Digital Archive at the Ransom Center Shows How the Theatre Industry Made It Through the Pandemic

The National Theatre in London during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

March 12, 2020, was the night the lights went out on Broadway. The curtain came down on London’s West End a few days later. By the end of the month, theatres large and small all over the world had shuttered due to COVID-19. No one knew how long the virus would keep seats empty.   

But Eric Colleary was busy. His phone was ringing off the hook with calls from theatre artists across the county. They wanted to know: How had previous generations of thespians dealt with such situations? Could the past help them understand how to respond to this present crisis?  

The answer to the latter, says Colleary, the Harry Ransom Center’s Cline Curator of Theatre and Performing Arts, is yes. Absolutely.  

It was those calls, now over two years ago, that inspired Colleary to launch the Theatre 2020 Project. A collecting effort at the Harry Ransom Center, the project’s goal is to capture how the global theatre community responded to this modern pandemic. Once the collecting phase of the project ends and the materials are cataloged, the digital archive will preserve a record of the crisis and theatre’s response for future generations.  

As the theatre industry tried to find its way through the shutdown and figure out how best to continue, they turned to the internet. “So much was communicated through social media, through email blasts,” Colleary says. “There were performances and benefits happening very early on over Zoom, [and] through YouTube.” The Theatre 2020 Project is a crowdsourcing project meant to collect and archive those digital files—artifacts that reflect theatre artists’ and organizations’ experiences of the pandemic, both professionally and personally.  

In October 2020, Colleary sent out the first in a series of invitations to theatre professionals and organizations across the world. By February 2022, about 200 participants from the U.S. and many other English-speaking countries had submitted more than 2,500 files. The National Theatre in London, the National Theatre of Scotland, and other theatres in the U.K., Ireland, and Canada all contributed.  

The documents include emails, social media posts, and press releases about everything from show cancellations and theatres forced to close permanently, to season planning and budget documents, new works inspired by the pandemic, grant applications for relief funding, and recordings of Zoom performances.  

As many actors and other professionals lost work, this collection also documents how some theatres found ways to continue online. “This has been a recurring theme throughout the project, seeing how artists have used their creative skills to really learn new things—videography, editing, green-screen technologies—these things that otherwise maybe they had never encountered before the pandemic,” he says.  

In addition to the typical emails and press releases, the collection has garnered some fascinating finds. One is “The Future Stages,” a 3D digital performance arena created by actor and director Brendan Bradley that mimics the experience of attending the theatre in person. Bradley made the software freely available to theatres during the pandemic, allowing them to offer viewers of online performances a more authentic theatre-going experience. In the online 3D space, attendees enter the lobby, get tickets, receive a program, and head into the theatre to their specific seat, where they can chat with other audience members sitting near them. Then, of course, they watch the show.  

Other interesting digital submissions include all episodes of The Subtext, a podcast featuring theatre professionals talking about their experiences of the pandemic; and “The Dark Theatre Project,” a photo collection showcasing evocative images of London’s deserted venues.  

Colleary also recorded oral history interviews with producers, directors, company managers, playwrights, actors, costumers, and more for the collection. They capture stories that can’t easily be shown through digital files. Many of these can be watched on the project’s webpage.   

Like all of us, the theatre world was dealing with other massive societal issues during the pandemic, and the Theatre 2020 Project collection reflects this.   

“Broadway is an American art form, and therefore it has systemic racism embedded in its entire way of operating,” says Robb Nanus in his oral history interview with Colleary for the Theatre 2020 Project.  

Nanus is a New York event producer and also executive director of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. Pre-pandemic, the group partnered with Columbia Law School to offer workshops for Broadway professionals on equity and social justice issues. The pandemic forced the partners to figure out how to take these events online, when it had benefitted greatly from trust built through in-person interactions at its workshops.  

In addition to this and other oral history interviews, many theatre companies submitted their digital statements and documents related to promoting racial equity in the industry.  

As the project continues, it’s capturing a particularly interesting time in the theatre world.   

“The theatre’s changing in really, really crazy ways during this time. And this … is really the only project of its kind anywhere in the world that’s really documenting at an international level the impact of COVID on the performing arts community,” Colleary says.  

“We’re one of the few places with an international collecting scope and also the resources, with a born-digital archivist and the data storage capacity to be able to do a project like this.”  

Brenna Edwards is the Ransom Center’s manager for digital archives. She manages all of the center’s “born-digital” materials—items without a physical counterpart. Edwards makes sure that the files are backed up to multiple servers, don’t get corrupted, and that they remain accessible even after the software that created them becomes obsolete.  

The collecting phase of the Theatre 2020 Project is continuing; Colleary says it has no official end date yet. The project is responding to the pandemic, which is, of course, unpredictable. As of mid-May, Broadway’s theatres have reopened, but individual shows are sometimes canceled as performers fall ill with COVID. And while the pandemic seems to be waning, future surges can’t be ruled out.  

Once the collecting ends and the materials are cataloged, the complete digital collection will be accessible from the Ransom Center’s reading room, useable by “anyone with a photo ID and sense of curiosity,” Colleary says. A large part of the collection will also be made available online, accessible from anywhere.  

In addition to the simply curious, no doubt scholars of theatre history will also make good use of the emails, Zoom calls, and documentation tracing this important moment in 21st-century theatre salvaged for posterity by the Ransom Center. Perhaps they will inspire a great book or documentary film about our unusual times.   

CREDITS: Cameron Slater Photography, from the Theatre 2020 Project, Harry Ransom Center; Nina Dunn / The Dark Theatres Project


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