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

Archiving Theatre:
By Michael Eagan

Through the following essay, noted Canadian designer Michael Eagan discusses the challenges and opportunities involved in archiving theatre.

Capturing the Ephemerality of Theatre

Of the various disciplines in visual arts, scenography is perhaps the most ephemeral. It can be argued that it has no raison d’être outside the context of the two or three hours of a live performance in which settings, costumes and lighting combine with actor’s performances to produce the ultimate visual effect that is unique to theatre. In this way, scenography is notoriously difficult to record, let alone preserve. It may be photographed, of course, but there is no way to fully appreciate a scenography outside the “moment” of live performance, for once the play is finished the emotional ambience that was created by lighting evaporates into the ether, the physical elements of the sets and costumes lose their relevance, and, in a sense, are transformed into ghostly artifacts that once worked together to produce a kind of “virtual reality” that exists between eight o’clock and ten-thirty, and then vanishes like smoke.

The Logistics of Archiving Theatre

Ballet and opera generally have a better record than theatre of preserving and reproducing scenographic art, as ballet and opera companies are often oriented to building a repertory of works that may be periodically revived and recreated. Theatre companies are rarely organized this way and are often not geared toward remounting productions, no matter how successful they may have been. The logistics of retaining casts – or recasting – are daunting, and theatres are often locked into pre-announced seasonal schedules. To remount a production requires tremendous foresight and planning, and is seldom possible. The reality is that maintaining and storing sets and costumes is extremely expensive and impractical. The next-best solution is that selected elements of sets, costumes and props be preserved as a kind of tangible testament of the complete artistic experience to which they once contributed.

Sometimes these elements, along with the original costume drawings, models and drawings pertaining to the sets and props, as well as production photos can all together combine to almost reproduce the visual effect of the theatrical “moment”. As an intellectual exercise it is helpful to consider original drawings and maquettes, as it allows for a more complete understanding and analysis of the conceptual process.

If retaining a repertory of works is common in ballet and opera, the practice is almost unknown in theatre companies both here in Canada and abroad. However, it is the policy with several state-supported national theatres in Europe. The Comédie Française in Paris maintains several productions of the classic plays of Molière, Marivaux, Feydeau et al, and the Berliner Ensemble keeps many productions of the Brecht/Wiel musicals. These theatres offer a rotating seasonal schedule of performances, periodically adding new productions. Large commercial producers of musicals and the Cirque du Soleil are in the business of maintaining productions and often employ a large staff to achieve this. Anyone who has ever visited the workshops at the Stratford Festival of Canada or the ateliers at the Cirque du Soleil cannot help but be impressed by the scale of their operations. In these cases, archiving is a factor with any production, but such cases are exceptional. Canadian theatres are not usually organized in this way, and generally present seasons of new, or co-produced, works.

The Secret Life of Garments

This is not to imply that there is needless waste involved in theatre, because great care is given to recycling as much as possible. It is more problematic with sets, but quite common with costumes and costume pieces. As much as possible gets stored, and many regional theatres have built up a stock of costumes from previous productions. The more specific and stylized items are more difficult to reuse, but some costumes have a secret second or third life – or even multiple reincarnations. Both the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg and the Stratford Festival of Canada have amassed large inventories of costumes. Footwear, corsets and wigs are continually reused, and both of these theatres have enormous stocks of nineteenth and twentieth century mens’ tailoring that is often reintegrated into new productions or rented by other theatres. All of this storing and recycling makes great sense and is cost-effective, but outside the context of the production for which they were originally intended these individual elements lose much of their meaning. The secret life of costumes is an interesting and romantic idea, but the secret life of garments is perhaps sometimes closer to the reality.