Inside the Roundabout Archives - An Interview with Archivist Tiffany Nixon
Roundabout Theatre Company recently announced the theatre organization's permanent archives, which document the company's illustrious 46-year production history. The archives are a resource for the theatre community, Roundabout's audiences, students and researchers. The digital archives showcase selections from Roundabout's general collection, featuring items that chronicle and celebrate the company's impact on the American theatre movement. Below, BroadwayWorld chats with archiver Tiffany Nixon about the project!
BWW: When did you start working at Roundabout?
TN: I started working for Roundabout in December of 2008. They had just received funding to start the archives; I came on after they had gone through an initial assessment.
BWW: And where were you before that?
TN: I worked on the Doris Duke Project for the New York Public Library, Library for the Performing Arts.
BWW: When you started it was working on the physical archives, right? Tell us about how that initial process took place…
TN: Roundabout had secured a space in their basement - which had historically been used for tech costumes and hand props – as the only space large enough to house the archives. Roundabout cleared out the room and installed shelving. I had to hire -I kid you not - a hazmat team who came in and performed major cleaning. It was a major undertaking.
BWW: Stop the presses -- did you get to wear one of the suits?
TN: I didn't, but the team that came in did -they couldn't do a regular cleaning because they had to tackle the particulate in the air with a wet cleaning.
It took months to paint and get it ready to house the archives. During that time I set up a processing table and started to interview the people that work for Roundabout, including theatre staff and crews, to figure out what documentation actually survived.
I found documents in offsite prop storage and in the theaters, Gene Feist, the founder of Roundabout, gave some of his documents but the bulk of his materials were donated previously to the New York Public Library (there is a substantial collection of early Roundabout documents in that collection). Little by little, the archives started to build and it has really come a long way.
BWW: Has it been a challenge to get people to help? What has the 'buy-in' been like?
TN: Theater companies generally do not keep extensive documentation of their productions – this happens off-Broadway and on Broadway - due to lack of space and staffing. Theater companies, by necessity, are more concerned with programming five years in the future and aren't as concerned with surviving documentation; whereas archives are concerned with the present, five years back, ten years back, etc. and work to make sure that a company's body of work is documented and celebrated.
In the case of Roundabout, much of the early documentation didn't survive due to many physical moves throughout the last 40+ years. We do have a sizable amount of documents from the early years (playbills, photographs, scripts, etc.) but the bulk of the collection covers the 1990s/ Broadway years to the present.
BWW: What's the oldest document that you have in the archives?
TN: Early incorporation documents from 1965; pamphlets and advertisements from the mid 1960s; and photographs of productions in the 1960s and 1970s.
BWW: And if somebody's doing research and they want to come in to see the physical archives, is that something that's possible or no?
TN: It's by appointment only but researchers can absolutely access the collection – especially if the production/subject is not found within the online archives.
BWW: Now moving on to the digital archives, was the idea there at the beginning, back in 2009 or did that come later?
TN: Definitely. Roundabout wanted a digital archive and it was one of the early goals for the archives project. Roundabout planned to re-launch its website so we decided it was crucial to include the archives on the new site. That said, the archives are relatively new which means that the online archives are still very much a work in progress. Many of the records are skeleton records that will eventually be fleshed out with extensive cataloguing. It will only get better with time.
BWW: How actually was the site developed, was it an in-house team or was it one of the outside agencies?
TN: The Roundabout website was designed and built in collaboration with an outside vendor. The archives microsite was designed and built by Collective Access which is an open source software cataloging tool used extensively by special collection archives.
BWW: How much of the physical archives have now been digitized?
TN: It's actually a small portion; the browse areas on the site are curated to mainly pull selections, or highlights, from the archives - such as photographs, costumes, productions, etc. In time, more of our collection will be scanned and made available but the bulk of the collection will remain unscanned but will be available for viewing and research at the physical archive.
BWW: And are you adding to it on a daily basis, a weekly basis?
TN: On a weekly basis the system is updated but we add to the catalog daily.
BWW: How are you handling all the new content that Roundabout generates for all the current and upcoming productions?
TN: That's a good question. Many of the documents created are born digital and, like most companies, Roundabout is still devising best practices for capturing and archiving those documents. A large percentage of the documentation comes to the archives in paper form, however, and will remain in paper form.
In terms of paper documentation, once a show closes the production bibles, costumes, marketing materials, etc. show up at the archives for permanent housing. I work with the general managers of the theatres to orchestrate the movement of materials to ensure that proper retention takes place.
BWW: And will you be cataloguing things like the use of Twitter and Facebook and social media and websites, as well as the production elements?
TN: Definitely, in time. Facebook and all the many other social networking sites contain interesting, topical information about productions, actors, etc. Roundabout's marketing department captures much of that and, yes, it will eventually be cataloged and made available in the archives.
BWW: What are some of your favorite things that you've found while putting the archives together?
TN: The costumes are really important to me because they say so much about the production in which they were worn. Many companies don't have the ability to keep costumes or take them out of rotation, so I am lucky that Roundabout does. Significant pieces – such as Cabaret and Nine costumes - really stand out.
And then I would say the stories and oral history interviews with actors, designers and other collaborators throughout the years, specifically people who have spanned the years as they tend to reveal much about the company and its evolution. And of course, the ephemera is wonderful - opening night pens that actors give to directors and other tokens that few people get to see but are on display here – those are very special.
BWW: What has the reaction been so far, both internally and externally, to the new website?
TN: Really good so far, and I think that will continue to grow as more items are included and more people learn about Roundabout's archives.
I do think that making these documents available online is a great resource: being able to pull up a play, the accompanying production photos, aspects of the production, performance reports, costume sketches, etc. is hugely beneficial to researchers. It's a unique collection.
BWW: Thank you very much for shedding some light on this excited new project – is there anything else that you'd like to share with our audience?
TN: I do want to stress that the archives are a continuation of Roundabout's larger mission to serve the theatre community through education. I also want to encourage people to use the online catalog and check back frequently for updates and improvements.