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The Impossible Stream: Why You Can't Just Stream the Lincoln Center Archive

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The TOFT Archive at Lincoln Center houses great works from Broadway and beyond... so why aren't they streaming?

The Impossible Stream: Why You Can't Just Stream the Lincoln Center Archive

After cultural institutions the globe over were forced to shut their doors due to COVID-19, theatre professionals and fans quickly sprung into action, tirelessly dreaming up new ways to get their theatre fix, or more crucially, to generate revenue in unprecedented times.

From socially distanced productions, to plays fully conceived for Zoom, to the cultural reset that was the wide release of Hamilton, as an industry we have embraced multifarious ways of keeping the theatre alive even while our stages are dark.

Widely bandied about on social media recently was an idea to make streaming hay of yet another theatrical outlet: the New York Public Library Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, found at Lincoln Center.

On its face, this suggestion seems like a perfectly reasonable idea for generating revenue for the remainder of the shutdown. Scratch the surface of that fantasy, however, and you'll find a formidable set of challenges keeping it from becoming a reality. But first, a little history:

Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary the New York Public Library Theatre on Film and Tape Archive was founded by former script reader and assistant to Broadway producer Martin Gabel, Betty L. Corwin, who proposed the idea of preserving visual records of live theatre performances, preserving legendary works and the legacies of the artists that brought them to life.

Similar issues to those blocking the pathway to streaming arose immediately. After lengthy negotiations with the various theatrical unions and guilds and each individual production's artistic collaborators and casts, permission was granted and TOFT was born.

On November 12, 1970, Golden Bat, a Japanese rock musical, became the first in what would become thousands of recordings. Since then, the archive has amassed a treasure trove of professionally-shot videos of Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre productions, and conversation with many of the notable artists that brought them to life.

The now-massive collection includes titles as recent as 2019, including Slave Play, the Tony-winning revival of Oklahoma!, the acclaimed Old Vic production of A Christmas Carol, and the recent off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors. Current Broadway hits, such as Dear Evan Hansen, have been filmed for the archive but are not available for screening until their run has concluded.

Titles are selected for capture by curator Patrick Hoffman, based on potential historical significance, stand out performances, and future usefulness. As a result, the archive tends to film more Off-Broadway titles due to their more experimental nature.

The library incurs the cost of recording each production, with funding obtained through fundraising and grants, in addition to a dedicated Hal Prince endowment fund. Producers can fund filming should Hoffman choose not to film a specific production.

Today, the archives consists of a collection of over 5,000 plays, musicals, classics, experimental and avant-garde productions, and an additional 3,000 videos of interviews, dialogues, film and television adaptations, award presentations, and other theatre-related programs. The TOFT Archive remains today the single largest, most comprehensive collection of live theatre anywhere in the world. Over 50 live theatre performances are captured each year, adding to its already mammoth stockpile.

Additionally the The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound contains approximately 700,000 recordings and more than 100,000 printed items preserving a vast history and covering virtually every aspect of recorded sound.

To date, the archive has been used as a tool for education and research, attracting performing arts professionals, journalists, and academics to view its vast collection. In doing so, the archive has positioned itself as an indispensable tool for shaping the future of the fine arts by studying the past.

When it comes to deploying these vast resources via streaming, the same road blocks that prolonged the creation of the archive still exist today, making it highly unlikely that these titles will ever land online.

As noted earlier, such an endeavor would requite the necessary cooperation of over a dozen unions and guilds, in addition to the ironing out of complex rights and royalties issues for artists and performers. As we have seen in the recent past, discontent from even one of these organizations can potentially derail charitable endeavors, let alone highly commercial ones.

Additionally, many of the recordings predate modern technology and though the shoots are pre-planned to ensure the most dramatically accurate product, the films are captured in the interest of research, not entertainment. Additionally, TOFT does no post-production editing, so anyone seeking the high-gloss production value of Disney's Hamilton film would surely be let down.

In a statement a representative for TOFT explained, "It is important to understand that some of our collections, particularly our theater collections, have complicated rights issues (that require discussions with a variety of unions and other partners). We greatly value those relationships and partnerships, as they are literally what make collections like TOFT possible (and accessible to researchers on-site, which, as a research library, is our primary goal - our primary function is to preserve and make accessible to all performing arts materials). But it does mean that streaming is not a simple endeavor."

Despite the challenges surrounding commercial streaming of the archive, however, the team at TOFT are always working to explore ways to make their collections more accessible, including the recorded plays housed at the Library for the Performing Arts.

"We have just reached an agreement that allows us to visit NYC public schools and screen the plays for children (including those who perhaps don't have regular opportunities to see Broadway theater)," they explained.

"Part of LPA's mission is fostering a love of the performing arts through collections, and certainly increasing accessibility is key."

As it doesn't appear that the riches within the archives will be available to the general populace any time soon, find out how you can access the archives on your own here!

How to Access the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive

  • TOFT is available to anyone who holds a New York Public Library card.
  • Interested parties can book advance appointments, available Monday through Saturday. Appointments can be made in person or via telephone at least 24-hours in advance of your desired time. Certain titles require advance permission to view, so it is recommended that visitors call ahead.
  • Single appointments are limited to five titles, breaks of up to 30 minutes are permitted when viewing. When booking your appointment you must specify the number of people in your party and all viewers must present a valid New York Public Library card.
  • Walk-in screenings are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, beginning at 12:00 pm. Walk-in viewers are limited to three titles. Walk-in viewers are limited to a three hour time slot and breaks of up to 15 minutes. Walk-ins will occasionally be unavailable due to scheduled class screenings.
  • Visitors will be assigned to one of 24 monitors located in the Lucille Lortel screening room. If you are more than 30 minutes late to your scheduled time without notice, your monitor will be reassigned.
  • Recordings can only be viewed on-site and one time only. Shows currently running are not available for viewing. Older recordings captured on outdated formats may be temporarily unavailable due to the library's ongoing digitization project.

Learn more about TOFT here.


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From This Author Alexa Criscitiello