The most common question I get when I tell people what I do for a living is how I ended up working in archives. The story I usually tell is a fairly boring, circuitous one: studying history, not wanting to be a professor, but also wanting to use my degree; discovering the power of archives as an undergrad, internships and volunteer positions, all leading to an eventual masters degree. The version that is a bit more involved and a little harder to explain is a story more about a feeling than a career path. It is a feeling that came on strong when I first set foot in the La MaMa Archive to interview for the position of Project Manager. For those of you who have never visited, the experience of entering the La MaMa Archive is a unique one. Immediately, you are surrounded by artifacts of all sizes, from the small hand drum from Korea, to the ten-foot tall wooden puppet, the largest of three Pinocchios, that was used in a 2016 production of Six Characters (A Family Album). It is cool and quiet, and each time you sweep the room with your eyes, you spot something new, strange and wonderful: an elaborate headdress, a large bird hanging from puppet strings from the ceiling, a lion’s head, a winged horse. These are the objects, but the feeling I’m referencing, and attempting to describe, is the sensation these objects impart. The air is suffused with their history and the mesmerizing stories they carry with them – not only about the performances in which they were used, but the people who built them, the time and care and creativity it took to bring them to life, and their lives since then.
I walked into this truly magical space on the footsteps of Rachel Mattson, my predecessor who is responsible not only for the creation of this blog, but for the catalog that has brought the La MaMa Archive into a future where its materials are not only preserved and processed, but used, loved, and remembered by the world beyond La MaMa’s doors. Over the course of an hour long conversation, Rachel’s obvious devotion to La MaMa’s collections would contribute to the sensation of creative magic. I told her, on our way back out to the street, that I’d felt a thrill when I stepped inside. She seemed to know exactly what I meant by that.
Part of this thrill is the physical magic of the objects themselves. Who could walk into a room full of larger-than-life puppets and beautiful costumes and not feel some awe? Another part is the magic of La MaMa and its place in history. I started my professional archives career at the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU, where the Downtown Collection documents the kind of wild, revolutionary, magical art that was being created in New York City from the 1960s on. There, I learned to love the brilliant, sometimes nonsensical, often obscene, work of artists like David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, Mabou Mines, John Vaccaro, and Maria Irene Fornés. The world of the East Village at the time of La MaMa’s founding was immeasurably expansive and exciting, challenging and tender. The theater became a vital part of that world, providing space and resources to artists who were shaping the future in ways we’re only just beginning to see and understand. At Fales I fell in love with that world, and joining the team at the La MaMa Archive has been a return to it.
My name is Sophie, I’m the new Project Manager at La MaMa, and I’m beyond excited to have the chance to continue Rachel’s work here. We’re halfway through our NHPRC funded project to digitize 250 half-inch open reels, expanding access to a treasure trove of performances from the 1970s. We’re working to digitize performances from the 1980’s and 90’s that have been accessible only through onsite VHS viewings. We continue to build our catalog on CollectiveAccess, and we’re eager to connect and work with our fellow performing arts archives in the city and beyond. Places like La MaMa, and the feeling you get walking through its collections, are absolutely why I work in archives. The doors, physical and virtual, are open for visitors to come see what I’m talking about.