NY Public Library's Assistant Curator Annemarie van Roessel on the New Isaiah Sheffer Archive
BroadwayWorld.com continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Annemarie van Roessel, Assistant Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on The New Isaiah Sheffer Archive.
Twenty-five years later, I can still hear the opening music in my head. It's rippling and playful, with an undercurrent of urgency. And then the inviting voice cuts in and everything comes into focus. "Welcome back," I say, to a familiar friend I've never met. On Sunday nights as I'm cramming for exams in a Boston dorm room or later cooking dinner in a Chicago kitchen, those sounds from the radio transport me into a lively theatre called Symphony Space at 96th and Broadway and a world of voices and literature and ideas unlike any other. Isaiah Sheffer is there at the microphone, introducing another episode of "Selected Shorts" and another gifted actor who will shortly breathe life into the best short stories of our age, lifting those words off the page and into the rooms of tens of thousands of public radio listeners across the country. For me, Symphony Space occupies a particular geography, at once specific to New York City and dislocated into my imagination, and Sheffer was my constant guide, week after week, year after year.
With boundless enthusiasm and tenacity, Sheffer co-founded Symphony Space in 1978 and served as its artistic director, building and shaping a vibrant community for theatre, music, literature and comedy that defies simple explanation. Selected Shorts, among his best known programs there, celebrated its 30th birthday in 2015. In Selected Shorts, as in many other productions there, gifted actors from stage and screen make the trip far up Broadway to bring that 96th Street stage to life. The roster of those who have performed under Sheffer's direction is nothing but impressive: Cynthia Nixon, Hope Davis, Leonard Nimoy, John Lithgow, Linda Lavin, Stockard Channing, Jane Curtin, Jerry Stiller, Frances Sternhagen, Paul Hecht, Marian Seldes, B.D. Wong, William Hurt, Joanne Woodward, and Robert Sean Leonard, among many others.
After Sheffer's unexpected death almost three years ago, I assumed that he would fade into my memory, resurfacing now and then when I turned on the radio or stumbled across a soundclip online. But then something marvelous happened. In my position as Assistant Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division, I was introduced to Ethel Sheffer, Isaiah's devoted wife and a formidable figure in her own right as an urban planner and community organizer. She was also the keeper and protector of Isaiah's vast archive, much of it on shelves and filing cabinets in what Isaiah called "the mine shaft," a rather cramped walk-in-closet off his bedroom. To my delight, she was interested in donating the archive to our library. It was, of course, a wonderful convergence of interests. Very quickly, our conversations focused as much on Isaiah and his extraordinary life as it did on the papers, scripts, musical scores, correspondence, photographs, posters, and audio and video recordings that documented his nearly 70-year-long career as a playwright, librettist, director, satirist, performer, visionary and bon-vivant. All at once, the Isaiah I knew only through the radio was coming alive again through Ethel and her stories.
Now that the Isaiah Sheffer archive is finally here at The Library for the Performing Arts, the papers have just been fully catalogued and made available for researchers. The recordings that accompany the archive will be available by the end of this year. For those, like me, who may have first learned about Sheffer through Selected Shorts, we can now explore the wealth of his creative work: his early years in Yiddish theatre, his original plays and musicals, his Wall to Wall musical performance marathons, his annual Bloomsday readings, his Thalia Follies and other political revues and cabarets, and his collaborations with such luminaries as Eric Bentley, Michel de Ghelderode, Langston Hughes, and Isaac Bashevis-Singer. The archive is vast and deep and it beckons us, onward and inward.
Photograph courtesy of Ethel Sheffer.