Theatre, Archives, Documentation and LIS. What’s the link?

This is an edited version of a post I published on the CityLIS blog.

I joined City, University of London this academic year as a lecturer in Library and Information Science. I’ve been working with Dr Lyn Robinson on the DocPerform project since October 2016. The project investigates the intersections between LIS and performance documentation. We are especially interested in ‘immersive documents’, technology that does not yet exist but which we can now foresee with new developments in virtual reality and unreal interactive  environments. We hosted our second symposium DocPerform 2: New Technologies last week, where speakers were invited  to share their theories of documenting and archiving in the context of our digitally networked culture.

I will discuss DocPerform in more detail in my next post, which will include information on the subjects our symposia have covered and the next stages of the project.

I confess: I became interested in archives because it was a requirement of a job I applied for when I was starting out in academia. I was familiar with the word ‘archive’, of course (thank you Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark), but what they actually did was a mystery to me. Indeed, I doubt I ever considered that an archive could ‘do’ anything. They’re just places to store things, right?


I learnt this during the summer of 2010. I had applied for the post of research assistant at the University of East London in late 2009. The post was attached to the CEDAR project (Clustering and Enhancing Digital Archives for Research). The purpose of my job was to research how a digital archive could be embedded into teaching and learning in higher education. The first phase of the project resulted in a specially created website, ELTA (East London Theatre Archive). ELTA contains digitised material from the theatre and performance collection at the V&A, UEL’s archive and several collections from theatres in east London. For the second phase a new website was created, OTHA (Online Theatre Histories Archive). OTHA was to host research material and resources for students to create their own collections based on a research enquiry.

One of my first tasks was to write a literature review on the relationship between theatre and archives. Inevitably, this quickly lead to investigating approaches and theories of documentation and it’s rather vexed history with the ways the liveness of theatre is valued. Anyone dipping their toe into these waters cannot help but come across this now infamous quote from Peggy Phelan: “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance” (1993, p.146).

These few lines have gained notoriety and fueled intense debate in academia. Phelan elegantly articulates what she considers to be performance’s essence; namely, its unrepeatability, or what many people in theatre prefer to call the live event’s ephemerality. There are echoes, here, with Walter Benjamin’s argument that a work of art’s uniqueness lies in “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (1999, p. 214). Phelan’s contention that performance is independent from “mass reproduction” (1993, p.149) gives her thesis an ethical dimension in it’s positioning of live performance against the grain of mainstream economic and political culture. When we remember that Phelan was writing just one year after the fall of the Soviet Union, an event that led Francis Fukuyama to declare the end of history (1992) owing to the apparent inevitably that liberal free market democracies would become the model all countries would strive to create, then her validation of performance’s ephemerality as it’s cardinal virtue gains piquancy. In this context, theatre and performance provide a space to imagine a future beyond the ostensive homogeneity of western culture. If performance can’t be recorded then it resists the systems governing the free market and cannot therefore be bought and sold as a commodity.

Arguments like these were pretty commonplace when I was an undergraduate in the early 2000s. We all understood the difference between theatre and recorded works of art lay in the latter’s non-liveness. And yet I don’t ever remember being taught this, or even thinking it worthy of serious debate. Looking back, the obvious distinctions between live and recorded art works made it even more imperative to question them. Sacred cows prevent knowledge advancing into uncharted territory. ‘Crisis’ is a word we who work in theatre are very familiar with. In the second half of the twentieth century it appeared theatre makers were under siege from all quarters, especially from television and the ‘dumbing down’ of culture. The fear of technologically mediated exchange replacing the sacredness of embodied presence experienced in theatre and performance was one I thought I shared with Phelan et al., until I started to consider what the essence of performance is. Put another way, researching the archive and documentation practices made me ask, for the first time, what the ‘it-ness’ of performance constitutes.

When I was writing the CEDAR literature review I came across this key line from Philip Auslander: ‘It is not realistic to propose that live performance can remain ontologically pristine or that it operates in a cultural economy separate from that of the mass media’ ([1999] 2008, p.45). Auslander is referring here to the ubiquity of technology in our daily lives, which accelerated during the 1990s with the invention of the world wide web. Since he first wrote this in 1999 the experience of reality is saturated with technology and digital interfaces, leading Charlie Gere to proffer that the term digital culture is a tautology (2008). Nevertheless, one of the defining characteristics of digital culture is its participatory nature, the sense that we can all contribute to events across distances using technological interfaces. If we think about the ‘it-ness’ of performance, which Phelan would argue is it’s liveness, then it seemed to me that the archive’s capacity to spread knowledge through the preservation of artefacts was an opportunity to strengthen rather than weaken the communicative aspect of live events (see Cook, 1997, p.26). Slowly but surely, the archive became a site of limitless possibility, where each object acts as a portal to a new work of art. I imagined performance as a metamorphic continuum consisting of live event – document – archive –  live event, with the reader or spectator acting as the bridge between these stages. The archive’s potential to activate as well as preserve was a profound revelation for me and one I have since dedicated my career to investigating in order to pioneer a new vision of theatre and performance that speaks to our hyper-connected world.

Duly inspired, I set out to articulate a new vision of the archive and performance’s ontology that did not rely on the live/recorded binary. This lead me to some unexpected places, not least Greenland…


Auslander, P. (2008) Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. 2nd edn. New York: Routledge

Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in ___________ Illuminations, pp. 211-245. New York: Schoken Books

Cook, T. (1997) ‘What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift’ in Archivaria, 43, pp. 17-63