Endangered Data and the Arts

Last month, from April 17-22, 2017 archivists, librarians, records managers, educators, and researchers marked the first-ever Endangered Data Week (EDW). Designed to highlight and provoke discussion about threats to the public availability of federal and local government datasets, the week featured a wide range of events – Twitter chats, data rescue harvests, data storytelling, data-scraping workshops, letter writing meet-ups, and panel discussions. Over the course of six days, approximately 17 universities and 8 professional organizations convened more than 50 events. As the organizer of a new Digital Library Federation (DLF) working group on Government Records Transparency and Accountability, I helped to organize the project and worked to convene a webinar on the subject of the Freedom of Information Act that formed a part of the week’s events.

EDW was originally the brainchild of Michigan State University’s Brandon Locke, and was sponsored by the DLF in partnership with DataRefuge, the Mozilla Science Lab, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance. “There is good reason for concern about the ongoing availability and collection of data by US government agencies,” Locke wrote in a recent post in Perspectives (the online Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association). Not only has the new presidential administration signaled its opposition to open data and data-collecting initiatives (“most notably those concerning climate change”), Congress has also recently taken steps to restrict public records access. For instance, federal legislation has been introduced that would prohibit recipients of federal funds from creating, using, or providing access to geospatial databases that track “racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing” – language that, as Locke notes, could “hinder researchers’ efforts to “analyze changes in neighborhood demographics, urban development, policing, and the impact of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies.”

You might be wondering why an archivist who spends her days working in a performing arts archives is so invested in questions of government transparency, the Freedom of Information Act, and endangered data. I can think of a dozen ways to explain the source of my interest – but here I’d like to talk about just one of them: public records and data are very important to artists, arts organizations, arts journalists, arts funders, and arts scholars.

On one hand, arts organizations routinely rely on public data and records to inform their practice and to justify the importance of their work; public data informs arts administrators’ work in the areas of audience development, fundraising, public relations, infrastructure-building, and advocacy. To take a very hard-boiled example: government-collected data is routinely used to “quantify the broad ‘impact’ of the arts and culture sector in financial and programmatic terms” (as the cultural think-tank CreativeEquity recently put it). In other words, by documenting the ways in which arts programs drive local economies, contribute to youth development, and lead to lower crime rates, arts advocates give government agencies a bread-and-butter rationale for spending public money on arts programs. The 2015 Center for Urban Futures’ report on Creative New York, for example, relied on public data to document its finding that New York City’s economic engine is powered by artists and the creative sector. This finding has, in turn, been used to advocate for increased public spending on the arts in New York City. Funding for small arts organizations is often dependent on this kind of advocacy.

Funding for my home institution, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, has been shaped over the years by these sorts of data-driven advocacy efforts – as well as by data collection efforts designed to streamline government services. In the 1970s, for instance, La MaMa received part of its funding through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA). Established in 1973 by the Nixon administration (yes, that Nixon administration), CETA was a block grant project established in response to public data indicating that funding for “job training” and “workforce development” was fragmented and duplicative, and thus inefficient. Individual states could decide how to spend their CETA funds; and New York State decided to give a portion of that money to arts organizations. With CETA funding, La MaMa incubated several ensembles that were responsible for staging more than 35 events (plays and concerts) between 1978 and 1980.

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Program for “3rd CETA Chamber Concert” (1978) (From La MaMa’s digital collections.)

Although thesedays La MaMa is more likely to get funding from private foundations or state agencies than from federal job training initiatives, our ability to fund our programming continues to depend on the availability of a wide range of public data.

For instance, like many other non-profits, we rely on data from sources such as 990-PFs – tax documents that private foundations must file with the Internal Revenue Service, which contain the names of foundations’ officers and grantees – in our fundraising and cultivation efforts. Although data found in 990-PFs is not government-created, it is made public due to a government mandate. It serves as a critical resource for a wide range of arts organizations and their allies, who use it to conduct prospect research, to understand the broader funding landscape, and to find new potential donors. It also supports a broad base for fiscal transparency, oversight, and public conversations about tax policy, private philanthropy, and funding for the arts. This kind of transparency enables us as a city and a nation to ask questions like: Who is giving to the arts? How has that changed over time? Why? (And so on.)

Of course, public records and data also serve as essential tools for scholars seeking to write about the arts in social and historical context. Scholars of the history of modern dance, or the rise of video art, or the role of the arts in the life of American cities (among other topics) all rely heavily on government-created records in their work.[1] Examples of the creative uses to which arts-engaged scholars have put public records abound. But for the sake of brevity, consider just one – Robin D.G. Kelley’s masterful biography of Thelonious Monk. In his effort to portray the life and work of this perennially misunderstood, incandescent musician, Kelley makes powerful use of land and property deeds, birth, death, and marriage records, court testimony, Selective Service records, the Census, as well as Monk’s FBI file, the annual report of the New York City Department of Corrections, and an array of other documents. Indeed, the public record becomes a rich source of evidence for the biography’s most important thematic frame: that Monk’s life and work reflected — and remixed— the idea of freedom in African-American history and culture. “Thelonious Monk’s music is essentially about freedom,” Kelley argues. In one early section of the book, Kelley does a deep dive into the public record to trace Monk’s family’s experiences with enslavement and liberty in the US over the course of a century. After locating Monk’s Great-Grandfather John Jack, born in 1797, from a combination of Census records (including the 1860 Schedule of “Slave Inhabitants of Sampson County”) and property records (including a deed of gift which transferred ownership of Monk’s Great Aunt Chaney from one slaveholder to another), Kelley learns from the Census of 1870 that Monk’s grandfather Hinton Cole, born into slavery, learned to read and write shortly after emancipation. Throughout, Kelley demonstrates that if Monk’s music was “essentially about freedom,” it wasn’t an accident. He had “inherited…a deeply felt understanding” of the topic “from those who came before him.” This foregrounding sets the stage for the rest of Kelley’s account of the pianist’s life and work.[2]

Finally, open data and records also comprise important source material for working artists. The public record served as an important basis, for instance, for last year’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton. (Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has often discussed the historical and archival material upon which he based the show.) But creative engagement with government documents is hardly new, and the list of artists who have used public documents and data in their work is very, very long. In his landmark Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real‑Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, for instance, Hans Haacke used public records to chronicle “the fraudulent activities of one of New York City’s largest slumlords over the course of two decades.” Visual artists Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh also used public records in their Index of the Disappeared project, which considered the “difficult histories of immigrant, ‘Other’ and dissenting communities in the U.S” after 9/11. And in the 1980s, the activist art collective Gran Fury deployed government data in the silkscreened posters they wheat-pasted across New York City. A poster they created in 1988, for instance, featured an image of a baby doll and text that read: “One in every sixty one babies in New York City is born with AIDS or born HIV antibody positive. So why is the media telling us that heterosexuals aren’t at risk? Because these babies are black. These babies are Hispanic.” In addition to functioning as complex aesthetic works in their own right, each of these projects contributed to wide-ranging public conversations about urgent social issues.

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Poster by Gran Fury. (Screen-grab from ICP)

For good reasons, this year’s Endangered Data Week focused on the importance of government data for environmental scientists, social scientists, and humanities researchers. Such scholars and their publics have a great deal to lose when government agencies can’t or don’t collect data about weather patterns and housing discrimination, among other information. But artists and their audiences also rely heavily on publicly accessible government data. It is hard to know for sure all the ways that the data upon which arts-engaged individuals and groups rely are threatened. And we must always consider the ways in which public data collection might inform more widespread government surveillance of civilians. But government data initiatives contribute to the well-being of a cross-section of people – including artists. And if we want to ensure that creative practice can endure – and can continue to inform public conversations about history, politics, and contemporary life – we need to fight for the continued existence of a robust culture of data transparency and accountability.


[1] See, e.g. Naima Prevots, Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War (Wesleyan, 1999);  Kathy High, Sherry Miller-Hocking, and Mona Jimenez, eds., The Emergence of Video Processing Tools (University of Chicago, 2014); and Hillary Miller, Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York (Northwestern University Press, 2016).

[2] Robin D.G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), pp. 2-14 and 463-467.

La MaMa at #AMIA15

I don’t travel to all that many conferences, but when I can, I try to make it to the meeting of Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). This annual event brings together a cross-section of scholars and practitioners, and offers a wide range of workshops, panel discussions, screenings, and networking events. Attending AMIA conferences has made me a far more competent and thoughtful archivist.

At this year’s conference, I had the opportunity to give a 5-minute “lightning talk” about La MaMa at a panel that was part of a daylong stream devoted to “Access, Outreach, and Use.” Below is a slightly edited version of this talk, which was entitled “Candy Darling and Copyright: Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre.”

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Hi, and thanks to the organizers of the Access, Outreach, & Use stream for all their hard work. I’m here at this pop-up/lightning talk session to very briefly discuss the approach that one community-based performing arts archive is taking to access, use, and preservation of its analog moving image materials.

Specifically, I’m here to talk about work that’s happening in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Sometimes called the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway theatre, La MaMa was founded in 1961, in a basement in Manhattan’s East Village, and it quickly became an important site of theatrical experimentation. I don’t have time in this lightning talk to detail the long list of artists who found a creative home at La MaMa over the past five decades, but as Harvey Fierstein notes, the theater has played a critical role in shaping American theater and culture for half a century.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.28.13 PM.pngOne of the most infrequently noted of La MaMa’s many remarkable features is its archive. Occupying 5000 square feet in a building on East 4th Street, this archive holds over 30,000 unique objects–photographs, posters, flyers, masks, puppets, costumes, set pieces, and audiovisual materials. The archives has been run on a really small budget for years, but in the past decade, La MaMa has taken steps to make its collections more accessible. In 2014, we received a CLIR Hidden Collections grant, which supports the creation of a searchable catalog of materials from La MaMa’s earliest “pushcart” years (1961-1985).

Among the most vulnerable and valuable of materials in this collection is a set of ½ inch open reel video—which document approximately 170 Off-Off-Broadway theater performances staged between 1972 and 1980. They comprise the most complete audiovisual record of the early Off-Off-Broadway experiments in existence.

Productions documented in this collection include: A half a dozen experimental theater productions staged by the Native American Theatre Ensemble in the early 1970s in the aftermath of several high profile confrontations Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.29.49 PM.pngbetween the American Indian Movement and the US government;

A recording of a March 1976 performance of playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Rat’s Mass,” directed by Jazz musician Cecil Taylor (Kennedy was a key figure in the 1970s-era black arts movement. One critic called “A Rat’s Mass” “a kind of black spiritual” in which brother and sister rat “gnaw and nibble…on the standards of life that Americans use to hold themselves together”); 

Three early works of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; two performances by Grand Union dance company; an early performance by the all-male Trocadero Gloxinia Ballet; a dozen productions staged by the Playhouse of the Ridiculous;  collaborations between composer Elizabeth Swados and director Andrei Serban;

And a bilingual (English/Spanish) production of Tom Eyen’s “The White Whore and the Bit Player” featuring Warhol superstar Candy Darling in role of White Whore.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.30.33 PM.pngAmong the many challenges we face in making this collection accessible are five core issues:

1)Format obsolescence: Playback equipment for ½ inch open reel video is fragile and rare–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. In 2011, Bay Area Video Coalition’s then-Director of Preservation, Moriah Ulinskas, wrote that she informed clients and partners “that they have 5, maybe 10 years left” to digitize their ½ inch open reel video–after which time “these recordings are gone for good.” As a result: digitization is a critical piece of our access strategies. Without digitization, no access to this material is possible.Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.32.57 PM.png

2)Copyright and Actors’ Equity regulations: Audiovisual materials documenting live performances require consideration of two sets of rights: 1)rights to the recording itself and 2)rights to the underlying performance. Additionally, if members of Actor’s Equity appear in any of these productions, the recordings are also subject to Equity code regulations.

3+ 4) Preservation infrastructure + Resources: La MaMa has limited financial and staffing resources. As a result, collaboration has been critical—with NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program, for instance; and with Bay Area Video Coalition.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.36.02 PM.png5)We also face several issues that make cataloging these materials to facilitate access challenging.

On one hand, there is no well-established controlled vocabulary to assist in the description of theater materials. The Art and Architecture Thesaurus, which is may be the most likely, offers only very limited terms to describe theatrical performances.

Meanwhile, Library of Congress Subject Headings and other, more general controlled vocabularies, offer very limited terms for describing avant garde theatre artists, productions, and archival materials. Take, for instance, the ½ inch open reel video documenting Candy Darling and the production of “The White Whore and the Bit Player” in which she appeared. Is this queer theater? It is not about queers. More importantly, the term “queer theatre” is, in this context, anachronistic; or, at least, it wasn’t used by the people making this work. And anyhow, queer theater isn’t a Library of Congress subject heading.  And yet, to my mind, it is critically important to offer user-findable access points to help artists and scholars interested in the history of theatrical work created by LGBT people and communities locate related materials.  Similar descriptive issues arise in relationship to many of the other artists and productions documented by these videos.

OK: my five minutes are up! Read our blog, tweet at me, and tune in next year when (hopefully) more of this collection will be in the process of being digitized.

-Rachel Mattson

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Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections unConference

Its the dog days of summer here at La MaMa Archives, and we’re using them to look back at the work we did over the last nine months. A lot of what we’ve done, we’ve done quietly. Among other things, we’ve finished cataloging the (massive) Pushcart Show Files record group and our Half-inch Open Reel Video materials; nearly finished cataloging several additional record groups (including the Pushcart Photograph Files, Pushcart Tour and Troupe files, and our Film materials); presented at several conferences and symposia; helped to organize a Wikipedia edit-a-thon and two CollectiveAccess documentation edit-a-thons; served as a host site for several student projects based out of NYU’s Moving Image Archiving Program; and written a wide range of project documentation, finding aids, new workflows, and policy documents for the archive.

In reviewing and evaluating this work, we decided that it would be worth publishing, here, some of the writing that emerged from this work. Today we’d like to share the first of these writings: a short piece by Jack Brighton (Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media) describing the unConference session that La MaMa Archives Project Manager Rachel Mattson co-led with Yvonne Ng (senior archivist at WITNESS) and Rebecca Fraimow (NDSR resident at WGBH). The session was called “Alt-Archives: Community Based Video Collections.” And, as the session’s organizers wrote in their initial proposal, it was convened in order to consider “the archival challenge posed by video held by grassroots arts and activist organizations or in personal collections”:

In the past decade, moving image archivists have made great strides in developing tools to assist in the custodianship and management of both analog and born-digital video. However, many of these tools remain unavailable outside of large cultural heritage organizations — that is, they are too expensive, too reliant on technical expertise, or too esoteric for small organizations and individuals to access. In this session, participants will discuss the alternative ways in which community-based initiatives are reaching and empowering grassroots artists and activists with video collections. What questions does this work raise? What opportunities does it provide?  How might existing tools be made more accessible? Are there ways that large institutions might adapt their practices and policies to better serve the needs of community-based video collections?

This session will be led by archivists working on a range of grassroots video archival projects. At the human rights organization WITNESS (witness.org), Yvonne Ng has developed a set of strategies, materials, and trainings designed to help human rights activists implement solid archival practices; as a member of the XFR Collective (xfrcollective.wordpress.com) Rebecca Fraimow has helped develop a cost-effective, membership-based model to assist under-resourced artists in transferring legacy video to digital; and at the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (lamama.org) Rachel Mattson is piloting cost-effective tools and partnerships designed to improve the in-house video archival practices at small arts organizations.

We’re delighted to publish Brighton’s post-session reflections, below.


Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections Unconference, by Jack Brighton, Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Originally published on the CLIR-Connect list-serve.

Video has become essential to the work of small community organizations of all kinds: in education, civil and human rights, and the arts and cultural life of any community. These entities are typically passionate about their work, and dedicated to documenting and telling stories about their areas of concern.  Examples of such archives include media projects associated with the Occupy movement in New York and other cities, or a local arts agency documenting street performances.  In the wake of hurricane Katrina, filmmakers, community organizations, and academics documented the events and impacts of the unfolding disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.  Many community access cable TV stations record local music performances, and political and public events.

We know the materials in these community-based archives can be incalculably valuable as primary resources for the history and cultural heritage of the communities and subject areas they concern. In many cases they are documentary evidence of key events in the life of the community, including human rights abuses.

But many of these materials are among the most hidden of all hidden collections. The organizations producing them are typically interest-rich, but resource-poor. Maintaining a sustainable video archive within large institutions has proven challenging enough. For small community organizations, developing a sound archival practice is often difficult to even imagine.

I know this from talking with folks engaged in grassroots media work in my own community, and it was strongly echoed by the discussion that took place in this CLIR Unconference session. The question is how can we, the people who claim to have archival expertise and resources, begin to address the growing need for sustainable archival practice in these small organizations, in the absence of adequate local skills and resources?

Outreach, education, and intervention

A number of us have experience reaching out to community video archives in various ways. It’s often the case that the people involved understand that they have an archival problem – they don’t have the time or resources to catalog, properly store, digitize, migrate, and manage their media collections over time. So they need external help, sometimes just to know what they have and to prioritize dealing with it. We have some stories of success to tell about this:

–The Dance Heritage Coalition has developed templates for the creation of descriptive records for dance-related video materials. These are used by DHC-related organizations to get a better understanding of what video materials they have, before prioritizing what to digitize and preserve.

The XFR Collective in New York provides a variety of low-cost services to independent content creators for education, research, and cultural engagement. XFR Collective members have also made use of the DHC descriptive record templates in working with community organizations, an example of sharing good existing resources instead of reinventing them.

The Boston TV News Digital Library provides a number of information resources for archivists on its website, and is reaching out to other communities who have materials that could be part of their total collection of TV news video.

WITNESS provides an extensive online Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, which includes how to “start archiving your video at the point of creation.” This is a very smart approach, since many people producing video don’t think about how to archive it until it’s too late!

WGBH managed a massive media content inventory project involving 120 public television and radio stations, providing funding and training for staff at local stations to create a complete inventory of their media collections.

Adventures in community archiving

This kind of outreach can lead to some interesting conversations. At the University of Illinois, we recently completed a campus-wide media survey to measure the size and shape of our media collections across all departments. Our work in this was informed by the excellent Media Preservation Survey conducted at Indiana University in 2008 and 2009. They warned us, and they were right: When you start asking people about their hidden media collections, sometimes they want to give them to you.

So it’s important to clarify expectations. We calmly explained that we were trying to solve only the first part of the problem: understanding what was there. As I like to say, if you don’t know what you have, you don’t really have it. This is the case with many media collections held by community and educational institutions. Media surveys, which gather general information about the nature and extent of the content, can clarify what we have and how to go about prioritizing preservation, digitization, and access. It would be helpful to share survey instruments and expertise among institutions doing this kind of work, along with guidelines on how to communicate the nature of the work to constituents along with way.

Requirements, sensitivites, and pitfalls

WITNESS provides training and support for people safely using video in their fight for human rights. A key word is “safely,” as people shooting video of human rights violations are often at considerable risk. If obtained by those perpetrating the violations, raw video may be used to identify those seeking to expose them. So WITNESS video archival practice includes very tight security and access restrictions, especially to the raw video content.

Other communities have cultural sensitivities involving access. For some Native American tribes, it’s important that access to their intellectual property and cultural heritage be restricted to members of the tribe.  Because of this cultural requirement, the IMLS and NEH supported the creation of the Mukurtu CMS, a free open source platform for indigenous communities to manage and share digital cultural heritage content.

And of course copyright remains a factor in many community media archives, as it does everywhere else.

The bottom line is if we want to “help” these communities develop a sustainable archival practice, we must take time to understand their needs and requirements as the key stakeholders of their content.

Question: How do we scale this work?

This Unconference discussion reflected a strongly shared understanding of the realities and gaps in archival practice in community organizations. We share a consensus that small, grassroots organizations have video collections that are vital as primary cultural heritage resources. The challenge is how to address the gaps. We suspect the most productive approach would be to consider the right work at the right scale.

We can easily agree: not every community organization that creates video needs to stand up its own reformatting laboratory and trusted digital repository. These are resource and skill-intensive activities that can at some level can be scaled. The question is at what scale?

Are there natural organizational linkages that can provide technology intensive archival services for community-based media-producing organizations? There may be, but it seems the answer isn’t known to those in local communities.

What else can be scaled, and what should be local to the organization and/or community?

What levels of scale are a good fit given the types of institutions currently available to provide archival services?

What kind of interventions would best address the gaps in skills and resources at the micro level, and allow local organizations to leverage the archival services that can occur at a larger scale?

Can we develop a new model for a collaborate ecology of media preservation that leverages existing resources in new ways?

Some of the participants in this discussion are already doing some of this work. It’s clear to all of us that if we combine resources and share knowledge, we can do it better. Addressing these questions in more detail, in the context of local requirements and potentially scalable services and resources, seems like our next step.

Full notes taken during the session are available here as a Google Doc.

Respectfully submitted on behalf of the session participants.

Introducing…La MaMa’s New Archival Cataloging Project

Exciting things are happening in the La MaMa archives.

This past January, we were awarded a generous grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) as part of their Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives Program. La MaMa was among 23 institutions to receive funding under this initiative in 2013 (other awardees included the Princeton University Libraries, the Newberry Library, and the George Eastman house; for a full list of this year’s recipients, see CLIR’s site.). Designed to support “innovative, efficient” efforts to improve access to valuable archival collections, CLIR’s “Hidden Collections” project has supported the work of many effective and important archival description projects over its 6-year lifespan.

This grant will make it possible for La MaMa to create an online, searchable catalog of our archival materials – something we’ve never before had the resources to do. For this initial description project, we’re focusing on materials from our early years, 1962-1985. These are among the most requested of all our materials; they also uniquely document an important period in the history of the Off-Off-Broadway movement. Over the course of the next two years (January 2014-January 2016), a team of catalogers will work its way through the photographs, playbills, posters, audiovisual material, and scripts that document La MaMa’s earliest years. By the time we’re done, we will have created a user-friendly, robust database that will help researchers and students make the most of our archival offerings.

As we go, we’ll use this blog as a space to reflect and report back to our community and audiences. We will describe our work, reflect on the challenges that our collection poses to traditional archival practice, and offer glimpses into the treasures in the collection. We will also announce any public events we convene to showcase our efforts and their results. So keep your ears peeled for updates.

In the meanwhile, we’re thrilled to introduce the members of the cataloging team. Working with long time staff and La MaMa-ites Ozzie Rodriguez (the Director of La MaMa’s Archives) and Shigeko Suga (Archives Assistant) are three new staff members—Rachel Mattson (the Project’s Manager) is a historian and archivist with roots in several Brooklyn-based arts and activism collectives; Suzanne Lipkin (a project Cataloger) is a recent graduate from the Pratt Institute’s School of Library and Information Science with experience in archival outreach and reference; and Julie Sandy (a project Cataloger) is an arts archivist, prop master, and stage hand who has worked for almost a decade in and around NYC’s theaters.  We’re also excited to have Tiffany Nixon, the archivist at the Roundabout Theatre, serving as Project consultant. (You can read more about our team here.)