Preserving the Ephemeral

by Sara Zettervall

in Tools & Research

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Where are the education guides from your last 5 plays? Can you find your old programs without calling your mother? What happened to that set model? Can you still access digital photos from 2002? Yes? No? Not sure? Take our survey!

Imagine your theater company twenty years from now.  The new artistic director wants to put on a retrospective program of plays from throughout the company’s history. She wants to know which works they were and what the final productions looked like.

Imagine your theater company fifty years from now. A scholar of theater history has discovered information suggesting that your productions were part of a watershed moment in early 21st century theater. He would like to learn more about what went on behind the scenes from 2000-2012.

Imagine your theater company seventy years from now. Your legacy is well known and you are preparing for your company’s 100th anniversary and a major renovation. You want to collect materials for a pictorial book and for a permanent display in the newly designed lobby and bar.

Come back to this moment. Would you, your future staff, and your patrons be able to get the materials needed?

When Penumbra Theatre Company, one of the country’s premiere African American theaters, discovered that the answer to that was too often, “No,” they teamed with the University of Minnesota Libraries Performing Arts Archives for the project “Preserving the Ephemeral: An Archival Program for Theater and the Performing Arts” (, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This project will create a method of documenting all aspects of theater’s work so the resulting materials are preserved for future generations of artists, scholars, and students.

Meanwhile, other archivists and dramaturgs with a stake in preserving theater history became increasingly aware that many theaters—busy, understaffed, and underfunded—were neglecting to save the materials that document their legacy. They came together to form the American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP; in 2010, with a mission to create and deploy teams across the United States to help teach theaters how to assemble and manage their own archives.

Now, our two projects have teamed up with TCG and need your help. We have a created a brief survey about how theaters think about their cultural legacy and what they do about their archives:

We want to know how your theater companies are (or aren’t) documenting your productions for future use. We hope to hear from as many people as possible who are working in theaters. If you know of other theater companies who could contribute to this discussion, please share the survey link with their directors. We are particularly interested in hearing from theaters of color, whose history has been most at risk of disappearing without a full or reliable story, but we are interested in hearing from everyone.

The survey is anonymous. If you are interested in being part of the discussion or learning more about archives for your theater, let us know at the end of the survey. One option is possible participation in a 1.5-day forum in Minneapolis in August or September, with all travel expenses covered for 1-2 members of your theater company. The second option is consultation with a member of ATAP about organizing your company records for posterity—an option which can also be arranged at any time by contacting them through their website.

We welcome your questions, enthusiasm, and interest in participating any time, so please feel free to contact us:

Sara Zettervall is Project Manager for the University of Minnesota’s Performing Arts Archives grant, “Preserving the Ephemeral: An Archival Program for Theater and the Performing Arts.” She has a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and is currently completing her MLIS at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN.  When she’s not working at the U, she can be found in local schools and libraries, connecting underserved teens with resources that help them read for fun.

  • Martha Wade Steketee

    I am the co-chair of the NYC unit of the American Theatre Archive Project, and the enthusiasm and energy of the dramaturgs, archivists, researchers and others on the voluntary project is infectious.  If you’re in NYC and have an interest in this area, feel free to contact us.  There are groups forming an doing great work all around the country.  Look at the project web site for more information (as noted above).  

    Newer news is that the NYC project has received some funding from the Lortel Foundation to work with several Off-Broadway theatres to support/enhance/develop their archival activities, and we expect the project to grow.  Click around for news  — I posted some information there about work during our first project year, for example, at us!

  • Martha Wade Steketee

    My earlier comment was a bit truncated … here is a short version of the link to a post about some recent efforts of the ATAP NYC group: