’ academic work in other areas. To demonstrate such a network, we initially collectively construct an imaginary theatre archive. The students choose a broad theme (for example, production, playwright, or decade) and we brainstorm about possible sources of information. There are no limits in this exercise and we construct a huge mind-map on any available space.
Later, when students encounter obstacles in their research, they bring their issues to the group. Again, we construct a mind-map of the research they have done, the evidence they collected, and the facts established. The process of archival research always involves disappointment; actual findings rarely meet prior assumptions, and it is vital to learn to integrate perceived losses and gains. Graphic presentation allows the class to clearly demarcate unexpected connections and gaps in the research. I lead the group in a discussion about how the researcher should deal with the gaps: Are there alternate ways to find this information? What does this gap say about the power structures around archives? Is the absence meaningful to the story or simply an administration error? This class involves a discussion on modes of dealing with gaps in the archival evidence. Students come to learn to establish what their decisions reflect about their own ideology and ambitions for their work, and to recognize that there are always consequences to such decisions. [End Page E-7]
Private Work: Inhaling the Dust
In her 2001 essay “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust,” Steedman insists that “[n]o one historian’s archive is ever like another’s; each account of his or her experience within them will always produce counterexamples” (1159). The students’ most meaningful encounter with the archive will be a solitary one. In setting practical exercises I ensure that they schedule regular visits to the Special Collections room and observe the proper etiquette. My introduction sets out that the module demands personal motivation, self-discipline, and patience.
Their final assignment for the term is to produce a formal research paper or a performance project using archival material. During the course of the term, each student chooses a play or production on our Abbey history timeline and presents it to the class. Everyone reads each play; the student whose project it is leads the discussion by posing pertinent questions about its premiere, history, and relevance today. Along with the formal assignment, students maintain and submit a research journal at the end of the term. My aim here is to show them the value of recording and considering their process and decisions and reflecting on the ethics of their work, as well as the obstacles they encounter—whether they overcome them, take a circuitous route, or gain insight by commenting on the absence.
To supplement all this, in 2015 the students were offered an opportunity to be involved in a unique performance project. In “Theatre is Media,” Bay-Cheng argues in her proposed principles for a digital historiography of performance that “the distinction between the performance and its digital record is negligible; or, rather, they are both mutually dependent and constitutive parts of a larger network” (36). To explore such a network I worked with the Druid Director-in-Residence at NUI Galway on a rehearsed reading of work by women playwrights from the Abbey during the early decades of the twentieth century. The reading formed a plenary session at Performing the Archive, an international conference of approximately 150 scholars and artists held at NUI Galway. Rather than present a reading for delegates to listen to passively, we strove to simulate an encounter with the archive as it might be experienced by researchers.
The readings prepared were drawn from the plays of female playwrights Cummins and Day, Mary Rynne (Pilgrims ), and Elizabeth Connor (Mount Prospect ). On entering the lecture theatre, attendees were presented with copies of the programs from the initial performance. Such documentation provided the standard contextual information for an exhibition or history lesson and allowed us to omit this from the presentation. At a later repeated performance, classical music pieces played by the Abbey orchestra at the premieres of these plays were performed live as the audience entered the space. But rather than revisit this historical context, we focused on setting into play the sediments of the performance history still in the archive.
The digital archive allowed us to extract details, such as lines cut by directors from the manuscripts, by analyzing the playscripts and amendments, along with the telegrams and reviews following the productions and pictures of the sets. All of this data were provided to the audience in the same session in order to recreate the simultaneity and alterity of visiting a theatre archive. As student and graduate actors read the scripts, projected images of the sets and theatres of the time continued to move behind them. Scenes from the plays were continually intercut with dramatized readings of personal correspondence, disputes with the directors, and information about the personal lives of the performers at this time. There was thus a range of access points to the material for the audience to choose from: program details, visual images, textual remains, the play-reading itself, and biographical data of performers and artistic staff. We wanted to “touch across time,” but also to retain the sense of distance between now and then and the concept of the digital interface that the [End Page E-8] archive allows (Schneider 112). We undertook all of this on the understanding that, as Schneider asserts, it is “the errors, the cracks in the effort, the almost but not quite, that give us some access to sincerity, to fidelity” (ibid.).
The Abbey Theatre Digital Archive and our development of accompanying teaching methods were a key element of the Performing the Archive conference, and the plenary and smaller sessions facilitated invigorating conversations and the sharing of resources in this regard. During 21–23 July 2015 the conference’s hashtag—#PerfArchives2015—was the most popular trend on Twitter in Ireland. Many tweets referenced the innovative plenary session in which the readings were staged. Thus tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram photos occurring simultaneously with the session fed into a network of information on the playwrights, their writing, and its relevance today. The story of the readings as told through social media is now collated on Storify, contributing a further point of access to this material. This unique event, re-performing the archival material in and through media, allowed us to create a further nexus of information points in the network of data recording these neglected performance histories.
Were these performed readings about reanimating ghosts? Or perhaps attempts to exorcise such Abbey ghosts? I would argue that they were neither: rather, we staged encounters with the sediments of the historical events as performative fragments for today. We set these texts and their performance histories in play across a range of media, asking that researchers of the future continue to interrogate and re-archive this material in meaningful ways. In our “touch across time” we reached both back and forward, offering our archival research as a token of creativity and hope for the future of Irish theatre history research.
If students begin the discussions in the classroom of the Abbey Theatre Digital Archive with ghosts and digital replicas of texts, they come to think in terms of hyperlinks and clouds of media. The distance between researcher and material remains, but the channels of connection are both more seamless and more transparent than ever before. There is no longer a trajectory between then and now, but a network of points of connection spreading through the past, present, and future. Our access points to the material are myriad. There is ostensibly no chance, or no risk, of telling “exactly what happened.” Students come to appreciate that there is no triumph in wrangling with the ghosts of a vanished performance to elicit some illusory truth. The performance and its archive (and the archive and its performance) are new events, saturated in and with media, which can be reconstituted and reexperienced endlessly.
Ciara Conway is currently a research assistant at NUI Galway, where she is working on an oral archive history of Druid Theatre Company. She gained a first-class-honors MA in writing before becoming a College of Arts doctoral scholar, completing her doctoral thesis on “The On- and Off-Stage Roles of Abbey Theatre Actresses in the 1930s.” She has been a theatre assessor for the Irish Arts Council since 2012, and in fall 2016 is a Beinecke Research Fellow at Yale University.
1. Full details of the partnership and the collection are available at <http://library.nuigalway.ie/archives/depositedcollections/featuredcollections/abbeytheatredigitalarchive/>.
2. See the Abbey Theatre Minute Book Collection at <http://www.nuigalway.ie/abbeytheatreminutebooks/collection/>. [End Page E-9]