“Eccentricity, inconsistency, and downright subversion”: embracing the constraints of a digitization project in the La MaMa Archives

Alice Griffin is the Metadata/Digitization Assistant in the La MaMa Archives. She wrote this post in conjunction with an ASIS&T Student Speakeasy presentation she gave at Pratt Institute School of Information in March 2018.

Since 2014, the La MaMa Archives has been working on a large-scale cataloging and digitization project (read this post by Project Manager, Rachel Mattson, which initially announced the project and launched the La MaMa Archives Blog in 2014). It started as a cataloging project, describing photographs files and show files from 1962 to 1985 using the CollectiveAccess (CA) platform, an open-source collection management system designed for museums and archives. The public-facing version of the catalog/digital collections website, catalog.lamama.org, has been accessible online since spring 2016 and continues to be an important resource for researchers, artists, and La MaMa staff. We are now in the midst of cataloging and digitizing materials from 1985 to 2000; we also edit records as needed, or when La MaMa artists past and present drop us a line to tell us more about a production, event, or person from La MaMa’s history. But while our database of works, productions, entities, and objects grows, our CollectiveAccess-powered platform remains essentially the same. Why is this? Simply put, we don’t have the funds to update to newer versions of the software or hire a developer to fix lingering bugs, integrate new features, or make the catalog more user-friendly. Despite this, our catalog is a useful project that is both practical for our use and exciting. And I think that the customized version of CollectiveAccess that we have is serving us just fine because we are acknowledging and working within our constraints.

I have to admit that the seeds for this blog post were planted by a complete misunderstanding of one of Don Norman’s “Seven Principles for Transforming Difficult Tasks into Simple Ones.” These principles, outlined in Norman’s seminal work The Design of Everyday Things (1988), explain how to design a human-centered, user-friendly product; they include things like visibility, good mapping, and simplicity. But I got hung up on principle #5: “Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial” (p. 189). Here, Norman means that good design should “use constraints so that the user feels as if there is only one possible thing to do—the right thing” (p. 199). This makes sense in the realm of design and user experience, of course, but when I read this principle I simply assumed Norman meant one should acknowledge and work within – or even exploit – the constraints, or limitations, of a project, whether those constraints be financial, physical, or digital. This seems to be an excellent optimistic mantra for any archives: take those constraints and flip them on their head; use them to your advantage!

Indeed, my misinterpretation of Don Norman’s constraints principle feels more useful to me in my role as the Metadata/Digitization Assistant in the La MaMa Archives than the original meaning. I have also been keeping this quote from Schwartz and Cook’s article “Archives, Records, and Power” (2002) in mind: “the history of making and keeping records is as littered with chaos, eccentricity, inconsistency, and downright subversion, as much as it is characterized by jointly agreed order, sequence, and conformity” (p. 14). It might be too much of an exaggeration to say that I have used constraints to my advantage, but I have recognized and tried to embrace the eccentricities, inconsistencies, and challenges of a low-budget digitization project. In this way, I hope to have added to the usability of La MaMa’s incredibly rich, if a bit wonky, digital collections site.

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The inspiration for this post and a reminderPresentation slide.

 

Embracing the constraints of a project does not have to be heroic. In this post I would like to focus on a couple of methods I have been using to work around one limitation of our CollectiveAccess platform – namely, how difficult can be to identify exactly who is who in a photograph. A quick note about catalog.lamama.org: it is a digital collections website, but it is also our only public-facing catalog. So, what does this double-duty mean? In part, this means that while some of the records on the catalog refer to a single object (such as a show program or a video), many others refer to a folder or group of materials. Most records describing photographs refer to a folder of photographs relating to a common production or theatre troupe, taken by the same photographer. Instead of creating individual records for each photograph, I catalog and digitize the photographs together. In this way, the catalog is navigable for the archives staff or a remote researcher to easily locate and look through all of the photographs related to a certain production by a certain photographer.

And photographs are a strong point of the La MaMa Archives collection. La MaMa photographers James D. Gossage, Conrad Ward, Amnon Ben Nomis, and Jerry Vezzuso documented many of La MaMa’s productions from 1961 through the 1980s. The photographs we have range from production photographs to promotional photographs to candid photographs of actors off-stage (like these photos from “God! It’s Too Late! (1979)”).

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The La MaMa Archives holds a range of photographs from its productionsPresentation slide.

The latest versions of CollectiveAccess (Providence 1.7.5 and Pawtucket2), offer an annotation tool where you can mark just who is who in an image. However, with our version (Providence 1.6.2 and Pawtucket1) we can only record the general fact that a person is depicted in a group of photographs. So, in this instance, the double-duty of the La MaMa catalog makes it hard for us to clearly indicate exactly who is who and in what photo they are. For example, this record of photographs from the 1967 production of Paul Foster’s “Tom Paine” describes 17 photographs of the production – and there are different people in each image. Legacy metadata enabled us to know that two of the people depicted in these photographs are the actors Seth Allen and Kevin O’Connor – but how do we know who and exactly where in the photographs they are?

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Object record for production photographs from the 1967 production of “Tom Paine” [OBJ.1967.0243] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

To address this problem, I have come up with a few workarounds that I hope help users of our collection understand what they are seeing, without sacrificing too much precious time. First, some of the photographs, usually the promotional photographs, identify who is depicted in the image on the back of the print. In these cases, I digitize both sides of the photograph and include a note in the record’s free-text description field: “Consult the back of the photograph for information about who is depicted.”

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The promotional photographs for “Shiro” identify who is depicted on the back of the photograph [OBJ.1981.0233]. Presentation slide. 

For records with one or two photographs, it is easy enough to identify who is depicted and in what photograph in the free-text description field. The record for production photograph from the 1965 production of “The Sand Castle” shows an example of this. The entities are already linked to the record down at the bottom, but this language in the description field identified which person belongs with which name.

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Object record for a production photograph from the 1965 production of “The Sand Castle” [OBJ.1967.0345] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

Sometimes, there are many photographs and many people to identify, so it does not make sense to write out each person in the description field; its too messy and time-consuming. A prolific photographer from La MaMa’s early days, James D. Gossage, has kept in touch with the Archives. He provides us with corrections to the catalog and has recently collaborated with Beth Porter, an original member of the La MaMa Repertory Troupe, to identify photographs from the late 1960s. These identifications come to me as PDFs, which I can then simply add to the media of the record with a note in the description field: “For more information about who is depicted in each photograph, click to see more media and consult the identification document compiled by Beth Porter and James D. Gossage at the end of the record.” So, Jim and Beth’s identifications are accessible to remote researchers, but it does not clutter up the description field with a long list. It is also easier to have the identifications document as a part of the media portion of the record, so the user does not have to toggle back and forth between the media page and the object record page. The two images below show the object record for production photographs by Conrad Ward from the 1967 or 1968 production of “Times Square” [OBJ.1968.0116] and the identifications document that is attached to it as a part of the media.

 

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None of these methods are perfect, and I’ll admit it feels a bit messy, but it is an efficient way to offer researchers detailed information within a catalog record. On the user end, the catalog record should still be fairly easy to navigate – but if a researcher is confused or has a question, we are available for in-person or virtual consultations. The La MaMa Digital Collections does allow researchers and artists the ability to peruse our collections from afar, but it does not erase the role of the archivist or the need for on-site visits to the collection. In fact, the digital site may expand these uses. The more productions, special events, venues, photographs, and programs we describe, the more inquiries and requests for access to the material we will receive.

Overall, I think this quote from a panelist at the fourth forum of the Diversifying the Digital Historical Record series sums up the essence of this digitization project and why it is a valuable endeavor: “the true measure of digitization success must be in terms of the community relationships initiated, created, and maintained.” (I am embarrassed to say that, while I wrote down the words of this panelist, I neglected to write down their name.) But, to the point, this project is not about creating a high-tech database user experience. This project has initiated new connections with scholars and theater artists and has enabled us to maintained relationships that La MaMa has had with artists and researchers for decades. The digital collections site is completely within the spirit of La MaMa, where flexibility and creativity are key. And La MaMa’s digital collections show an incredibly rich and diverse history that continues to grow as La MaMa is in the middle of its 56th season.

Works cited and Further Reading:

Norman, D. A. (2013). The design of everyday things. London: MIT Press.

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science, 2, 1-19. https://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/methods/schwartz.pdf

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Creating Metadata by Hand: Musings on the Limits of Automation in Archives

This post was written by Alice Griffin, who has worked in La MaMa’s Archives since November as the Metadata/Digitization Assistant. She’s leaving La MaMa at the end of July to pursue a Master’s degree at the Pratt Institute’s School of Information. We asked her to offer some reflections about her time at La MaMa. (We will miss her terribly and wish her all the best in her next adventure.)

“But… a computer could just do your job.” The first time I heard this remark it made me pause, seriously question the future of my career, and turn to my professional mentors for reassurance. Now, after being in this position for seven months, I feel confident that my position is not so easily automated away.

In the La MaMa Archives/Ellen Stewart Private Collection, I am the metadata/digitization assistant. My job is to add digital media to corresponding catalog records on the fantastically vast La MaMa Archives Digital Collections site, created by several catalogers and Project Manager, Rachel Mattson, over the past three years. As a result of this project, researchers all over the world can now see the photographs and programs that were initially just minimally described. This project of digitization requires a scanner, some metadata know-how, creativity, patience, and lots of time. The La MaMa Archives does have a lovely professional scanner, my metadata knowledge continues to grow, and I do have a considerable amount of patience. However, time is running short as the grant I was hired on comes to an end. I have added hundreds of digital objects to the digital collections since November 2016, but it feels as though my job has just started.

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Alice Griffin, a human, at her desk in the La MaMa Archives.

So, why can’t a computer just do my job? A computer is already helping me with many aspects of this task. The scanner I use to digitize photographs, programs, flyers, postcards, and other objects is connected directly to my computer and once I choose settings and file name, there’s not much more to do except click “scan.” Once I have my preservation (TIFF) files and access (JPEG) files created in Photoshop, it’s just a matter of an easy drag and drop to initiate Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) through Cyberduck to store them on the La MaMa Archives server or upload them to our digital collections site through a CollectiveAccess-powered backend. I also manually add metadata: a paragraph describing the material at hand, links to Library of Congress Naming Authorities and Subject Headings, information about the storage location and preservation needs of the object, and other bits to make it as complete a record as possible. But in the era of self-driving cars, why do we need a human to do this work? Even though I don’t think anyone would accuse a surgeon of obsolescence because of the rise of robotics in the operating room, I think this is a fair question and I would like to attempt a response.

Simply put, a computer does not yet exist that automates all aspects of my workflow; human labor and expertise are always involved. The labs page of the Stanford Libraries website lists the equipment that used for digitization projects and the rate of digitization. The robotic-book scanner can scan 4 times the number of pages in an hour as someone operating the manual book scanner. So, why even continue to pay student workers to do that manual work? The Stanford Libraries’ robotic-book scanners are not safe for fragile bound materials, and therefore careful human hands are necessary. Of course, book scanners are being engineered to have that gentle touch. In her article “The Hidden Faces of Automation,” Lily Irani mentions a “patented machine” engineered to turn the pages of rare books for digitization. But even this kind of machine was not fully automated; it “housed a worker who flipped the pages in time to a rhythm-regulated soundtrack” (34).

In 2006, the System for the Automated Migration of Media Assets (SAMMA), a system of robotics, hardware, and software, began being sold as a way for institutions to transfer media from obsolete formats to digital files in a streamlined and cost-effective manner. Three factors make SAMMA unusable for my project. First, I am not working with or digitizing La MaMa’s audiovisual materials (for some information about La MaMa’s awesome audiovisual materials, see Rachel Mattson’s blog post here). Second, SAMMA does not create metadata about the content of the materials, such as who or what is depicted. And third, SAMMA’s cost-effectiveness is relative; the costs for a community archives, such as La MaMa, to use tools like SAMMA or the book scanners mentioned above would be prohibitive.

While robotics, hardware, and software are useful, there is still always human skill and precision involved. Before even beginning to scan I must make decisions about whether each object is appropriate for digitization – are there privacy or rights concerns? And if there are duplicates of an object, I must choose the best copy to digitize. When scanning begins it is not just a matter of sticking a stack of papers into the automatic feed on a photocopier, or placing a book or videotape into a robotic scanner. Materials I work with must be handled carefully so that they do not tear or crinkle. Additionally, in order to fully describe an object I am digitizing, I must fill in several fields to physically characterize the object or objects: how big is the object? How many duplicates are there? Is it color or black and white? Throughout this work, the materials must be handled with care, one page/photograph/poster at a time. We want these originals to last because while digital files generally allow for easier access, they do not necessarily stand the test of time. Original photographic prints, negatives, and papers cannot just go in the trash once you have a digital surrogate.

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Object record for production photographs from the 1985 production of The Cotton Club Gala [OBJ.1985.0307] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

Adding metadata also requires a human mind. The description field, in particular, even requires some creativity because, as a cataloger, I have to think about how different people will use the catalog. How will La MaMa archives staff search the catalog versus the La MaMa marketing or development staff? How does an academic researcher use the catalog versus an artist that has performed at La MaMa before? A human cataloger can take advantage of these nuances of use to create a more robust, user-oriented catalog in a way that a rigid computer program simply can’t. To give an example, I asked myself these questions while cataloging photographs from the 1985 production of “Cotton Club Gala,” directed by Ellen Stewart with music by Aaron Bell and choreography by Larl Becham. The description field is a beautiful thing because it allows you to tell the researcher in full sentences about the object: what production it’s from, who is depicted, anything of note about the object, or even if you’re not sure of the date. So, in the case of the Cotton Club Gala photographs, I made sure to address all these users in the description:

This folder contains eight photographic prints, five of which are duplicates, from “Cotton Club Gala,” directed by Ellen Stewart and produced at La MaMa in 1985. This folder also includes a typewritten letter on Vogue letterhead from assistant to Amy Gross, David DeNicolo, to La MaMa archivist Doris Pettijohn thanking her for letting them look at the photographs.

Valois Mickens is depicted in the third image.

The description is not long nor is it complicated, but it provides information in a readable format. There is information about prints and duplicates for archives staff; it identifies the production as directed by Ellen Stewart, which means it could be an important production for marketing use; for an academic researcher the whole description, including the letter from Vogue, because it gives context for the objects; an artist searching the catalog might also appreciate the whole description, or they might find information about who worked on the production and who is depicted more interesting. The description field is different for every object record, and therefore requires flexibility, creativity, and brevity to produce a paragraph that contextualizes the object without overwhelming the user.

The La MaMa Archives holds many one-of-a-kind materials; for some productions, the programs, photographs, or posters here may be the only remaining evidence that they took place. In this way, the La MaMa catalog does not just hold information gleaned from other sources, but it is a producer of information itself. When a researcher or an archives staff member notices a mistake in the catalog we usually need to consult our own material to solve the problem, a Google search will not help us. For example, when digitizing photographic prints for the 1965 and 1967 productions of The Sand Castle, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Marshall W. Mason, I noticed that the performers depicted in the photographs weren’t matching up with the production dates that were handwritten on the back of the photographs. The La MaMa catalog was the only source I could turn to fix the confusion. I cross-referenced performers listed in the programs with who was depicted in the image and compared sets and costumes for both productions. In this way the La MaMa catalog functions as repository and generator of the history of off off-Broadway.

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Production photograph from the 1967 production of The Sand Castle [OBJ.1965.0216]. (This item was originally cataloged, in error, as documenting the 1965 production.)

While my position may appear to be a solitary one, it does require person-to-person interaction at a level that a computer cannot do. I am in regular contact with James D. Gossage, a photographer who documented many of La MaMa’s early shows. His own files and memories have corrected and enriched the catalog and in March 2017, Gossage donated programs, a poster, and some photographs that the Archives did not have before. He gave us the rights to three of the photographs [OBJ.1967.0349], which depict Tom Eyen, a playwright and director of many La MaMa shows and probably best known for writing Dreamgirls. These are beautiful portraits with dramatic light and shadow and the La MaMa Archives is excited to have them. It’s possible that Gossage felt comfortable passing along these prints into our care because, despite some errors in the catalog, he could see the work that we put into describing these materials to the best of our knowledge and ability. The humanity (and therefore error) present in the La MaMa Digital Collections website, reflects the deep humanity in the artists and their productions that the photographs, programs, correspondence, and posters document.

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Portrait of Tom Eyen by James D. Gossage, circa 1967. [OBJ.1967.0349]

No, my position cannot be simply automated away, but I’m sure I will continue to field questions about my position’s relevance. And while not receiving proper recognition for my work is mostly an inconvenience or a blow to my ego, it does reveal a widespread misunderstanding, or even misrecognition, of the mechanisms behind automation and making information available on the Internet. I am glad to see that there is growing scholarship on how obscuring the connection between human beings and automation deeply affects individuals and communities economically and emotionally. There is too much to delve into here in this blog post, but I would like to suggest some further reading. First, Safiya Umoja Noble’s article “Google Search: Hyper-visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,” examines how Google search results are not separate from human influence, but are in fact embedded in racist and sexist stereotypes that benefit advertisers. This aspect of Google is mostly ignored or glossed over. Noble reminds us that “the results that surface on the web in commercial spaces like Google are not neutral processes—they are linked to human experiences, decision-making, and culture.” Another article that reveals the human influence behind a process commonly thought of as automated is Sarah Roberts’ “Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work.” Roberts exposes the human labor behind the moderation of user-generated content and how these workers impact the content they screen while that content also takes a toll on their well-being.

The third article I want to recommend here Lily Irani’s short piece “The Hidden Faces of Automation.” In it, Irani explains how the “data janitors” behind “cultural data work,” such as “transcribing small audio clips, putting unstructured text into structured database fields, and ‘content-moderating’…user-generated content” (37), are so easily and consistently undervalued and underpaid. Irani then asks two very important questions that I would like to highlight here: “What would computer science look like if it did not see human-algorithmic partnerships as an embarrassment, but rather as an ethical project where the humans were as, or even more, important than the algorithms? What would it look like if artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction put the human care and feeding of computing at the center rather than hiding it in the shadows?” I think Irani brings up a remarkable point in these questions. Even though technology fields are booming, computers continue to be limited by the limitations of humans; limitations of technical knowledge, sure, but also limitations of empathy for human workers. Perhaps technologists need to embrace this level of social responsibility in their work. It is not a failure to admit we still need to do things by hand; rather, this honesty allows light to be shed on a previously concealed issue.

Suggestions for further reading:

Find of the Day: Harvey Milk’s NYC Acting Career

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Flyer for “Three New Plays Directed by Tom O’Horgan” (1965) [La MaMa Catalog UIN: OBJ.1965.0047]

His Wikipedia page doesn’t mention it, his official biography on the Milk Foundation website doesn’t mention it, but the La MaMa archives has proof: Harvey Milk was an actor in New York City before moving to San Francisco and beginning his political career.

These biographies do mention that Milk worked as a production associate on Broadway shows like director Tom O’Horgan’s Hair, but what they miss is that Milk starred in several of O’Horgan’s productions off-off-Broadway at La MaMa, including Changes (1968) and The New OP-ra (1965). Amusingly, on at least one occasion he performed under the pseudonym Basil Farckwart, according to a handwritten note on the flyer to the left.

Below is a photo of Milk (second from left) on stage during the July 1965 production of Three New Plays Directed by Tom O’Horgan.

Harvey Milk (with Marie-Claire Charba, Marlene Fisher, Tom O’Horgan (?) and others) on the set of “…And Now The Weather,” in July, 1965 at La MaMa’s 122 Second Avenue location. Photographer unknown.

Harvey Milk (with Mari-Claire Charba, Marlene Fisher, Tom O’Horgan and others) on the set of “…And Now The Weather,” in July, 1965 at La MaMa’s 122 Second Avenue location. Photographer unknown.

#metrocon15

Last Thursday, our team had the pleasure of participating in the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Annual Conference (#metrocon15),  on the 14th floor of Baruch College’s vertical campus at 24th and Lex. The event offered a pleasant reminder of the vibrancy of NYC archives and libraries, and the power of this professional community.

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Notes on Siva Vaidhyanathan’s talk drawn by @robincamile.

The day kicked off with a keynote by the media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, who offered a set of sobering reflections about creeping internet privatization and the role of information workers in maintaining the open and public nature of the web. Vaidhyanathan’s talk was followed by several sessions worth of overlapping project briefings. We got to hear Sarah Gentile discuss the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s digital archive, Mark Matienzo reflect on the Digital Public Library of America’s ingest process, and Jennifer Vinopal explain the work of the NYC Digital Humanities Group, among other presentations.  We also had the chance to schmooze, chat, and network with colleagues from Barnard, the Center for Jewish History, NYU, XFR Collective, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Theater Library Association, and Long Island University.

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The view from the audience during our presentation. (Photo @infiniteandone)

Most delightfully, we had the opportunity to present about the work we’ve been doing on the Pushcart Project. To a packed room, we offered a brief introduction to both La MaMa’s archival collections and the methods guiding our catalog development. We covered a great deal of ground in 30 minutes — we discussed our use of metadata standards and controlled vocabularies; the key components of our customized CollectiveAccess database; and the challenge of describing experimental theater events and documentation.

It was a lovely day, and a great way to introduce our project to the NYC library and archives community. (This was our first time presenting about the project.) We plan to post the powerpoint slides from our presentation shortly. In the meanwhile, you can see a curated set of storify-ed tweets from the presentation here.

See you next year, #metrocon!

Note: For another account of the conference (including a short description of our panel) , check out the post that the Jozef Pilsudski Institute of America has posted on their site.

Live from the Vault

Among the many theatrical events that La MaMa is hosting this Fall, one holds special interest for those of us working on our archival catalog project: a play reading series called “From the Vault: A Celebration of Classic La MaMa Scripts.” The series is the brainchild of longtime La MaMa-ite George Ferencz (a resident director from 1982-2008), and presents plays from La MaMa’s earliest years—the years that we are focusing on in our Pushcart Catalog. This series has, so far, showcased Julie Bovasso’s “Schubert’s Last Serenade” (which premiered at La MaMa in 1971) and Maria-Irene Fornes’ “A Vietnamese Wedding” (which appeared here on a double bill in 1969). This weekend (Nov. 21-24), however, it goes into overdrive: over the course of one long weekend, it will present readings of four classic plays. For a full schedule of these readings, click here.

These are plays that we, here at the La MaMa Archives, have spent a lot of time talking about, researching, and cataloging. Each play represents a world of theatrical experimentation, and a community of theatrical practice, that was important to the transformations the early off off-Broadway movement helped bring about. But unless you were there—or unless you’re a scholar of theatre history—they might not be familiar to you.

Color Photograph: "Miss Nefertiti Regrets" (Bette Midler in Leotard + Fishnets)

Bette Midler, “Miss Nefertiti Regrets,” La MaMa 1965. Photo by James Gossage. (UIN: OBJ.1965.0161)

Tom Eyen’s “Ms. Nefertiti Regrets” might be best remembered for having featured Bette Midler in what appears to have been her New York stage debut: she was initially cast as “Naomi and Assorted Virgins” in the 1965 La MaMa production. But soon after the show opened, Eyen re-cast her as Nefertiti. One reviewer called the production, a musical, “wild,” “swinging,” and “hilarious”: a “pure camp” take on “Queen Nefertiti’s true love for both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.” Eyen staged the play several more times over the course of La MaMa’s history (including twice in 1966, and once in 1973), over time changing the honorific in the title from Miss to Ms. At one point, a theatre columnist named Leonard Lyons printed a rumor that Midler was in negotiations to bring the play to Broadway; this never happened (though Eyen’s work finally did get to Broadway with the musical “Dreamgirls”). La MaMa’s Archives holds a great deal of material related to this and subsequent productions, including programs, fliers, press clippings, and dozens of photographs.

H.M. (Harry) Koutoukas “Medea at the Laundromat.” When this production premiered at La MaMa in October 1965, its was officially titled “Medea; or Maybe the Stars May Understand; or Veiled Strangeness: A Ritualistic Camp.” (Once, when asked about his “plays,” Koutoukas explained, “They’re camps—I call them camps. Plays are things of the Fifties.” [NY Native 10/29/90]). The show’s plot is based on Euripides’ Medea, but the action takes place in a contemporary laundromat—and somehow, the title just got shortened over time. Although the Village Voice would award Koutoukas an Obie the next year “for the style and energy of his assaults on the theatre in both playwriting and production,” its initial review of his Medea was perplexed—“Some of the language is beautiful, some of it is unintelligible,” the reviewer wrote. “The play is violently anti-logic, anti-Greek” and, (in part because its Medea was played, in drag, by a “six-foot-three man”) “grotesque.” [10/21/65]. There are only a few objects related to this production in the La MaMa Archives– but we do have a great many records documenting the life and work of the historically under-appreciated Harry Koutoukas. (I didn’t know him personally but, after cataloging a lot of these materials, I admit I have a big queer history crush on Harry.)

Paul Foster‘s “The Silver Queen Saloon.” Originally titled just “The Silver Queen,” this play premiered at La MaMa in April 1973. The production was packed with downtown luminaries, including playwright Paul Foster (who had been around since the founding of La MaMa), director Robert Patrick, and lighting designer Johnny Dodd. It also featured, as performers, Diane Lane (did you know she started her career as a child actor at La MaMa?) and, even more surprisingly, Meat Loaf. It featured “a wonderful grab bag of country, gospel, honkey-tonk, and ballad belting” music, and was “the most commercially viable production” of La MaMa’s 1973 season, according to Robb Baker, writing in After Dark July 1973. The show moved off-Broadway to the Mercer Arts Center in October 1973. La MaMa Archives holds several copies of the showbill created for this production, but not much else.

Flyer for "Bluebeard" (La MaMa Record OBJ.1970.0001)

Flyer for “Bluebeard.” La MaMa, 1970. (UIN: OBJ.1970.0001)

Charles Ludlam’s “Bluebeard.” It is hard to briefly summarize the history of this seminal play, which in its short run at La MaMa in March 1970 featured legendaries Lola Pashalinski, Black-Eyed Susan, and Mario Montez, as well as Ludlam himself in the title role. The official Ludlam chronology notes that this “Melodrama in Three Acts” was originally staged at Christopher’s End, and then ran “briefly at La MaMa before an extended run at the Performing Garage”; and that it was the Ridiculous Theater Company’s “first critical success.” La MaMa Archives holds very little documentation of this production– just a program (which indicates that the show had two intermissions), and a star-studded promotional flyer (at right).

–Rachel Mattson

The readings series is free, but you do have to reserve a spot.  Come on down!