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  • Hyperlinks as the Pulse of the Past:Using and Teaching a Digital Theatre Archive
  • Ciara Conway (bio)

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.


So, you think forensics is just a tool. Do you want to talk about that?

(“Walking on Water,” part 1)

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...


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