National Theatre


Erin Lee - Head of Archives

Founded in 1976 by English Actor and Director Laurence Olivier, The Royal National Theatre is one of three historically prominent performing arts venues in the UK. Located in the heart of London and with an abundance of history, the The National Theatre Archives department holds a diverse collection which includes production posters, scripts and original photography of historical plays as well as numerous live recordings.

In this interview, Head of Archives, Erin Lee, talks about her own journey from the role of archive assistant to the organisation's head of archives and shares insights into the role that the National Theatre plays in different parts of our society.

The National Theatre have made a variety of services such as online catalogues and online tours available to the public and Erin talks to us about the impact these collections have made as well as telling us about exciting upcoming projects including a podcasts series, launching in September which aims to shed light on innovative, original black theatre.

Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

Hello and welcome to the Max Communications 2020 podcast a series of podcast where we explore various archives and collections my name is Faith Williams and i'm joined today by Erin Lee head of archives for the National Theatre would you like to introduce yourself Erin and tell us how you came to be in your position hi it's really good to be with you today um so i very much came to my position at the national um not from knowing anything about theatre which i think surprises some people i think everyone that works at national has come from a theatre background in some way um and i haven't so i definitely came from it through the archive root and so i had just finished my uh masters in library and information science at syracuse university in upstate new york and i moved back to the uk and i actually got the position of the archive assistant and over sort of three or four years i worked my way up to head up the department um and in that process have learned an awful lot about theatre i've seen an awful lot about theatre and and learned a lot about what happens backstage and that's actually fed into me now and studying for a phd in how we archives data and performance so i very much come over to the theater side you've got the bug now yeah how do you spend an average day ahead of the archive then so there's not not really an average day which probably doesn't come as a surprise um i think being the head of the department uh you're a bit more removed from the actual material so i don't spend as much time cataloging or rehousing the packaging content it's more looking at the longer term and strategic development of the team as we're a team of five at the nt and we sit within the learning department so a lot of what i do is is looking at how the archive can assist different departments across cnt learning obviously being one of them so we support a lot of their activities and programmes and that's from primary all the way through secondary school adult education community programs and that can be working with teachers to deliver sessions that might be taking a handling session to a talk or a lecture so that's quite varied but then we also support a lot of departments across the national uh such as marketing and press and development who work with quite a lot so developments are the fundraising arm of the national so we work a lot with them and with donors and i suppose a lot of the work is to do with internal advocacy like that um but then we have a lot of projects outside um of the nt working with particularly universities at the moment uh thinking about our research portfolio so we've been developing collaborative doctoral awards with central school of speech and drama around our black plays archive which we hold at national and that's a really exciting project and so a lot of what i work on are very much strategic projects and but it is nice when i get into the nitty-gritty of cataloging from board papers or get back to you know the reason i came into the archive sector in the first place and get to work with researchers and find out what their passions are and what they're really interested in accessing in the collection so it is yeah very varied there there is no sort of typical day i'm afraid so what type of material do you have in your collection it's quite varied um so we split our collection into three different sections which just helps us to think about budgeting and cataloging priorities and that kind of thing so the first section is the cultural archive so that's everything to do with shows so obviously be in the national theatre our our main bread and butter is productions and we keep a full set of content for every show so that will include um programs posters all your production rehearsal and technical photography your costume bibles your prompt scripts your press reviews and stage management reports so they're the reports that are written every night by the stage manager about what happened on stage and they're one of my favorite things actually because um they're not really written to be read outside of the theater so they can give you real insights into just what went wrong on stage or who forgot their lines or um did somebody you know if there's a sword fight or something and sometimes the sword shoots out into the audience and it's kind of about how they've appeased the front row after that's happened and so it's really interesting to see um how these things get dealt with backstage um so that's the cultural archive and the the really exciting part of the cultural archives are the production recordings so we've recorded every show at the national since 1995. so that's 25 years worth of recordings that people can come and watch for free and that includes the nt live recordings so nt live is when we broadcast fiesta live to cinemas around the world and we do that not only on behalf of the national but we also do that on behalf of other theaters such as the donmar warehouse or the old rec or the young vic and all of those recordings live in the archive excuse me so you can come and watch those so if you want to see benedict cumberbatch playing hamlet at the barbican we've got that recording and so a lot of the public want to come and watch those obviously so that's sort of one section of the archive um another is the business archive so we are predominantly business archives um and that includes all of the sort of financial legal documentation of the national all the building information about the architecture all the board minutes and so all of that lives in the business collection and then we also have some external collections uh which have been donated to us and they're quite varied uh we've got a couple that feature the building itself and and the architecture we've got some that are about the founding of the national theatre the reasons behind and all the trials and tribulations about finding the national and then we've got a few we've got a collection of an early board member we've also got a collection of our first civil vocal coach catherine fleming and he was actually margaret thatcher's vocal coach and um i don't know if you remember a few years ago there was the film iron lady which came out and all of the film resectors came to the nt and they they researched catherine fleming because in in the film they wanted to show margaret thatcher at her speech license and then in the film the vocal coach is a man and they didn't cast it as a woman presumably because they only wanted to show margaret thatcher as a woman in power at that time so some of our researchers went to the newspapers and told them about catherine's lending and she got a double page spread in the newspaper which was lovely um so we have some interesting gems in our collection that you might not expect and so it's quite varied and one thing that we don't collect that people think we do is costume and props so we have some of the early costumes and so very early so from the 60s and we also keep important props that we think are fundamental to how the national has run and shows its innovation so for example the puppets from his dark materials in 2003 we've kept quite a lot of those puppets in the archive to make sure that they are preserved but we but we have a costume and props higher department and that is part of our retail arm of the nt so all of the costume and props get cycled through the higher department they are open to the public you can go in and hire costumes whether that's for your amateur dramatic society or if you want an amazing halloween costume you can go in and browse and borrow whatever you want um but also those um costume and props are reused in national theater productions so that's a lot of how we save money when we produce new shows is that we aren't making everything from scratch we're repurposing a lot of that content so it doesn't come to the archive it goes into classroom props higher so that's kind of pretty much what we collect was there any particular reason that you decided really from the offset not to collect costume and props because i feel like that's what a lot of people would expect i think a lot of it is to do with the running of the theater and how you provide content for future shows so um costumes are repurposed particularly chorus costumes and because that we save so much money by doing that and repurposing it also um it is very expensive and quite an undertaking to locaster costume and props so if you go into keeping 3d content the space that you require to store that is huge you also need very very specific environmental conditions and then you also require very large reading rooms to be able to get that content out and display it for people to then come and see it so while from an archive perspective i would love to have it and i think being part of a working theater you have to be very aware of the fact that shows are still going on and we we can't keep every part of a production in the archives yeah fair enough who accesses the collection is it mainly theater type people and media again quite varied um so we get about four and a half thousand researchers visitors per year and i would say around half of those are school and university groups and they come in everything that we offer is free so a lot of school groups university groups come in to watch productions so what's amazing about the archive is that it makes the nt sort of syllabus proof so whatever is on stage at the nt if you're studying king lear and it's not on stage we will have at least one recording of king lear that you can come and watch we actually have two so you could come and watch two different uh recordings of king lear so it means that whatever you're studying the nt archive will be able to provide you with something and those groups come in they they watch shows they look at all the and surrounding content and their teachers kind of lead a session so that's one sort of group of users another is as you say theatre practitioners so lots of people come in in order to either be inspired by previous productions or they might be thinking about casting someone in a role and they want to watch them in a particular production and see what they were doing some people want to understand how other creative processes works and where they failed and where they succeeded we also get a lot of academics and that is from theatre but also from architecture so our building whether you love or hate our national theatre building on the south bank it is studied a lot by architecture students um as a symbol of brutalism and we also get a lot of the general public and because we offer a free service you can come in and watch any shows you might have missed or the tickets sold out or you couldn't afford a ticket um or quite often you you don't live in london and you couldn't come down for a run and we have a lot of international visitors who come to us and sort of watch a whole repertory season during their holiday and so they'll boot camps like a whole week and watch everything so it is quite varied which is really exciting for the archive team because everybody has a different request um one thing that we don't get as much as other people and are the family historians and because we're not actually that old uh so we were founded in 1963 so we haven't yet got to the point where a lot of family historians are investigating us but that will come in the future sure well the amount of people that the national theatre employed must be quite large yeah we have about 1200 staff oh wow that's incredible how many people work in the archives then so five of us in the archives okay that's quite that's quite a lot of people then it is yeah and it's um it has increased recently and it is split between sort of the digital side and traditional cataloging and access for researchers are they quite separate arms then or do they interlink they do interlink i think i mean i'm very much of the opinion that every archivist should embrace digital um and that we shouldn't try and split out uh the roles but the reason that we have um quite a bit of a focus on digital at the moment is that we are implementing a digital preservation solution so we have an extra member of the team to help us to start ingesting and set up that process so you mentioned you can watch previous productions if you come to your location are you kind of thinking of making that accessible online so everyone in the world can can do it there this is a very popular question um and during uh the lock time period we have run something called nt at home on youtube which was where we broadcast uh for a week at a time one particular show so this week actually amadeus is showing and it's available for a week for you to watch from home for free on youtube it's been hugely successful and i think by the time we finish we'll have reached over 50 million households which is phenomenal in terms of an audience and it has been hugely popular the issue we have is around rights so whenever you record a production obviously we own the copyright of the actual recordings but then you have to clear rights with every single actor in the cast and then every creative who's involved in that production as well as the writer if they're a state if they're alive or their estate and is still on the copyrights and then also any music that you might have used in that production so you'd have to clear it with the music right holders as well so it's hugely complicated to try and make any of those recordings available beyond the research room um but it is something that is being looked into and it is something that we are very aware that people would love to have access to everything so that's just wait and see yeah and then people won't have to come and watch it all on their home phase yeah are there you just mentioned their copyright is a huge problem with so many um areas in productions are there any other particular challenges that come with managing the collection um i would say that the rights is probably the main one um i think another area is obviously the fact that these is very ephemeral um it is a live event so what is left after a live event and that's very much what my phd is looking at it's looking at how how we document the process of theatre being put together so we're very good at archiving what's actually happening on stage so we have the script we have the costume bible we can record it and we have various other pieces of material that we require but the actual process of putting a show together is different every time and it's also very difficult to for me to know what happens in that process to then be able to think about what we archive from that process and so i'd say that's one of the biggest challenges is the ephemerality of the art form and the fact that it's very freelancer based so we know that over 70 of the people that work in the performing arts are freelance so when you are an institutional archivist like i am i can have certain relationships with people within the national theatre and we can set up retention schedules we can have you know a time of the year that they always send things to the archive but when you're working with freelance teams that becomes much harder to effect and not just because they maybe don't even know there is an archive but also that they work on that project and then they're off onto another project in another building so it becomes quite difficult to keep track of all that content and i'd say that that's the main challenge and that's what i'm sending some great headspace i'm looking at in my phd which is supported by the national theatre so hopefully whatever i find out um i'll be able to put into practice immediately within the ntr5 yeah and do you talk to the people during production like do you discuss with directors or whoever if there's anything that might come into the archive or clarify anything with them that's something i would i would love to do and we'll aim to do as part of my research so i am going to be embedded within a production from start to finish so that i can see those conversations and have those conversations with practitioners at the moment it's not something that's particularly feasible within the building and just because of the way that it's set up and the way that rehearsal and production happens is a very closed room environment when productions are created and it's meant to be a very safe space for practitioners to be able to experiment with their work and to have the freedom to fail and it not be documented and not be seen and that they are able to work from that and learn from that so we have to be really careful as archivists about how we approach that space and how happy those practitioners are to speak with us so it is going to be a softly software approach to see what works best and but at the moment those conversations don't necessarily happen and that's what i'm hoping will happen as a result of my research yeah it's a bit like journalism you don't really want to step on anyone's toes but you don't have the information you know what are your hopes for the future of the archive is there a particular group you want to target i mean 15 million people watching the nationals like that's amazing is there anything else that you would hope i think i am really passionate about finding a way to share that content more widely and to find a way of dealing with the right situation that will allow us to share content for educational reasons and so we have started something called the nt collection which is where we stream content 30 titles that we have on the nc collection and it's freely available to all state schools in the uk um and there is a paid for subscription for any other educational establishment in the world so if you're in a university in america every level you can sign up and you can watch these 30 productions and there's also archive content surrounding each of those titles and i'm we are working really hard to find a way to share more of that archive content and to make sure that if you visit that site you know in in america that you'll get a very similar experience to if you came in in person in london so if you are sitting at your computer at university in the states you're guessing the same content you're getting the same rich insight into what happens at the national as you would get if you came in in person um you know the national theatre is meant to be national you know we want to be able to reach everyone in the uk not just those that can come to london or can afford to come to london so that's a real passion project for the nt um and i think as well with the archive i would love to work more on the research side so with our collaborative doctoral awards with central uh we're running our first one at the moment we have another student starting in september and the huge benefits you get from partnering with educational establishments it's fantastic because they come with a funded project and those students have an insight into your theater or your subject area that you probably don't have they also have the time and capacity to research which you don't have as an artist you're pretty busy um and also now a lot of these phds require public engagement outputs so the phds aren't simply any thousand more thesis that you get plunked with at the end but they they come with a lot of work that has to be of relevance to the national theatre so may that be a podcast series which nadine is actually designing which will be launched in september it'll be a podcast series about black theatre and that's fantastic and she's gone away and she's researched that she's doing the interviews with all the academics and the practitioners so i think the opportunities that research brings is the kind of untapped resource at the moment and i'd really love to find out more about that you've mentioned your black lives and obviously this is something that you as an institution have come up with yourself but now at the moment there's a big sort of political and social push and to focus on things like that do you tie in with that or do you just do your own thing and know that that's the correct that that's what you want to do well we established the black plays archive um probably about 10 years ago now um and that was out of the desire of one of our associate directors kwame khair who's now the artistic director of the young vic down the road and he wanted to establish a blackface archive having seen a similar setup in new york at the public library and we established that with funding from the arts council and with support from various archives and universities who already held material related to black theater companies we've established that and it is something that lives at the national theatre and what it does is it keeps track of every first professional production in the uk of plays written by british african and caribbean playwrights so it's a union catalogue so it's a website and it tells you where all of these productions happened and when and who was in them but most importantly it tells you which archives to go to to find out more information so some of those shows were at the national so i'll say go to the national theatre archive they have all these things but some of those obviously the productions were all over the uk and so it will tell you to go to the dna or maybe go to the british library or the black cultural archives or goldsmiths university so it's really a resource that sits there for people who want to study those plays or who want to put those plays on and there's a lot of content on that site there are interviews there are readings and we've conducted several exhibitions which are now available online and nadine podcasts will also be available on there and we want it to be a central particularly for teachers and we're seeing with this black lives matter movement and certainly recently over the past few months and the sort of shock at the lack of diversity on school syllabus and we are there to provide those resources to say to teachers you you have the support to teach these texts and we're hoping to be able to impact on the syllabus and get that changed and get a far more diverse set of texts and practitioners on the english and drama syllabus so we're really passionate about doing that and we're hoping that by having these phd students and who are young women of color and coming through the program and encouraging more people to be studying those texts at postgrads but also that will trickle down to it being studied at undergrad it's been studied at school so we're chipping away um a bit by bit as much as we can and i think it's really important that the national isn't the only organization that contributes to the black plays archive and so we're looking at ways that we can and continue a conversation with the community about what they want the archives to be and what other resources and events we can run around the archives that will be useful to everyone so fantastic so finally what is your most interesting item what what do you favorite in your collection that's a tough one um i think i'm gonna cheat and see a series of content um and it'll be um the correspondence of our artistic directors so particularly peter hall who is of a period where you have all the pinks so you have the copy of the letter that he sent to someone and then you have the letter that they sent to him and recently one of our researchers daniel rosenthal has published a book called dramatic exchanges which is a sort of history of the national theatre through correspondence and it looks at all of the artistic director's correspondence and also correspondence between literary managers and people like that with playwrights about their work and i think what i just found so touching about that is getting an insight into how the artistic director works uh so i've been at the national under nicholas heitner and now um rufus norris is our director and i think understanding how being an artistic director is different to them being a director and you get a sense of all of the conversations they have to have a lot of um a lot of pacifying people who've maybe upset each other um and a lot of trying to fiddle things with the planning and the scheduling to make sure that everything matches and i think just having that insight into how they work um is really really fascinating and also there's a bit of gossip in there and you've gotta love in archives um so it is highly entertaining theater is notorious for gossip isn't it yes those will never get to here unfortunately yeah and thank you for talking to me today it's been really interesting hearing about all your work it sounds like a really dynamic organization always trying to think of new ways in which to engage people and i certainly know that from studying plays at school we were encouraged to watch them and that's what plays are for you know but to have a whole program where you can sign schools up and they can watch you know world-class performances they've taken place on location that must be fantastic for teachers to have that resource and good luck with your phd thank you how how far through are you um i'm about a year and a half through and it'll be six years oh god it feels like a long time right now um is there any other place you want to point people in the direction of i think uh we'll put a link up for the uh black plays archive and also to all of our online exhibitions uh which are available for free on our website um and they give your real insight into some of our materials and also interviews with academics and practitioners about what the national theatre does and you can get the glimpse of backstage as well oh fantastic um and then check out national theatre live either on youtube or at the cinema if yeah it's ever reopened yeah yeah we are we are showing already in faces yes oh great great wonderful to talk to you