Preserving the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre*

We had a packed house on October 19 for “Preserving the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre: A Screening and Panel Discussion.” More than fifty people gathered in La MaMa’s newest venue, The Downstairs, to screen newly digitized clips documenting La MaMa’s 1972 and 1973 seasons– and to discuss the challenge of preserving this kind of legacy video material.

The event had its origins in a collaboration in which La MaMa Archives was fortunate enough to participate last year. In late 2014, faculty from NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program (MIAP) asked us to serve as a host site for a Spring 2015 student project designed to introduce new archivists to the challenges of planning and overseeing a video digitization project. After inspecting a subset of our obsolete video collection (5-15 objects), students would be required to draft an RFP for the digitization of these materials, select a vendor, and then ensure the successful completion of a preservation-level digital migration of these materials. NYU would cover the cost of the transfers, and at the conclusion of the project we would receive a)a set of preservation-level digital copies of our materials and b)recommendations that might inform future migration projects. Meanwhile, participating students would learn how to apply their knowledge of archival best practices in the context of an actual collection.

We jumped at the opportunity.

MIAP Student Erica Gold inspects La MaMa's half inch open reel video collection.

MIAP Student Erica Gold inspects La MaMa’s half inch open reel video collection.

The invitation to participate in this project came at an auspicious moment in the life of the La MaMa Archives. In 2014, we received a Hidden Collections Cataloging Grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to support the creation of a digital catalog describing materials from our earliest collections (1961-1985). That grant enabled La MaMa to hire one additional full-time and two part-time Archives staff. (I’m the full-timer.) A year and a half later, we’ve cataloged roughly three-quarters of all the material in this earliest collection.

Among the most important results of this cataloging project is that we can now very clearly see which elements of our collection are most in need of conservation and migration. At the top of this list is a cache of rare video, shot between 1972 and 1980 on a Portapak camera, documenting 170 early Off-Off Broadway productions. These videos represent what is likely the most extensive video documentation of the theatrical experiments of the early Off-Off Broadway theatre movement in existence. But video shot on Portapak cameras—a format known as half inch open reel video—is obsolete and at-risk, in large part because the equipment required to play these materials back is scarce. The last machine of this kind was manufactured in the 1970s, parts are difficult to replace, and only a handful of living technicians know how to repair them.

So when MIAP asked us to collaborate on this project, we were extremely receptive. We had already begun developing a strategy for migrating these videos to digital. But we were not yet ready—logistically or financially—to undertake a wholesale project. Partnering with MIAP presented a low-risk opportunity for us to gather information that will enable us (we hope!) to mount a large-scale half inch open reel video migration project in the near future.

A still from digitized video of

A still from digitized video of “Short Bullins” at La MaMa (1972).

The official collaboration concluded successfully in May 2015 when students returned to us our original reels along with a harddrive containing a set of digital files. But we didn’t want to the collaboration to end there. So last week (October 19, 2015) we revved up our video projector, opened up our doors, and invited all comers to a post-game roundup. The discussion featured comments from Peter Oleksik (Assistant Media Conservator at MoMA and professor of MIAP’s Video Preservation II course); Genevieve Havemeyer-King, Ethan Gates, and Michael Grant (students who worked on this project); Rachel Mattson, Suzanne Lipkin, and Ozzie Rodriguez (members of the La MaMa Archives team); and Bill Seery (Director of Preservation Services at The Standby Program, who performed the transfers of our video). How, we asked, can small organizations meet the challenge of preserving historic, live performance captured on video formats that are now obsolete? What specific preservation concerns do half inch open reel videos present? And how are we educating a new generation of archivists to handle these challenges?

And then we screened excerpts from the videos—material that had not been publically viewed in over 40 years. These clips showcased four productions: “Short Bullins”—an evening of non-naturalistic one acts written by Ed Bullins (an important figure in the Black Arts movement); Tisa Chang’s Peking Opera adaptation “Return of the Phoneix”; Paul Foster’s “Silver Queen”; and Tom Eyen’s “Three Drag Queens from Daytona” (a queer satire based on Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame”). The response from the audience was extremely positive—so much so that we’re thinking of organizing an upcoming series featuring screenings of the full-length videos.

A still from digitized video of

A still from digitized video of “Return of the Phoenix” at La MaMa (1973).

From La Mama’s perspective, this collaboration was important for a few key reasons. On one hand, it offered us a low-risk opportunity to consider and experiment with what we wanted from a vendor. We chose, for instance, not to ask for mezzanine-level digital files. We requested only 10-bit uncompressed preservation-level files and Mp4 access copies. But as I prepared video clips for the big screen, I regretted that decision because mezzanine-level files would have made my editing process easier. This collaboration also offered us the opportunity to teach new archivists something about what it looks like to work with a small, community-based archive. Valuable, at-risk video is as commonly found in small arts and community-based organizations as in large university or government repositories. But the needs of small repositories are distinct from the needs of larger institutions. We’re going to need a new generation of archivists who understand these distinctions, and who believe in the importance of small organizations’ collections.

Finally, this collaboration made it possible for us to begin to share these videos with researchers and members of our communities for the first time in 4 decades—and to plan for future migration projects. We still have approximately 245 half inch open reel videos that haven’t been digitized at the preservation level. So our work in this area is far from over.

We hope to make video of the October 19 event available soon, so keep your ears peeled for details.

*This blog post originally appeared on the website of the Theatre Library Association. Photograph at the top of this post: a still from digitized video of Tom Eyen’s “Three Drag Queens from Daytona.” The videos discussed in this post were most likely shot by Amnon Ben-Nomis.