Looking Back on 250 Reels and Two Years of Collaboration

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One of 250 half-inch open reels

In 2017, the archive at La MaMa was awarded a $100,000 grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize 250 reels of half inch magnetic video tape. These reels contain footage of La MaMa performances from the 1970s – shows like Miss Nefertiti Regrets, written by Tom Eyen, Rat’s Mass, written by Adrienne Kennedy; shows from the Native American Theater Ensemble, the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, the Great Jones Repertory Company and much more. Some of these performances haven’t been viewable for decades, and represent much of La MaMa’s most important early work. The generally accepted life expectancy for magnetic media is 10-30 years and that is really only if the tape is held in ideal environmental circumstances. With the oldest reel dating from 1970, we were already past that expected lifespan for these important reels, which is why it is so exciting to be able to say that the 250 reels in this collection have now all been digitized. More than that, this grant provided for the opportunity and resources to make sure that the digital masters are held in proper storage to ensure their longterm preservation. In two days, this two year grant project will be over, and I’m thrilled to call it a success.

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Still from “Renard” (1972)

In order to document our work, publicize the newly available collection, and hopefully share a project model for other institutions like us, the archive has produced a white paper: Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of the 1970s-era Experimental Theater. As a small archive serving an arts institution, we wanted to share how we went about preserving these reels in a way that would make them accessible without having to give them up. Community archives, particularly ones documenting marginalized histories, often find themselves between a rock and a hard place: how they can preserve their material when they don’t have the funds or infrastructure, without giving that material over to a larger institution? Do you preserve your collections, or do you retain control of your own history? This is not an easy choice, and our solution is not one-size-fits-all, but we do believe that post-custodial models, as outlined in the above white paper, can serve community archives well, and should be more commonly adopted as a solution to that choice of preservation or control. In fact, we believe that it is a choice that shouldn’t be necessary at all, and certainly not so common.

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Ellen Stewart, in a still from “Play by Play” (1972)

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Still from “Heimskringla” (1974)

If the desire strikes you, share this white paper widely. If something in it catches your eye and you would like to know more, don’t hesitate to contact us here. La MaMa’s success was a collaborative one – the partnership with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the Bay Area Video Coalition made this project possible in the first place. I want nothing more than to keep that spirit of collaboration and resource sharing alive. Fostering mutually beneficial relationships between archivists, artists and institutions is the only way to make sure collections like this remain accessible and in the hands of the communities who created them. This white paper was written with that spirit in mind, and I prefer to think of it as a living document, rather than a finished product. As this project ends, I find myself asking more questions: what’s next? How can we use this footage in the same spirit of experimentation and collaboration? How can artists, archivists, students and educators work together and what could be possible as a result?

 

I specifically want to thank all the wonderful people who have helped make this project a reality. Rachel Mattson, who got everything started, and gave me a shot at being a part of it, Amy Sloper, Morgan Morel and Jesse Hocking, who did so much and did it so well, Lousia Lebwohl and Kate Philipson, who were not only incredible metadata specialists but amazing teammates, Ozzie Rodriguez and Shigeko Suga, who have built the La MaMa archive into the amazing resource it is today, and to the NHPRC for seeing the value in our collection and in taking the collaborative path.

Pride at La MaMa Archives

What does Pride Month look like at La MaMa, where queer artists of all kinds have always found open doors? What does Pride mean, when queer artists have been the foundation of the experimental work that has made La MaMa, La MaMa? What it means in the archive is an atmosphere of queerness – it’s all around us, every day, in the material we handle, in the footage we watch, in the catalog records we create. It just is – a natural part of our ecosystem, which is, perhaps, a vision of the world we could be living in.

This ecosystem reflects Ellen Stewart’s vision, the one she developed as she took her touring companies all over the world, then returned with the artists she’d met on those travels, and provided time, care, and resources for them here at La MaMa, enriching the theater and the city with new voices and stories. Today, as we hear endless talk of inclusivity and diversity, I often find myself thinking of Ellen’s vision, of La MaMa, and the way I can see what diversity really means here in the La MaMa archive. It is not a matter of tokenism, or political correctness, but rather a naturalization of what it really means to be a human being – which is to say indefinable, innumerable and multifaceted.

In some ways, this means that trying to do something special for Pride at the archive feels a little redundant. I’m working with and celebrating queer artistry in my every day, for which I’m very grateful. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t fun to take the opportunity to show off a few of my favorites in the La MaMa archive – and there are so very many.


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Belle Reprieve Flyer, Split Britches 1991

First up is Belle Reprieve, a send up of A Streetcar Named Desire that was staged at La MaMa in 1991, after a run in London. Split Britches is a lesbian theater company founded by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, who both starred in the show. It was a joint production with Bloolips, which was an all male drag performance group, the mirror to Split Britches’ lesbian theater. Less adaption and more parody, Belle Reprieve treats Streetcar as a kind of modern myth, employing drag and masquerade to fuck with gender identity and sexuality; in the words of the OUT Magazine review, “a gender melee of an already gender confused play.” Perhaps the best summation of the play comes at the very top of the script, with the cast list:

“MITCH, a fairy disguised as a man (Paul Shaw); STELLA, a woman disguised as a woman (Lois Weaver); STANLEY, a butch lesbian (Peggy Shaw); BLANCHE, a man in a dress (Bette Bourne).”


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Ekathrina Sobechanskaya, 1982

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Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, 1982

In 1972, three members of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company formed the Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, often headlined by co-founder Larry Ree, who performed under the name Ekathrina Sobechanskaya. A loving parody of classical ballet forms and traditions, this particular Trockadero performance happened at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, and took place in October, in honor of the October Revolution.  Of a show in May, the Villager wrote, “[Ree] has always been quite precise in insisting that the Trocks are not a drag group…” Instead, Ree insists they dance “en travestie”:

“It is a very sophisticated approach to material by which a kind of wry humor is achieved that is not at all the ‘travesty’ that the English implies. Properly understood, [en travestie] does rather exactly describe what the troupe does, for though their dancing on point is often humorous, it is never cheap, never happy, never broadly satirical. It is not a joke about ballet, but a joke inside ballet — one made through great knowledge and great love.”


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Harvey Fierstein in “One Man’s Religion”, 1975, photograph by Amnon Ben Nomis

Harry Koutoukas was an Off Off-Broadway founder, legend, and icon who put up shows at La MaMa and Caffe Cino, injecting surrealism and the absurd into the lifeblood of American Theater. One show in particular was a set of two monologues; “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers”, performed by Harvey Fierstein, debuting his first time out of drag on stage.

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H.M. Koutoukas, 1974, photograph by Irene Vilhar

The first monologue, One Man’s Religion, takes place in a “burned-out writer’s apartment in NYC – mid 1970s” and the Pinotti Papers was “set in the heart of a dead Alcholic-Cocaine Addict”. Koutoukas was wildly prolific, turning out 3 plays a year during the 60s and 70s, many of which were produced at La MaMa, including “Medea in the Laundromat,” which Koutoukas called “a ritualistic camp.” An early adopter of camp in theater, Koutoukas flouted convention and obeyed no law but, in his own words, “the ancient law of glitter.” According to the reviewer from the SoHo Weekly News who went to see Fierstein perform “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers,”:

“There are shows, good and bad, that I feel I have things to say about. And there are other shows that are their own review, their own entirety. These are very special. They deserve their own unrefracted existence, in their own words. These Koutoukas ‘plays’ are such shows. To be seen, heard, experienced, in their own right. Just go.”


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That’s How The Rent Gets Paid Poster, 1966

Describing Jeff Weiss‘ series of one-man-shows, that were performed as recently as 2015, is no easy task. This first performance in 1966 was a chaotic series of monologues in which he assailed the audience with, “a cascade of fantasies, reminiscences, meditations, poetry-readings, and miscellaneous schticks…” Many years later, theater professor Alisa Solomon observed that, “critics didn’t yet have the language for the queer interventions of Weiss’s confounding yet compelling work, which addressed subjects like racism, liberal hypocrisy, sadistic parenting, and sexual violence.” With this 1966 kick off, Weiss began the artistic journey that would cement him in Off Off-Broadway legend, disrupting not only notions of gender and sexuality, but the conventions of theater and performance, leading reviewer Ross Wetzsteon to call Rent, “one of the most moving and harrowing experiences I’ve ever had.”


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Tom Eyen Festival Flyer, 1965

I’m ending this very brief glimpse into La MaMa’s rich queer legacy with Tom Eyen, one of La MaMa’s earliest and most celebrated playwrights – someone whose work should have been mandatory viewing for any celebrity who thought they had a good outfit for the Met’s 2019 Gala. A prolific La MaMa contributor, Eyen did 35 plays at La MaMa between 1964 and 1974, including Miss Nefertiti Regrets (Bette Midler’s New York City stage debut), Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down, The White Whore and the Bit-Player, Sarah B. Divine, and Frustrata. Eyen would go on to win the Tony for best book for Dreamgirls, but his roots were in Caffe Cino, in La MaMa, and in camp. One of his most famous, and perhaps most notorious camp plays was Women Behind Bars (1975), which featured long-time Eyen collaborator Helen Hanft, and would be revived a year later with Divine starring.

His dual shows happening at La MaMa and the Cino, seen above, earned a review from the Village Voice that managed to work the words “loud”, “crude”, “appealing” and “vulgar” into a glowing review – exactly the kind of praise that a queer artist might dream of.

La MaMa at #AMIA18

This year was my first time at AMIA! Otherwise known as the Association for Moving Image Archivists. It’s a wonderful conference full of archivists and AV geeks of all kinds, and a great place for someone who is managing a collection of media on all sorts of nhprc-logo-lformats. Resources galore! Friendly colleagues, eager to help out! And of course, informative panels that will give you a taste of what the professionals in the field are cooking up.

I consider myself doubly lucky, since I also got to present on our National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) funded project with my predecessor Rachel Mattson, as well as my colleagues from BAVC and the WCFTR. It was actually my first time meeting Morgan, from BAVC, and Amy and Jesse, from WCFTR in person, and it was a joy. Working with all four of them on this panel was gratifying – a chance to show off all our hard work to a room full of people who will appreciate it better than anyone. My only regret was that I didn’t get a photo with my co-panelists.

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I did, however, get a photo of Multnomah Falls

In fact, we were asked to share some of our documentation. An audience member pointed out that the Memorandum of Understanding designed by Rachel and Amy at the start of the project is quite unusual, and that other institutions might benefit from having it as an example. Anyone interested can find it here! (The only info I edited out are email addresses.)

Below, you’ll find the slides from our presentation:

 

 

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If you’d like to save the slides, download it here.

I was very happy with how we approached the panel. Rather than break the presentation down into individual sections, we were able to do more of a round robin discussion with all of us addressing each step of this two year long collaboration. After all, the theme of the panel itself was collaboration! We wanted that to shine more than anything else – that the solution to the problem of deteriorating, valuable material and no digital preservation infrastructure was to collaborate with like-minded institutions. We all benefit – La MaMa preserves and makes accessible important material, WCFTR expands their collections, and BAVC tackled the challenge of a large scale digitization effort that helped them streamline their workflows. You can read and download our project narrative here, although keep in mind some aspects of the project – like the staff involved, and a couple technical details – have changed.

I was so grateful for the positive response to our presentation. It meant the world to have other archivists engage with the work we’ve done, and it was especially meaningful to have students come up after to talk. AMIA was a treat – I can’t wait for next year – and I hope the documentation here is helpful. My inbox is always open to questions and ideas!

A new face in the archive

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 volunteerIMG-8049 (1).JPG 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.