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Drama in the Archives: Humanities class fosters undergraduate research

By Harry Ransom Center

Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.

 

In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.

 

For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.

 

Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.

 

“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”

 

As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the ‘big glass buildings with the pretty pictures’ on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibits on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.”

 

Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.

 

“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.

 

For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.

 

Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.

 

“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”

 

After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”

 

Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.

 

Several students from this class will present their research and experiences in upcoming posts in the “Notes from the Undergrad” series on this blog.

 

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Video: Fellow discusses creation of performance histories

By Marlene Renz

Matthew McFrederick visited the Harry Ransom Center’s Reading Room as an international fellow from the University of Reading.  He conducted research for his thesis, “Staging Beckett in London: Constructing Performance Histories of Samuel Beckett’s Drama.”

McFrederick’s research is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded “Staging Beckett” project, which is a joint research project involving the University of Reading, the University of  Chester, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  This project will study the impact of Beckett’s drama in theater culture and theater practice in the UK and Ireland from 1995 to present day and develop a publicly accessible online database of productions of Beckett’s drama in the UK and Ireland.

McFrederick’s thesis will catalog and analyze significant productions of Beckett’s drama in London and chart the development of Beckettian performance in a number of London theaters such as the Royal Court, the National Theatre, and Riverside Studios.  During his time in the reading room, McFrederick, looked at material from the Center’s collections, including those of Samuel Beckett, Peter Glenville, and the English Stage Company.

McFrederick’s research was funded by a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the International Placement Scheme.

Remarkable set of miniature Masonic theater scenery receives conservation treatment

By Heather Hamilton

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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Director draws upon Tennessee Williams collection for UT production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

By Alicia Dietrich

A production of Tennessee Williams’s iconic play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on campus last week, and director Jess Hutchinson delved into the Tennessee Williams collection at the Ransom Center to guide some of her work on the play.

 

Set in New Orleans, William’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic centers around fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois as she seeks refuge in her sister’s home, only to clash with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

 

Hutchinson, a third-year MFA Directing candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, was especially interested in digging deeper into the ending of the play, and in the Williams collection, she found multiple drafts of endings that were quite different from the published version.

 

“Williams tried on different ways to end Blanche’s story and handle her departure,” said Hutchinson, noting one discarded draft included Blanche being forced into a straightjacket. “And he chose this very specific, relatively controlled exit. That tells me a lot about what that moment is for her, how to stage it, how to think about where she is mentally and emotionally at the end of the play.”

 

Hutchinson worked with a group of undergraduate actors in the production, and exploring the drafts and ideas that Williams discarded helped guide how she and the actors approached the ending of the play.

 

“It focuses our range of choices in rehearsal,” said Hutchinson. “I feel that it would be disingenuous to the play for Blanche to be completely out of control at the end. She isn’t taken away in a straightjacket. In other drafts, she is. So that tells me Blanche still has some lucidity, that she retains the ability to make choices in that moment. The actress and I have looked for Blanche’s power in that scene, her control. Where can we see her consciously make decisions, and how do they fuel her departure with the doctor and matron? The actors and I have come to see that as a moment of recognition. Something in this doctor—this stranger—reaches a place in her that is whole and hasn’t been broken by this experience. And really, we got to complicate what some might write off as a moment of clear ‘insanity’ because I was able to see to see the other drafts that Williams tried first.”

 

As Hutchinson sifted through various early drafts of the play in the Williams collection, she was struck by how “not good” many of them were and how it was a great reminder that the creative process includes false starts and dead ends even for the most talented writers and artists.

 

“Something about seeing documents in a famous, iconic writer’s handwriting revealed that this person who wrote this thing that I love was closer to me than I might have thought,” she said. “He was a human and an artist and was trying to make something that spoke to the core experience of what it is to be a person—what it means to interact with other people in the world and have your heart broken and have moments of incredible joy. Just the humanity that’s present in these archival materials and what we can see in these drafts and false starts and moments of inspired genius made it possible, at least for me, to be bolder in my own work in the rehearsal room.”

 

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through October 19 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at The University of Texas at Austin. Tickets are available online.

 

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