The Moving Images of La Mama: Cataloging the Film Collection

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Cataloging and rehousing “C.O.R.F.A.X (Don’t Ask)” production footage.

Guest Post by Genevieve Havemeyer-King

Last summer, I dusted off and dove into La Mama’s small but rich film collection – a project that unearthed exciting documentation of performances from the late 1960’s and 70’s. La Mama’s film collection includes various reels of footage related to Wilford Leach’s 1974 production of, “C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)” and some rare recordings of Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados’ “Medea.” Other gems include shorts and features gifted to La Mama over the years such as a 1973 film titled “Ta’zieh” (Persian for “condolence theater”) and one reel that is likely a recording of the Ruth Escobar Theater’s 1970 production of Genet’s “The Balcony” in Sao Paulo, Brazil– a production directed by Victor Garcia that was well known for having been staged under the military regime of Garrastazu Médici. Other productions that are documented in some way by the collection include Tom Eyen’s “The White Whore and the Bit Player,” Jeff Weiss’s “How the Rent Gets Paid,” an early staging of “The Maids”, The Playhouse of the Ridiculous’s “The Magic Show of Dr. Ma-gico”, and Wilford Leach’s “Carmilla,” to name a few. The collection also contains numerous unidentified rolls of camera original footage captured by La Mama’s in-house documentarian, designer, and playwright – Amnon Ben Nomis.

As Rachel noted in a previous blog post about the trials, tribulations, and joys of archiving performance documentation, I have found the work of cataloging and inspecting this collection of films to be both exciting and frustrating. La MaMa’s collection of film materials suggests the complexity of archival attempts to capture accurate representations of the history of performance art. Some of the 16mm films in La MaMa’s collection were shot during rehearsals and performances that used dramatic lighting; as a result, in some cases, barely anything can be seen on the film itself. This is especially true for “Medea,” which was often lit only by candle and fire-light! These obscured records often conjure up memories of productions, without which the details of their history would be lost, but contain little information in and of themselves. In piecing together the materials more cohesive pictures of the productions are formed, but at the same time this process poses questions around the collection’s preservation and place with La Mama’s history.

The Archival Mysteries of C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)

“C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)” flyer, 1974

“C.O.R.F.A.X. (Don’t Ask)” flyer, 1974

A large percentage of La MaMa’s film footage relates in some way to C.O.R.F.A.X.–approximately 16% of the collection, or eleven film cans out of the 67 in La MaMa’s collection. (The next most-documented play is “Medea”– four cans definitely contain camera original footage of “Medea”; another 17 cans contain multiple rolls of unidentified film, which might include additional “Medea” documentation.) Cited by critics in the 1970s mainly for its “theatrical effects, surprises, and pursuits” (including its use of film projection as an element of the performance) “C.O.R.F.A.X” was a science fiction tale “about a tribe of humanoids who invade middle America and camp out in a veterinarian’s office.” The play continues to reveal itself as a mysterious production with a multitude of audiovisual components.

Because La MaMa does not have a working film-rewind, I relied on visual inspection in cataloging their film materials. Many of the film rolls labeled “C.O.R.F.A.X” appear to be production elements – work prints and original trims of audiovisual components of the performance, rather than documentation of rehearsals or performances. These records are creative works in themselves, with their own scripts, performers, and histories. Does this fact present the need to expand the scope of La Mama’s archival mission, to include the conservation of these experimental film works in addition to documentation of theatrical performance?Is it possible to hold a complete archival record of a production like C.O.R.F.A.X –that relied so heavily on multi-media elements– without preserving those multi-media elements as works in themselves? Similarly, the collection contains a number of films, some of which are mentioned above, that do not depict La Mama productions but are linked to La Mama through connections and relationships among performers, venues, and the history of the experimental theater community as a whole. What is La MaMa custodial responsibility toward these films? How would we tell the story of La Mama without these film materials?

–Genevieve Havemeyer-King

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