Recently I got to visit the National Theatre’s Archive. I visited in my capacity as an information professional, so I got to see more of the “backstage” area than I would have if I was a normal archive user. However, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t write about my visit here.
The National Theatre has kept archives since it was founded in 1963, but it has only had a “proper” archive since the 1990s, and the current building (the NT Studio beside the Old Vic) has only been in use since 2007. The public reading room is open five days a week, and welcomes around 2,700 researchers each year.
The Archive covers three main areas: the first is the most popular and consists of cultural archives, such as photos, press reviews, stage management reports, programmes, posters, prompt scripts and the costume bible. Recordings have been made since 1995 (except where contract negotiations don’t allow it) – Platform recordings (where an actor or other theatre practitioner is interviewed in front of an audience) have been undertaken since the late 1980s. The cultural archive is fully catalogued.
The second part is the business archive, including meeting minutes, architectural plans et al: much of this is sensitive material, but at the same time it’s probably not quite so interesting! The third part is the external collections: the largest is the Jocelyn Herbert Collection, the archive of the acclaimed set and costume designer, consisting of around 6000 drawings, notebooks and even masks from one of her productions.
The Archive catalogue can be accessed online, and you can also email queries in from the website. Resources are used in exhibitions at the NT, and on the last Friday of every month, the NT Archivist and curator offer a tour of the exhibition in the Lyttelton Lounge followed by a handling session with materials from the Archive.
It’s possible to go to the Archive reading rooms to watch a recording of an NT Live or other recorded production: recent popular productions have included Frankenstein and One Man Two Guvnors. I keep meaning to book an appointment to watch His Dark Materials – one day I’ll get around to it!