Behind the Scenes

Part of the Rep archive before being catalogued and packed.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre archives before being catalogued and packed.

Archives often go on a journey before they get to their destination. This can involve a move to a new building or a change in personnel and the clearing out of an office. Not everything survives and reasons for this include deliberate destruction, an act of war or not knowing that something should be kept. Some of the archives of Birmingham Repertory Theatre have faced these issues on their travels and I thought it would be interesting to look out for any mention of archives in the archives.

They get noted in a report on the future of The Birmingham Repertory Theatre written in November 1960 when it was pointed out that the new Rep building being planned would require storage for material such as theatre archives, photographs, sets of scripts, music, accounts, and reference books.

After the death of its founder Sir Barry Jackson in 1961 The Rep accepted material that had been left by Jackson to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund and his Private Secretary. This included his entire library of theatrical books and drawings by his friend the artist Dame Laura Knight (such as backstage and rehearsal scenes and a portrait of Jackson).

The Repertory Theatre archive after cataloguing and packing, in its new home

By 1964 it was being suggested that the archive should be catalogued by the University of Birmingham’s English Department and in 1967 it was agreed that Jackson’s books be catalogued in the Shakespeare Institute (the material finally got there in 1971). In 1972 one of the Rep’s Directors hoped that the Jackson material currently held at his home could be put into the theatre archives.

The books were still at BirminghamUniversity in 1973 for cataloguing and temporary housing and by this time The Rep was holding photos, prompt books and Laura Knight paintings. The storage of this material at the theatre was discussed again, especially as an archives room had been included in the design of the new building but had subsequently been used for other things. One alternative was to offer material to the City Library or the TheatreMuseum in London.

Archive care was still an issue in the late 1970s although by this time The Rep had an Honorary Archivist (Prof. Peter Brigg, Department of English, University of Guelph, Ontario). Where to house the archives in the building was a problem, especially as The Rep wanted to retrieve its material being held at the Shakespeare Institute and had to think about the space for this as well. This led to plans being submitted by the New Rep building’s architect Graham Winteringham to show the various options.

One idea of Rep Director Clive Perry was to see the Rep’s former building in Station Street used as a museum to house the archives so that people could see the history of the company at the Old Rep and its current work at the New Rep. But this plan depended on funds being available, something which always crops up when talking about archives.

 By the 1980s the items at the Shakespeare Institute and the New Rep had been moved to the Central Library (initially the Arts, Language & Literature department and then Archives & Heritage) and since then The Rep has made regular transfers. This process has been interrupted by the building of the Library of Birmingham and the preparations for the move to this new building, but it will start up again once both organizations have settled into their new premises.

As Archivist for the REP100 project which is celebrating the Rep’s 100th anniversary I am also writing an archive policy and guidelines for The Rep that will include the management of items as they change from being working records to potential archive material. Volunteers will also help after the project with the processing of material for transfer from The Rep to Archives & Heritage.

So it’s been a roundabout trip for some of the archives from people’s homes to basements and from The Rep to Archives & Heritage via other places on the way. Rep material is also held at Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery and other locations and one of the REP100 project plans is to put together a list of Sir Barry Jackson and Rep material held elsewhere.

Let’s hope that the archive does not go on too many travels in the future (apart from when the mobile shelving it’s on gets moved so that items can be retrieved). We also need to keep in mind that it’s only because the archive material has survived that we’ve been able to fully appreciate the Rep’s history and celebrate its centenary in the way that we have.

Gary Collins, REP100 Project Archivist

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