Stephanie Johns and Stephanie Vaillant
The Stratford Festival, located in Stratford, Ontario, is North America’s largest repertory theatre that focuses on performances of Shakespeare, the classics, musicals and new works. The Stratford Festival Archives, housed at 350 Douro Street, is responsible for collecting and caring for the Stratford Festival’s history in its many and varied forms. As a way of understanding the material culture held by the Stratford Festival Stephanie Johns, Education Associate (Teaching Focus), interviewed Stephanie Vaillant, Cataloguing and Digitizing Archivist, to explore why this type of object-centred archival collection is an integral part of Canadian theatre history. Their interview follows:
What does the collection consist of?
We have a multi-faceted collection at the Stratford Festival. Our materials date back to our first season in 1953, with a few pieces from 1952. We have done our best to document the evolution of the Festival from an idea into the thriving company it is today. This evolution is documented through all sorts of materials – everything from press clippings and administrative records to selected prop and costume pieces. In addition to capturing our administrative history, we strive to collect everything required to recreate each and every one of our past productions.
Why maintain this kind of collection?
The Stratford Festival has had a massive impact on the Canadian theatre scene. Going back to the 1950s, when very few professional theatre companies existed in Canada, you had this little dream that grew in a small town and, in doing so, bred opportunities and created artists who have gone on to either create or work in theatres all across Canada. Essentially, the Stratford Festival played a prominent role in creating a national theatre industry. That kind of impact is well worth documenting.
Theatre is ephemeral: you see the play once and then it closes. In your opinion, how does maintaining this collection help lengthen the understanding and experience of theatre in general but also the work Stratford is producing?
Theatre by its nature is an artistic compilation: it cannot be created in isolation. In fact, some of our main user groups are artists who wish to consult the work of those who have previously created something they are currently trying to create. For example, we often have actors come in to consult recordings of performances – they want to see how others have interpreted roles they are undertaking in the upcoming season. Designers frequently come in to see how their fellow professionals have approached a certain production or time period, and directors do likewise. Essentially, preserving how other people have approached material enables others to build on those ideas. It’s the old theory of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – you build off what has already come before you.
Who can access this collection?
We are open to the public. Anyone can access the collection. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can come in and we will try to assist you with whatever you are researching. The Stratford Festival Archives Collection Catalogue can be consulted online here. To learn more about researching at the Archives, visit https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/AboutUs/OurHistory/ArchivesServices
What are your most commonly accessed items?
The production recordings are quite popular. These are recordings of our productions going all the way back to 1968.
The second most popular item would be the composite scripts. These are a little unusual – they are the only items in the Archives that are actually created by the Archives department. To make a composite script, the Archives take a script from every performance of a show – say, all the Hamlets. Each production (1957, 1976, etc.) is assigned a colour, and then a clean copy of the script is marked in that colour with all the cuts, additions or textual rearrangements that were used in each show. This allows a researcher to read one single physical script and see simultaneously how the show in question has been cut differently across the Festival’s history.
The third most accessed item in our collection is probably the press clippings.
I knew a little about the composite scripts, but that is unreal. For example, this year’s Hamlet: is this a living document on your computer that you can go in and add to at the end of the season and print it out again? How does that work?
In many cases, Hamlet being one of them, we’ve done productions so many times that we can’t fit all the cuts on one physical script, so we have two composite scripts, each chronicling productions from a different set of decades. Composite scripts were first introduced at the Stratford Festival by the late former Archivist Jane Edmonds in the early 1990s.
What sets Stratford apart from other theatres in terms of our collection and our long memory for what is considered ephemeral?
To the best of our knowledge, we are the largest theatre archive in North America dedicated to a single theatre company. As far as we know we are the second largest in the world behind La Comédie Française. So that alone…I mean, just statistically speaking, the breadth of information that we take in and the completeness of our picture of the Festival’s history is something that is unique. It’s not exactly common for a theatre to have its own archive. Many will send their collections out to academic or regional institutions. Our entire set-up is unique.
How can object-centred approaches to studying the past change our understanding of history, specifically this theatre’s history?
People often think we keep the objects around because they look great in exhibitions and the public loves them. That’s part of it. I don’t want to diminish that aspect, but we also get all sorts of researchers coming in – students and craftspersons, for example – to research the items themselves. I had some cutters and sewers in this morning who were looking at a robe from a previous production because they are attempting to create something similar for the upcoming season. They were looking at the way the hems were rolled, the weight of the selected material, and the width of the fabric bolts that were used to make the item.
We’ve also had students in the past interested in the work of the big names in their field. Desmond Heeley’s creations, for example, inspire a lot of creativity. How did he take plastic cutlery and make it into a gorgeous crystal chandelier? If you’re interested in the technical aspects of that process, we have the chandelier here for consultation.
This ties into one of my previous points: since the creation of material is part of what we do, archiving objects contributes to the creation of new objects. It also helps document technical evolution in the various fields of theatre design.
What are the positives to working with this type of collection?
Working here, you’re sort of on the edge of other people’s creative processes. It gives you a really interesting perspective on how ideas are compiled – to see how a show transforms from a few thoughts to a fan’s all-time favourite production…I really enjoy getting to see that.
And it is something you don’t usually get out of going to school for archives or public history; you wouldn’t expect to look at the pieces of the collection in that way.
At most other archives where I have worked, researchers are interested in learning about the past – some element of history that is cut and dry and settled. At the Stratford Festival, most of our researchers come in because they are interested in creating something new for the future. It’s a totally different approach to the use of a collection.
What are the joys of working here?
I like it when you can make someone’s day. I know it sounds silly, but those are the best moments. Sometimes we’ll get academics in studying very fine minutiae, and if you can pull up that one photograph of an actor holding a teacup in a post-modern production that they really need to make their thesis, that’s a great moment. Or perhaps it’s an actor who has been crushed by a recent review, and you can pull out reviews of actors she admires from previous shows and say, “Look, this newspaper thought this totally famous, world-renowned star was wretched.” We’ve got a few reviews like that for performances that are now legendary as being some of the best interpretations we have ever seen on our stages. So in addition to assisting people with research needs, sometimes you get to lift them up, or help them achieve their goals. That’s always a huge highlight.
Stephanie Johns (she/her) is an Education Associate (Teaching Focus) in her sixth season at the Stratford Festival. She manages the Prologue series, the Teaching Shakespeare and Teaching Contemporary Theatre Programs and chats and workshops for college, university and adult groups. Stephanie holds her MA in Public History and BEd in Intermediate/Senior History and English, both from Western University, and is a proud Huron University College alumna. She is an active adult member of the Girl Guides of Canada and loves going camping with her unit, the 3rd, Stratford Sparks and Brownies.
Stephanie Vaillant is the Cataloguing and Digitization Archivist at the Stratford Festival of Canada. She holds degrees and educational qualifications from Queen’s University and the Université du Québec, and received her Master of Library and Information Science from Western University. Prior to coming to the Stratford Festival, Stephanie worked in museums and archives in France, New Zealand, Canada’s subarctic and across southern Ontario.
 Toby Malone, “Distract parcels in combined sums”: the Stratford Festival ‘Composite Scripts’ and a Question of Dramaturgical Primacy, Canadian Theatre Review, 2013.