ArtsAlive.ca – The Secret Life of Costumes
image:Archiving Theatre:By Michael Eagan

Archiving Theatre:
By Michael Eagan


Archiving in Canadian Theatre

photo:Ko-Ko (Avery Saltzman) in patterned kimono with red dragon belt/photo by André Rozon, Top Photography
Ko-Ko (Avery Saltzman) in patterned kimono with red dragon belt, The Mikado (1998),
Designed by Susan Benson
Photo credit: André Rozon, Top Photography
© National Arts Centre

The notion of officially archiving costumes is almost unknown in the Canadian theatre, although sometimes things are preserved on an ad hoc basis. The Stratford Festival of Canada maintains an archival collection of selected costumes from past productions. The original masks from the inaugural season in 1952 for Oedipus Rex, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, have attained iconic importance, but what is even more important is the famous ‘bible’ that has been kept for every production. It is an extremely comprehensive record of every conceivable detail of each costume. Copies of the original drawings are kept along with information about the cut, fabric samples, actors’ measurements and details regarding wigs, facial hair and special make-ups. Keeping a ‘bible’ has become standard procedure in many theatres, but the practice was begun at the Stratford Festival, and its costume records are the most detailed and complete in Canada. Stratford is primarily concerned with producing the plays of the Shakespearean quarto, and although it occasionally remounts a production, it constantly renews itself with new productions and cannot strictly be classified as a repertory theatre.

Archiving at the National Arts Centre

The National Arts Centre is one of the few producing theatres in Canada with an in-house archival function. The need for an archive had been recognized when the NAC opened in 1969, but plans could not be realized. Heather McCallum of the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library was consulted in the early 1970's, but her recommendations for an NAC Archive program were not put into place. In 1979 the NAC hired its first archivist, Anthony Ibbotson. Regrettably, the NAC Archives was closed in 1985 in the wake of major budget cuts. In 1989 the position of NAC Archivist was revived and Gerry Grace has filled the post since then, having already been employed by the NAC since 1976.

Mr. Grace has assembled a remarkable collection of costumes, as well as extensive holdings of set materials, including three dimensional set models, drawings, plans, production photos and posters. With unerring judgment and taste, Gerry Grace has selected representative costume materials that constitute a wonderful record of the production of theatre and opera at the NAC. There is an inherently curatorial dimension to this work, and choices must be made regarding which costumes should be kept. Although it is impossible to preserve everything, there is a complete record of nearly all sketches and photos of each costume worn by individual performers.

For more information on the History of the NAC Costume Collection, read Gerry Grace’s essay.

image:Jocaste from Œdipe Roi(1982), © Michael Eagan
Jocaste from Œdipe Roi (1982)
© Michael Eagan

Preserving Designer’s Work

Costume designers are generally a hardened lot, and most of us have long ago reconciled ourselves with the ephemeral nature of our work. As such, we are highly gratified whenever there is an effort to preserve a record of our work. In some ways, the costume archive of the NAC is a history of designing for the Canadian theatre over the last three or four decades. Many of the most prominent Canadian designers are represented in the collection, from Robert Prévost and Brian Jackson in the very early years, through some of the seminal works by Susan Benson and François Barbeau, to the most recent cutting-edge designs of Dany Lyne (although not yet included in the virtual exhibition). Using this collection, it is possible to identify and trace trends in Canadian costume design, and it is of interest to scholars, historians and even the casual enthusiast.

The Secret Life of Costumes online exhibition contains a wealth of costume resources and information pertaining to theatrical productions in both English and French. The NAC’s ArtsAlive.ca online exhibitions will continue to expand over the years, beyond The Secret Life of Costumes, so that NAC theatrical artifacts become more readily accessible. It is our hope that any visit to the site will be rewarding, and not unlike a virtual visit to the NAC Archive.