Erin Lee is Head of Archive at the National Theatre (NT) in London. During the COVID crisis the NT has expanded its use of the archives as a way of reaching audiences, changing the way the audiences see and interact with the archives. “One of the comments we got when we launched an archive recording rather than a high-quality NT Live recording was that somebody actually preferred this because it felt more like she was part of the audience and it didn’t feel like a shiny recording. That for me is something worth remembering.”
Erin Lee was trained as a librarian at Cambridge University. During a year of post-graduate study at Syracuse University in New York, she did a Master’s in Library and Information Science. “In the States there is no separate degree for library and archiving like in the UK. I didn’t really consider archives as a profession until I got a job in the Syracuse University archives. I think the reason I got it was because Syracuse holds the archive of the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing, which happened on Scottish soil. They don’t have many people with a Scottish heritage, so they were glad to find someone who knew something about the background of the event. I worked there for a year and absolutely loved it! For me archiving felt so much broader than what librarianship was offering me. You can get anything in an archive, where libraries are limited to books and e-books.” Back in the UK, Lee applied for the archive assistant position at the National Theatre. She worked her way up in the department and took over the Head of Archive position in 2014.
Having no background in performing arts the experience of being an archivist at a theatre took some getting used to: “Performing arts are so much more ephemeral. There is an opinion among some practitioners that theatre shouldn’t be kept and that you shouldn’t try to document the performing arts, because that goes against the grain of what it is for. There was an interview with our former artistic director Peter Hall who said that he preferred his work to disappear like soap bubbles. So, you kind of think: what am I doing here every day if I am trying to document Peter Hall’s work and he didn’t want it kept?”
The National Theatre has an extensive digital offering consisting of NT Live, a series of high-quality recordings of productions broadcast to cinemas worldwide, NT Collection, a selection of 30 titles that are available to schools and universities, and NT at Home, a subscription service for home viewers. “NT at Home started in April 2020 as a free streaming service on YouTube and gained 15 million views in 16 weeks, crazy numbers, which was incredible at a time when theatres and cinemas were closed across the world. Our audiences were very generous and supportive, with many donating either to the NT or their local theatres in lieu of paying for the content.
These figures showed there was an appetite for this content and crystalised our thinking around launching NT at Home as a subscription service. Launching the platform involved a lot of work in terms of securing the rights from the artists who created the work. However, everyone has been incredibly supportive. I would say that the situation the theatre industry continues to find itself in due to COVID has really helped speed the process up and has woken people up to the fact that there is an audience for our content across the world and that our content should be up on these platforms.”
COVID has affected work in the archive in more ways than one: “Most theatre archivists that I know were furloughed the whole time. We managed to keep one person working full time, so we could fulfil all of the internal requests. This meant we are now part of lots of teams and are working on current projects like NT at Home and NT Collection much more actively than we would have ever managed before.
The other thing is that we get to do active archiving. It is not something archivists get to do very often, live through history happening and actually have responsibility for how that history is documented. We have started an oral history project with the executives and senior staff about this period, so that at least we have some personal reflections on these strange times. I have now done two interviews with our executive director and our artistic director who I had hardly ever spoken to before, so this is an amazing opportunity that I am getting to spend hours and hours talking to them about what has happened. The recordings that will come out of these interviews are fantastic. They will be closed for a long time, because the interviewees are being very open, but they will be hugely useful for researchers in the future to actually understand why things happened.”
The off time during lockdown also had another side effect: “People who are still working but have some downtime want to be busy, so they used this time to do some archiving. We really capitalised on that in the archive.”
Like most modern-day archives, the National Theatre Archive receives more and more born digital material: “The Lyttelton theatre, one of the venues of the NT, has been temporarily changed into a film studio while it remains difficult to stage live performances. It has a huge stage and is the theatre that would be the least practical to open for socially distanced performances. We turned the Romeo and Juliet play into a hybrid production combining elements of theatres and film that nobody involved had ever worked on before. The stage manager of the show emailed me to ask what records we wanted for the NT Archive. That is such a difficult question! I am not in the room, I have no idea what you are doing!
Those conversations are really important, just trying to learn about their process and on the hoof considering what things we normally capture, what things are the most similar and then figuring out how to get them into the archive. There are a lot of new ways of working and new projects that we have to make sure we are on top of.”
“We have an Immersive Storytelling Studio for VR, AR and 360 filming. One of the issues with this is that we need the software as well as the hardware to archive this, which is something that we are not used to. Although our digital preservation system will take care of pretty much any file format – at least, it will store any file format –we are figuring out if it will render these new file formats. The Studio will now create a manifest for each project that describes: this is the hardware that goes with these files, that thing goes with these things over here. These types of projects are really interesting for us, because we get to explore this area with other organisations who are doing VR and AR archiving. For instance, the Tate is collecting a lot of VR artworks. They have funding for a project to explore how you archive VR and AR art. We are hoping that the findings of this study will be really helpful moving forward for us too.”
“When I interviewed to get the Head of Archive job one of the questions was: what will you do about records management? I am sure that there were people that were interviewed that answered: ‘Six-month project, I will write the retention schedules up and everybody will send us the right stuff and that is it.’ Because that is what happens at banks and in companies where you can do that. I just said: “Six years, maybe?”
A lot of practitioners don’t have a filing system. And I can’t expect from them that they have a filing system, I cannot change how they work. You have to be very open minded about their processes and that archiving is not going to be their priority. Most of the time it is about getting people to understand how we use the records in an archive, and who are the researchers that use them. For instance, for the costume department it is actually costume students that are coming in and learning from the archives how to make a ‘costume bible’. Once people in the costume department got that, they thought: Ow! These are the people we are employing in a years’ time!
What would Lee advise a performing arts institution that is just starting out with their (digital) archives? “I would really look at rights. I have known of projects, even big, funded projects that went ahead and at the end couldn’t publish anything, because they did not own the rights to the material. This is a big problem in performing arts. Even in the programme the photographs that are in there won’t belong to you, the adverts won’t belong to you. If you would want to publish that, you would have to blank out all of that or clear all the rights. People don’t really think in advance about how time consuming and how expensive that is. Also, I would advise to think about what your organisation would want to use. I think that a big reason why the NT Archive is supported internally is that we provide content to almost every department. Understanding what their needs are and then having that on demand is very well received. I think that if you are a theatre archive, you will have to serve your internal stakeholders first if you want to have budget.”
For Lee it is not just about getting the right things for the right department at the right time: “I think it is genuinely important that people value you as a colleague and like working with you, because a lot of the things I do is asking people to do stuff, to send things to me, to put stuff in folders, etc. If you are not a nice person to work with, they just won’t do it. Like with the oral history project it is so important that the senior management feels comfortable talking to me, because they are telling me things that I probably shouldn’t know. They will have to trust that I keep that confidential and that I will be the company historian.”