Harold Washington Library Center
Before the Curtain Goes Up: The Chicago Theater Collection 1986-1996
Celebrating the Special Collections and Preservation Division’s Chicago Theater Collection, a Joseph Jefferson Award-winning contemporary theater archive.
This text is from a 1997 exhibit at the Harold Washington Library Center.
The Chicago Public Library holds a theatrical treasure. In 1986, the Library began a program to document and preserve the records of the contemporary theater community in and around Chicago, and in the 10 years since its inception, the Chicago Theater Collection has grown to be a unique and award-winning national resource for anyone interested in contemporary theater.
The cornerstones of this extraordinary archive are the records of the Goodman Theatre, founded in 1925, and the St. Nicholas Theater Company, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet in 1972. The donation of these two collections in the early 1980s provided the Library with a solid foundation from which to build a world-class performing arts archive. In the first year of the program, eight theaters, including Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens and Body Politic, declared the Library to be the official repository for their records. Since then, the collection has grown to include the archives of the Organic Theater, the working drawings of the late designer Michael Merritt, the International Theatre Festival, the Theatre Building, the image library of theatrical photographer Lisa Ebright, Wisdom Bridge Theatre, and over 25 other local theaters, playwrights and designers.
An opening night program or an overnight review only tells part of the story. The making of a theatrical production, whether a simple two-character play or a musical extravaganza, is a complex amalgamation of creativity, hard decisions, collaboration and sweat. The documentation for many of these processes tells the real story of how a drama comes to be. The people involved leave a paper trail behind them and even a simple prop list or an audition note provides insight to a decision that had a lasting impact on the design or cast of a show.
Through set renderings and director’s notes, original play scripts and costume designs, this exhibit brings to light many of the choices, ideas, problems and resolutions that occur “before the curtain goes up.”
The Play’s the Thing
The play as written and the play as performed are two different things. One of the goals of a performing arts collection is to document both the work as a literary text and the work as a performance text. This objective is accomplished through the collecting of original and published scripts, and production materials such as prompt scripts, casting information, rehearsal photographs, and correspondence between the playwright and the theater staff. Just as the script is only one component of the production record, so the individual play is only one part of a theater’s season.
The Chicago Theater Collection is dedicated to documenting how plays are selected and seasons are determined. One way to do this is by assembling a theater’s artistic records, which often include the “hows” and “whys” of play selection. The availability of a particular play or specific performer, the established relationship between a theater and a playwright, or the nurturing of a new writer by a theater, are all reasons why theaters choose the plays they do. In some theaters, these decisions are made solely by the artistic directors; in others, members work collectively, selecting their season’s offerings as a company. The Chicago Theater Collection contains examples of both these processes.
Commanding from Behind the Curtain: The Director’s Role
One of the primary aims of the Chicago Theater Collection has been to amass as complete a production history record as possible for the theaters in the archive. It is within those records that the pivotal role of the director is made clear. Materials such as audition, casting, and rehearsal reports document the director’s concept for the characters as they move from the written script to the stage. Production research notes uncover his or her ideas about the play’s themes; while director’s prompt scripts, many annotated heavily with notes on blocking and line changes, follow ideas about characterization. Combined with production photographs, videotapes and opening night reviews, these behind-the-scenes records in the collection afford researchers the opportunity to experience both the mundane and the marvelous in a director’s work.
Design: Making the Illusion Real
Theater is a collaborative art that combines the talents of many artists to tell a single story. Perhaps nowhere is this collaboration more apparent than in the work of the production designers, the team that carries the responsibility of creating the visual and aural complement to a play. Set, costume, light and sound designers work together to invent a stage environment for the actors that both supports the content of the script and transports the audience to a different world. This magical world is tangibly represented in the Chicago Theater Collection by the set renderings, floor plans and elevations of the set designer, the sketches and swatches of the costumer, the sound plots and cue sheets of the sound designer, and the technical plans and light plots of the lighting designer. These documents, while supplementing the literary, artistic and administrative contents of the production files, also give researchers the opportunity to follow the career of a single designer, to compare and contrast different design concepts for the same play, and to study the impact of Chicago designers on contemporary American theater.
Choreography: Making It Move
Stage movement and choreography are not restricted to blockbuster musicals. Even routine movements such as walking across a stage or placing a book on a table are part of a nonverbal vocabulary that conveys feeling, drama and character to an audience. Movement can be as important as the spoken word. The Chicago Theater Collection best represents this elusive activity through a large body of production prompt scripts. A prompt script is a two-dimensional manifestation of what happens on stage, and not only records movement as imagined by the playwright, but notes and transcribes the director’s and performers’ interpretation of that movement, and how it is rendered technically and dramatically. Productions with dance numbers or fight sequences pose different challenges and often require the expertise of an additional artistic staff member, the choreographer. This specialist creates the movement appropriate to the scenes, whether they be two-person tangos or full-blown sword fights. Records such as dance and fight notations, rehearsal photographs and production staff meeting minutes give insight into the way choreographed movement is incorporated into the drama.
The Stage Manager: Holding All the Strings
An indispensable member of any production is the stage manager, the moving force behind much of the play’s backstage activity. The sheer number of duties a stage manager performs is infinite and covers much of the everyday business of a show, including scheduling auditions and rehearsals, arranging meetings between the director and design teams, and coordinating the efforts of the sound, light and set technicians. The stage manager is also present at every performance.
The Chicago Theater Collection is rich in the documentation of a stage manager’s tasks. Memos, lists and reports are well represented and give researchers insight as to how and why the stage manager interacts with the entire company: the cast, the artistic staff, the crew and the people in the box office. The collection’s large number of prompt scripts provides detailed information for literally hundreds of Chicago productions. These resources contain cast contact sheets and rehearsal schedules, stage blocking, light and sound cues, prop lists, off- and on-stage presets, line changes and general stage directions. The stage manager’s prompt is the most complete record of a show existing outside of a videotape, and the Library’s collection is unique among performing arts repositories.
Posters, Programs and Promos: The Spotlight of Publicity
Essential steps in a play’s production do not occur only during rehearsals or set construction. Behind the scenes, someone must make sure that basic information about the performances is available: Where will the show take place? What time does it begin? How long will it run? Who is starring in it? Who is the director? What kind of person does this play appeal to? Beyond answering these questions, however, publicizing a show does more than just create an audience, it also forges a relationship between a theater company and its community. Most theaters, even the smallest companies, have on staff someone who works to market productions. The Chicago Theater Collection contains an enormous body of promotional material: from professionally designed posters to mimeographed flyers, and from glossy press kits to handwritten media lists. As a whole, these materials reveal the different marketing strategies theaters employ and offer researchers an understanding of the emphasis individual companies place on publicity and promotion.