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Interpreting the Archive: Stories of the Future Past

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December 7, 2016 by David

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I’ve been resident part-time as a Writing Fellow in the Theatre Department at Bristol University since the beginning of October.

One day a week I’m preparing and delivering group sessions, one-to-one tutorials and an online information list for students, covering aspects of playwriting and creative process and aiming to connect them more directly with the industry beyond their course of study.

The other day and a half a week I’m delving into my own playwriting research, inspired by the vast archive that is the Theatre Collection and which by March 2017 will have helped guide me towards the first draft of a new piece of work.

As ever, research for a play at this early stage feels exciting but sprawling, guided by a combination of instinct, ignorance, curiosity and guts. I’ve started from ground zero. I haven’t arrived with a story to write, have no previous experience with archives, and am a total newcomer to the Theatre Collection itself.

This blank slate next to the relative enormity of the challenge – finding something singular to focus on within the wealth of starting points in the Theatre Collection – is part of what attracted me to taking it on. When writing plays I tend to start with the vast and abstract then try and distil to the specific and human. I can feel a recognisable terrain under my feet.

So I can’t tell you who or what my play is about yet – I’ve no idea. But there is a process ahead. Many of my previous plays have had to anchor themselves around a process of research, with companies commissioning on subjects as varied as synthetic biology, the life of Josef Stalin’s daughter, variants of frontotemporal dementia, Korean history since the late 19th century, the radical transformation of Basingstoke in the 1960s (no, really) – and I’ve come to realise that at some point playwriting research demands three things.

Firstly, glue: an identification of commonalities and connections within a very broad base of research. Secondly, people in action: a translation from abstract themes and concepts into human choices in a world with consequences. Thirdly, a human truth: something that is knotty, complex, contradictory, impossible, fascinating because of its problems or mystery, and that can potentially contain within it a bigger metaphor that expresses the discoveries from the research.

My research base of the Theatre Collection is immense. It’s held onsite at the university and off-site in North Somerset, and beyond its own holdings there’s also the vast literature on archiving and archival practice.

That reading has quickly spiralled me into debates around cultural value; what we preserve from the past and why; who controls history; the move from material archiving into digital archiving and the attendant conflicts and questions around the value of ‘the original’, and the connections between structures of power and authority and the beginnings of archival construction.

The earliest state archives seem to have very much reflected a maintenance of a culture’s status quo, at least in what they deem worthy of preservation. Even in the Theatre Collection itself, certain original items which have been deemed vulnerable and precious enough to have required copying for viewing by the public, have in fact been brought out for individuals of perceived high rank. That anecdote hit me around the time Emma Rice’s tenure at The Globe was controversially cut short – it seems not only in theatre does a connection between culture, heritage and privilege still haunt us.

The other tension that’s revealed itself sits awkwardly between the desire for an archive’s immortality, and the need for human contact to actually bring it to life. An unseen, un-encountered archive has no purpose beyond the idea of it. To take it beyond a collection of dormant items, humans must physically and imaginatively encounter it.

With that contact however, comes an inevitable decay. This could be physical decay of the objects themselves due to the oils on our skins or exposure to light; or it could be a metaphorical decay, of any objective history or perceived ‘truth’ around the object, as its contact with a human imagination in the present betrays an intention for it to be re-seen, re-interpreted and re-used in a new narrative construction (by researchers, academics, and yes, playwrights).

The archived object is a strange thing: a dormant story of the past that nobody can hear unless they contact it – but which, at that point of contact, can only transform into a new story. In addition, the act of selection for the archive’s holdings indicates a (sometimes very recent) past of values, and always for the benefit of some imagined and unknowable future individual that will use the holdings for their own ends anyway.

Curiously then, the preserved only has life breathed into it at the moment of transformation. We seek out the past not to confirm and replicate it, but to author it. At an extreme level – and albeit from my admittedly thinly-read perspective so far – in choosing to archive objects from history, human beings are simultaneously constructing one history that will never be seen, and another that they can never hope to know. This leads me back to at least one theory I’ve read, that the archive contains everything and nothing at the same time.

That’s a big controversial statement that contains within it a contradiction – but for me, a truthful contradiction is always at the heart of great stories. Hamlet wants desperately to understand life but can only do so through a morbid fascination with death; Jaws is at once a predatory monster and a stunningly beautiful result of evolutionary biology; in the Lord of the Rings, the ring has the potential to bring great progress and knowledge, but curses those who possess it with greed and selfishness. Human beings are contradictory and that’s what makes us fascinating to watch on stage.

In terms of playwriting, at the heart of the archive right now is a knotty and exciting contradiction that is inherently theatrical. It feels theatrical because the archive is this strange world of simultaneously shared spaces and times both real and fictional. Often the joy of the stage for me is the ability for it to occupy several planes of storytelling space and time within the same, shared, singular space and time of the audience: the theatre.

From that theatrical perspective, take Moira Buffini’s wry West End play Handbagged (2013) as an example. The story of Handbagged is focused upon a series of meetings between the PM and the Queen that were never once officially archived or documented – we only know that they did happen. Mrs Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth are then played by two performers each as their past and present selves.

These four figures, colliding past and present perspectives, are then able to both narrate upon and act within their own and one others’ stories, all in a theatrical space which is neither fixed nor a literal geography – it is at once a theatre, a palace, Chequers, and whatever else you need it to be. A new history is made and its results are deliberately ambiguous – but that ambiguity only lives because we, the audience, make contact with the gaps and attempt to fill them in. We witness versions of these messy things called humans making choices in space and time, and after that live moment of encounter they may live on with us in our memories, or they may have died by the time we reach the bar.

I feel like the act of archiving and all its inherent notions of space, time and history encompass a uniquely human obsession echoed in the telling of stories – the need to cheat mortality, through preserving our present in the past, and imagining a future where those lives will still matter, somehow, to somebody. Leave a trace. I was here. Scrawl it wherever anybody can see it.

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog the three demands of playwriting research, and all three aspects – the glue in the research, finding human choice, and finding a human truth – all feel like they’re adumbrating from the darkness already.

But there is one specific human fascination that I feel neatly counterpoints the more theoretical reflections above, and which – if I’m honest – as a playwright excites me more than anything else.

I’ve interviewed Theatre Collection staff, academics, archivists, researchers and volunteers as part of a planned programme of conversations for this project. I’ve also mentioned ad hoc to various people the project’s engagement with the Theatre Collection.

In each case, a story has been told. A story either of passion for a single object or document, or of how they’ve witnessed somebody else being emotionally impacted by that immediate moment of encounter with an archived object. How they’ve seen people transform – their energy or demeanour or attitude shifting – when they’ve encountered a piece of history that somehow speaks to something deep within them: a moment of history awakening and meeting the present, resulting in smiles, gapes, wide-eyed curiosity, and even tears.

If there’s a more tangible subject matter for the play right now, I suspect it’s those moments, and imagining what mysterious forces are at play for the individual when they occur.

And from the Theatre Collection itself, I’ve landed on a shelf of puppets. Small forms, some human, some oddly inhuman, some disturbingly uncanny, but none of them as theatrical objects able to be alive until a human comes into contact with them.

The metaphorical overlaps with my understanding of the archive drawn above are tantalising, as is some of my early reading – such as the tale of some Chinese puppets all having removable heads not for ease of storage, but because at night their owners feared that if the bodies remained connected to the heads, the puppets would run riot away from the eyes of the living… but more on all that to come.

If you’d like to speak to David about any aspect of his research or feel that you could contribute to his current areas of focus, please contact him on or 07870 488 252

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