The Harry Ransom Center announces the appointment of Eric Colleary as Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts. In this position, Colleary will oversee research, access, and interpretation of the Ransom Center’s theater and performing arts materials. [Read more…] about Eric Colleary named as Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts
The performing arts collection at the Harry Ransom Center includes a remarkable set of theater backdrops, all in miniature. This collection of 112 backdrops, along with other free-standing scene elements, depicts grand symbolic imagery: Egyptian landscapes, biblical imagery, grand architecture, and even catacombs. These scenes were created to support the theatrical rituals, or degrees, of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. But why are they miniature? The model-sized drops were used by a salesman to market stage scenery to Masonic temples, and the small size allowed for ease of transportation.
The model—and the corresponding full-sized scenes—was produced around 1900 by Sosman & Landis Studio, specialists in scenic art. The drops are painted in gouache onto paper illustration board. Some of the paperboards are cut to resemble “cut drops” and “leg drops,” scenic drop elements used further upstage from the backdrop to create depth of field for the audience. The collection is housed in a wooden travel trunk. Each drop has a wooden slat nailed along its top edge, and this slat allowed the drop to hang from two rails secured into the trunk. Because the drops were packed fairly tightly together in the trunk, they suffered damage over the years. To remove a drop, it had to be pulled up and out of the trunk, dragging against the adjacent drops in the process. This caused breaking of the sometimes-complex paperboard cutouts as well as rubbing and scraping of the paint layer. Many of the drops became partially detached from their wooden slats, and all were dirty from many years of settling dust and grime.
In the summer of 2014, paper conservation intern Rémy Dreyfuss began a project to conserve this beautiful example of turn-of-the-century theater technology. To begin, Rémy surveyed the entire collection, taking note of the condition of and photographing each item. He created a database to organize the descriptive data, condition information, and treatments performed on each item. The database links each item’s description to its corresponding digital image. Rémy surface-cleaned each drop using a soft brush and dry rubber sponge. He secured the boards that had become detached from their slats. He did not use nails for the re-attachment, but instead used small gussets of Japanese paper adhered in place with wheat starch paste. The gussets allow attachment to the wooden slat without unwanted stress on the paperboard. Rémy mended breaks and tears, again with archival quality Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.
Rémy also designed, along with Apryl Voskamp, Head of Preservation, a new storage system for the models. The updated storage allows better access to the materials, while minimizing risk of future damage. Though the drops will be stored in the new housing, the original travel trunk will remain a part of the collection.
In addition to the drops, this collection includes a small-scale stage. The drops can be arranged here to show the dramatic effect of the layered elements of backdrop, cut drop, leg drop, and border. Rémy completed his project by photographing the groups of drops in place on the stage, as they would be viewed during a performance.
Until now, these materials were almost inaccessible to curators and researchers because of their unstable condition. With the conservation treatment completed, the miniature scenery can be handled safely and made available for research.
As a final note, the Ransom Center is only a few blocks from a Scottish Rite Theater on West 18th Street in Austin. The theater houses, and still uses, an original collection of Sosman & Landis stage drops, the full-sized drops that the Ransom Center models represent. The Center’s conservation staff visited the theater to view the stage scenery and to get a backstage tour of the scenery collection and how it is used during performances.
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Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.
John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007. In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he draws upon his subject’s plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America’s greatest playwrights. His research included a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today. To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.
In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center’s holdings.
Was there a particular aspect of Williams’s life or work that you were particularly drawn to?
So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams’s consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.
In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life. How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?
In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.
Do you recall if there was a particular item that you found interesting?
The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material; so it’s really impossible to say which item was more revelatory. For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose (“I’m trying hard not to die”) and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.
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James Sitar is an editor at the Poetry Foundation and teaches literature classes at Loyola University Chicago. Sitar’s work in the Spalding Gray archive was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. He discusses his digital project that allows comparisons between Gray’s performance notebooks. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
Many who know of Spalding Gray’s storytelling first experienced it by watching the film version of Swimming to Cambodia or by reading the book. Gray performed over a dozen different monologues, but this one catapulted his career and ensured that his innovative performance style would influence a new generation of actors. I was certainly captivated by the movie when I was 10 years old (which was probably too young). And ever since my college days, I’ve been drawn to archival recordings, whether it was the all-encompassing lectures or “talks” of Robert Frost or the countless bootlegs of Bob Dylan. When I heard that the Harry Ransom Center acquired the archive of Spalding Gray, including scores of audio and video recordings, I knew I had to visit. After all, how often do your childhood fascinations align with your interests as an adult?
Thanks to a fellowship from the Ransom Center, I was able to spend a month listening to and comparing Gray’s performances of Swimming to Cambodia, which occurred over a span of about 20 years. Gray would record his one-man shows and then listen to them the next day, and this listening would inform his approach to the next performance. No performance is the same, which means that this monologue is what we refer to as a living text: there’s no one version of it that is more important or authentic than any others. It’s clear from interview and diary entries that he never thought of the film or the book versions as definitive or superior performances, though certainly he viewed them as successful versions that were true to the mediums of film and print.
By listening along, I discovered how important this flexible, evolving, experimental approach was to Gray. He never worked with a script, or even solidified particular details or vignettes. Instead, he’d only sparingly glance at the spiral-bound notebook he had on stage, in which he had written certain important words or phrases; if he got caught up in a tangent, as he was wont to do, his notes would help him find his way back to his narrative arc. The opportunity to perform in person, in front of small audiences, was crucial to Gray. His loose narrative style and method, and his desire to make each performance a unique connection to place and time and audience, make each performance different. This fact also reflects his avant-garde approach to theater and his artistic preoccupations with the evolving natures of memories, the construction of personal truths, the production and performance of a public self, and the complications of making art out of life through the problematic notions of authenticity and confession.
As a researcher and editor, I want to deliver remarkable materials into the hands and ears of fans and scholars and to present these materials in the most helpful, enjoyable, responsible, and authentic ways possible. I’m currently building a website devoted to Swimming to Cambodia that’s true to the living nature of the monologue, with audio and video recordings, notebooks, and different types of transcripts with annotations and background materials that allow visitors to experience the monologue’s myriad iterations. I want to present Gray’s performances as moments, as I look for innovative ways to preserve some of the fluid and ephemeral essences of speech and performance in the fixed form of text. It will serve as an archive that collects all of the Swimming to Cambodia’s that we can revisit.
You can take a look at a very early and small sample of the work, which uses an inventive piece of software called the Versioning Machine. This sample presents the same passage from many different notebooks and performances of the monologue, a passage in which Gray chronicles his difficulty remembering some lines in filming The Killing Fields (1984). It’s Gray’s inability to memorize lines that makes this part of the monologue so funny and painful, and this inability is also what makes his monologues so unscripted and alive. It’s a revealing moment behind the scenes of filmmaking, and I hope my digital project can similarly look behind the scenes of Gray’s craft.
I’m grateful for and indebted to so many people’s help in making Gray’s work available online, including Tanya Clement, Quinn Stewart, Daniel Carter, Erin Donohue, the entire Ransom Center staff, and the estate of Spalding Gray.
Image: First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for Swimming to Cambodia.
Diana Solomon, associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, worked with the Ransom Center’s collections of eighteenth-century English playbills and promptbooks. Jointly supported by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the British Studies Fellowship, her research will be utilized in her current book project on comedy and repetition in eighteenth-century English theater. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
In the winter of 2014 I had the good fortune of spending three months at the Harry Ransom Center. My current book project, Comedy and Repetition in Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, asks why eighteenth-century theater audiences wanted to see the same plays, characters, plots, and comic devices again and again. It is essential first to pin down what elements they did wish to revisit, which requires substantial archival research. Prior studies of comic taste in eighteenth-century England have tended to focus on canonical novels or on non-mainstream genres. But looking broadly at dramatic trends tells a different story, and that story can be traced through the Ransom Center’s rich holdings in eighteenth-century English theater.
Many printed playtexts survive, but since their eighteenth-century readers may or may not have seen them in performance, it can be tricky to determine what material from plays was actually performed onstage. One approach to answering this question is to examine surviving promptbooks—unique print copies of the play used by the theater prompter to delineate textual omissions and stage directions. The Ransom Center possesses 11 such promptbooks, and these indicate not only what sections of the texts were staged, but also how performances of plays changed over time.
One example concerns the promptbook to Thomas Southerne’s 1696 play, Oroonoko. The play is based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel about an African king, Oroonoko, who was tricked into slavery by British slave-traders; the novel ends tragically with his murder by dismemberment. When adapting it for the stage, Southerne changed details of the tragedy (for example, Oroonoko’s death becomes a suicide) and added a comic plot featuring two sisters husband-hunting in the New World. His play begins with the two sisters discussing why they abandoned their lives in England for America. That these are the first two characters who appear onstage makes them sympathetic to the audience. Charlotte and Lucy discuss the double standard of aging, male repulsion to female familiarity, and the name-calling and mimicry that led them ultimately to leave England. But in the promptbook, which was first used during a 1730s play revival and then further annotated for planned revivals in 1747 and 1759, the first scene is gutted. The remaining lines indicate the sisters’ lost hope of marrying Londoners but eliminate the protofeminist discussion of how this state of affairs came to be. There are also excisions from Oroonoko’s scenes, but the major ones (consisting of 15 or more lines) don’t appear until Act 3, by which time his character and mistreatment by the British have been well established. While subsequent editions retain the excised passages, those who solely attended performances never saw this comic scene. The prompter’s copy of Oroonoko suggests that the prompter cut these scenes from his sense of audience taste in comedy. Parts of the original play may have seemed too challenging for later audiences, suggesting that they may have been less receptive to protofeminism.
It is possible, from the 11 prompter’s copies, to deduce that earlier, more radical comedy remained in play publications but was considered too radical or challenging for mid-eighteenth-century theater audiences. These Ransom Center’s holdings are invaluable for their help in tracing audience taste throughout the century.
Image: Pages 2 and 3 in the promptbook of Thomas Southerne’s play Oroonoko.
The exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is now open at the Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami Beach, Florida. Pulled mostly from the Ransom Center’s Bel Geddes archive, the exhibition originated in fall 2012 at the Ransom Center and was on view earlier this year at the Museum of the City of New York. Bringing together some 200 unique drawings, models, photographs, and films, this exhibition highlights Bel Geddes’s creativity and desire to transform American society through design.
Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958) was an industrial and theatrical designer who gained fame in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for his streamlined and futuristic innovations. His designs played a significant role in shaping America’s image as an innovative powerhouse and global leader into the future. One of his most famous undertakings was the unforgettable Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair.
I Have Seen the Future is on view at the Wolfsonian until September 28.
Image: Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933.