Materiality and Theatre History at the Stratford Festival Archives

Stephanie Johns and Stephanie Vaillant

Stratford artifacts

Items from the Stratford Festival collection including: snake candelabra from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968, directed by John Hirsch, designed by Leslie Hurry), garments worn by Zoe Caldwell as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (1967, directed by Michael Langham, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch) and chandelier from The Country Wife (1983, directed by Richard Cottrell, designed by Desmond Heeley, performed at the Avon Theatre). Photograph by 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. Continue reading

Stitching our World Back together – Material Culture Revitalization at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig

Mitch Case

Group of people beading around a table

Bead night at Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig.

“Everyone has the right to feel good about who they are, and for us, with all that we have been through since the coming of the visitors to our island, this place given to us by the creator – it’s been a long time that we have not felt that way, but everyone, and there is no exception to this, everyone has the right to feel good about who they are” – Onaubinisay

This statement, while seemingly uncomplicated, is a profound expression of an important aspect of the Anishinaabe worldview and serves as a guide for how we as Anishinaabe peoples can heal the wounds in our communities. As a result of the legacy of the Residential School system, the loss of land, language and culture, and other unresolved trauma – Indigenous peoples collectively and individually –  have existed for a long time without the ability to feel good about who we are.

For Anishinaabe peoples, material culture carries so much meaning. Moccasins don’t just cover our feet, they connect us to our mother the earth – they are how we leave spiritual tracks for our descendants to follow. Our floral beaded vests aren’t just for warmth, they express our appreciation for life. Our medallions are not just jewelry, they express our spiritual identities and let creation know something about us before we even say “Boozhoo.” Items and objects which in other cultures would just be tools or accessories, are for us living beings, they are our relatives, we dress them up, to protect them and to show our appreciation for the work they do for us.

Table filled with beadwork

Beadwork on Display From Mitch Case’s collection. Includes beadwork by numerous makers. 

Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig is a unique and beautiful Anishinaabe educational institution, located in Bawaating (Sault Ste Marie). Shingwauk is the embodiment of the vision of Chief Shingwaukonse (1773-1854) who spoke of a “teaching wigwam” where the children of his community could learn the skills and tools of the new society that has come to our lands. His vision was taken over and corrupted by church and government officials and it became a sad period in our history. Located on the site of the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School, and in partnership with Algoma University, Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig offers two, one-of-a-kind undergraduate degree programs, Anishinaabe Studies and Anishinaabemowin. Continue reading

Memory and Objects: Family History, Local Economy, and Hook Rugs

Stephanie Pettigrew

Floral hook rug

Rug made as a gift for my Great-Aunt Stella and her husband, Yvon, by my grandmother, Marguerite-Anne Lefort. Photo provided by Stella Michaud/Lisa Michaud-Sheffar.

I would like to thank all of my family members who participated in helping me put this together, particularly my sister Debbie, my great-aunts Cecile, Stella, and Sophie, and my cousins Yvonne, Lisa, and Laura, who helped immensely with photos, by sharing memories, and spending hours chatting with me about what were sometimes difficult topics. Thank you.

I need to start this with a disclaimer: this was a difficult, emotional post for me to write. I had to get up, walk away, and feel many feelings before I could get back to writing. When I proposed this, all I could think about was the excitement of discussing the beautiful textile work done by the women in my family, especially my grandmother. I really should have foreseen the emotional impact of discussing my grandmother’s death. The emotional impact of my grandmother’s hook rugs on me might be one of the best testimonies of the significance of material culture on memory.

When my sister and I imagined ourselves getting married as kids, we imagined our Mémére being there, just as she had been for all our moments, big and small. Mémére was everything for us. Mother, protector, teacher, and provider. My memories of her as a child are wild and varied, and would likely not align with most people’s archetypal French-Canadian “grandmother” figure. I remember her chopping wood in the backyard. I remember her teaching me how to cook an egg and crêpes. I remember the enormous meals she would prepare for company, and the time that I got stung by a wasp and she grabbed the wasp’s nest with her bare hands and threw it into a fire out of pure spite. But most of all, I remember watching her hook rugs in the evenings, after the day’s work was done.

Hook rug frame

A hook rug frame, containing many balls of different coloured yarn. Photo provided by Yvonne Lefort-Goosens.

Cheticamp hook rugs are somewhat famous, and not just in Nova Scotia. Queen Elizabeth II had her portrait done by a Cheticamp hook rug artist, Elizabeth Lefort. There is a Cheticamp hook rug hanging in the Pauline Vanier room of Rideau Hall. The Vatican even has a hook rug, because of course the extremely catholic women of Cheticamp would send a hook rug to the Vatican. My own grandmother made a rug for the sacristy of the church in Cheticamp, a donation of not only materials but hard work and hours of labour. Continue reading

Material Culture Theme Week Introduction

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Krista McCracken
Material Culture Theme week

My love of material culture is tied to my love of textiles. In particular, I love embroidery and I am interested in the use of textiles to explore personal and community connections to the past. I put the call out for this theme week with the hopes of bringing together posts that explored the impact of material culture on our understandings of the past. I also had the not so secret hope that someone might write about textiles. 

Someone did write about textiles, but this week encompasses much more than textiles as material culture. The submissions to this theme week came from a huge range of professional, personal, and regional perspectives. The posts bring together perspectives on material culture from both inside and outside academia and the range of posts really speak to the breath of the field of material culture. 

So, what exactly is material culture? At the most basic level, material culture is the study of the objects that are used by people and communities and how those objects reflect a community or inform the identity of a community. 

The study of material culture is incredibly diverse and encompasses a range of disciplines including history, sociology, anthropology, fine art, and others. People who study and preserve material culture exist in a whole range of places – museums, academia, archives, and communities. Despite the abundance of people who work with material culture, material culture tends to be underrepresented within academic historical dialogue. This series bridges academic and practitioner divides and encourages readers to reflect on how material culture interests with history, daily life, and our understand the past.

Throughout this week we hope to deepen discussions between material culture professionals,historians, and those working in the community, so please be sure to engage and further the conversation in the comments section and on Twitter. You can reach us at @ActiveHist

Emergency Remote Teaching: A Post Secondary Reality Check

By Ian Milligan

They fell like dominoes throughout the week as the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic became unavoidably clear: first, Laurentian University suspended classes and moved them online on Wednesday, March 11th; by the evening of Friday, March 13th, every university in Ontario had suspended in-person classes and declared that winter term classes would be completed online (or via other alternative means). We are about to see Ontario engage with technology-mediated learning on an unprecedented scale.

The empty Hagey Hall of the Humanities atrium at the University of Waterloo on March 18th, 2020 (credit: Ian Milligan).

The warning bells are chiming. Some faculty are wary. The Canadian Association of Universities Teachers, for example, warns against workload pressures that would now require “additional support for staff, such as assigning teaching assistants,” and cautions that academic bodies “involved in monitoring the pedagogical effectiveness of temporary online instruction and to decide on adjustments or discontinuance.”

Dipping one’s toes into Twitter and you’ll see rhetoric as varied as how this devalues the hard work of online education, that it is an impossible task being given to instructors, and – in conspiratorial tones – how this might just be the first herald of a “neoliberal” move towards online education. Naturally, nobody would argue that any of this was ideal.

Framing this as a move to “online education,” however, is deeply misleading. Continue reading

History’s Reputation Problem: The Sequel, History isn’t Humourless, is it?!?

By Thomas Peace

We’ve all heard it: History is boring.

Historians may rebut: We’re not boring! We’re serious!

A quick Google Image search suggests that both perspectives may be correct! Not only does history look boring and serious, it also looks White, Wealthy, Masculine, and Antiquated (okay: White, Male, and Stale). No wonder history has a reputation problem!

Frank, the Famous Historian. Does he represent us all?

Good news for historians: 2020 is proving itself to be quite a serious year. Perhaps it will turn out to be the year of the historian (Everything is coming up Milhouse!).

The other day, though, as I ventured forth from my haven of seclusion into our COVID filled world, I realized (just now!) that this image of the historian is wrong.

In response to this image of the historian, some might say that challenge ought be made to the problematic racialized, gendered, and class norms it presents, but on this day – for it was sunny – a more pressing issue crossed my mind: history isn’t always boring and serious, it can also be funny. Continue reading

Talking History Podcasts, Vol. 2; or, The Podcast Lover’s Quarantine Survival Kit

Edward Dunsworth

For my post this month, I’ve decided to revisit a piece I wrote last year in which I shared some of my favourite history podcasts.

As many of us hunker down for extended periods of “social distancing” with the spread of COVID-19, we will be looking for ways to pass the time while at home.

And what better way than by listening to historical podcasts?!

Here are a few more favourites that I’ve started listening to in the last year or so.

The Keepers, by the Kitchen Sisters

The Keepers is a series created by the Kitchen Sisters, a radio-producing duo consisting of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. The series, which airs on National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, chronicles the “stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians – keepers of the culture, and the cultures and collections they keep.”

The Keepers’ also features a “Keeper of the Day” on their website, including this one, no. 98, A Walking Library

Continue reading

Bringing the Flu into the Classroom

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By Thomas Peace

Who would have thought that almost exactly one hundred years after the Spanish Flu closed schools, churches, and other public gatherings around the world, that we would once again find ourselves in similar circumstances?

Death Statistics for London, ON. Compiled by students in HIS 2204G at Huron University College.

The Spanish Flu hit Canada in the fall of 1918 and, after an initial scare, persisted for nearly two years. Unlike the current pandemic, it was the young and healthy that it hit the hardest. In the end, about 50,000 Canadians, and over 20 million people worldwide, died.

Death Statistics for London, ON. Compiled by students in HIS 2204G at Huron University College.

From a more positive perspective, one of its most significant and lasting impacts, was the beginning of the federal Department of Health, and a consciousness about public health that – I think – continues to serve us well today.

As many of us find ourselves working from home, and teaching online, I want to use today’s post to share a replicable assignment I used last year to engage students with the history of the Flu and how to use primary sources to study the past. Continue reading

The Distance Between Us: The Implications of Pandemic Influenza in 1918-1919

By Esyllt W. Jones

For a historian of pandemic influenza these are uncanny days. The past is colliding with the present. As if a thread has emerged, now, connecting us with those who faced, in their own ways, a globally shared experience in 1918-1919.

A group of nurses in High River, Alberta, wear face masks in an attempt to ward off the Spanish Flu, October 1919. Glenbow Archives 3452-2. Continue reading

6 Things to Consider when Moving a Course Online

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By Mary Chaktsiris

Many of us have just received an official e-mail informing us that classes have been suspended for the rest of the term and that learning will transition online. This is just the latest in a series of shifting messaging, circumstances, and fluctuating decision-making as institutions cope with the global spread of COVID-19.

People, instructors and students, are feeling this uncertainty in multiple areas of their lives, and now in the area of course design with a sense of urgency about how to respond and adapt quickly. Abruptly transitioning your course to a new online pedagogical approach three quarters of the way through the term is not how you imagined it unfolding.

When approaching the teaching of History, which often revolves around lecture-based transmission of knowledge, moving to digital pedagogies might seem like a stretch for your teaching strategy toolkit. You will need to pivot.

As an instructor this concept is familiar to you. There is likely at least one specific time, probably burned into your memory, where a course or activity did not go as planned and it caused you to reconsider or change direction quickly and sometimes drastically. Recall how you navigated this circumstance, and how you acted to create meaningful change. Draw on that experience and apply it here.

Student learning online

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