“A Brief History of…” is a serial column that looks at history (things we’ve done) and materiality (things we make), as featured in ASC’s Education Newsletter. If you are interested in receiving this quarterly newsletter full of useful educator content and road-ready lessons plans or becoming a member of our Little Academe on Slack (an exclusive, all-access pass to ASC’s Educational Materials and Education Artists) email our team at education@americanshakespearecenter.com.

With 2023 marking the start of our 35th Anniversary artistic year, we’ll be spending lots of time reminiscing on the history of the American Shakespeare Center. Have you ever wanted to look back at all the things that ASC has done over the years? To watch a play that hasn’t been on our stage for five years, to look at the sort of things that were produced to promote a play, or listen to an interview from years past? I’m Anthony Pearson, Archivist at the American Shakespeare Center and happy to announce that you can do all that, and more.

The American Shakespeare Center Archives have been collecting since we started out as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express in 1988, 35 years ago this year. Originally, it was only the standard sort of thing that we all do with our own things: holding onto past documents, practice and performance reports, and those other ephemeral things that come out of putting a play on stage. When formal collection began, we started to hold onto copies of letters sent or received, newspaper articles talking about our travels and performances, and eventually the marketing and administrative portions that make up the background of running a theater and performance troupe. Our Archive now houses everything from playbills to posters, mailers, letters from fans, newspaper articles, records of our touring troupe, collections of thesis reports from the Mary Baldwin University Shakespeare and Performance graduate program, as well as documentation of our growth as a company. While some of the items–or objects, as we call it in archiving–are retained by specific departments (our financial and employee records, for instance, aren’t part of the archive; but past fundraising reports are), most everything ends up as a part of the archive, and lets us show how we’ve grown and changed over the years that we’ve been performing.

Because the Archive has covered so much of ASC’s history, we have a lot of foundational and really cool things, from production to marketing to the history of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Some of my favorite things in the Archive include:

  • The wealth of blueprints and planning documents for the construction of the Blackfriars. This makes up a whole flat storage drawer, with a variety of different plans, models, full blueprints, and other related materials. There’s also some of the bricks left over from construction. Neat!
  • Photography from both the original SSE times all the way through our most recent touring company. A lot of these are really candid, and show not only the dynamics of the groups, but the evolution of the troupe over time.
  • Letters from fans! There are some absolutely silly letters that fans have sent the troupe, up to and including love letters, that we still have in our collection. It’s wonderful to see the impact that we’ve had on fans all across the country–and the reactions some of those fans have had to experiencing our shows.

It’s important to know that the ASC Archive is representative and not comprehensive. What does that mean? For us, it means that we are looking for the objects that define a moment or iteration, and not the retention of every single item that was ever created. For example, keeping a collection of playbills that all have the same information in them and look the same doesn’t highlight anything particularly special or nuanced, and might in fact speak to an issue of distribution; keeping a collection of playbills from each production, and even some from the same season that have different fronting images, shows the variety that our patrons were or are experiencing in the moment.

Our Archive is a freely open and accessible collection, located in two areas. Our main Archive is held at our administrative offices in Staunton, VA. Here you can find our collection of posters and the blueprints for the Blackfriars Playhouse, a large swath of our marketing materials and ephemera, the majority of our administrative background and documentation (at least, the parts that are available to the public), as well as freely access past archive recordings of performances from 2001 onward. Access to these recordings are controlled by our actor union, Actor’s Equity Association, which details how recordings can be made, where they can be viewed or kept, and how they can be referenced externally. We encourage everyone that’s interested in the history of ASC and the Blackfriars to visit our main Archive space, where we can provide assistance on diving into our objects. We welcome everyone to visit us here, and since the Archive is freely accessible, you can couple this activity with other activities around the Blackfriars Playhouse to expand your experience.

At the end of the day, ASC has been an entity for thirty-five years (happy anniversary to us!). We have amassed a large collection of things produced in the moment, products created, and responses received. So where do we keep the rest of it?

Our second location is through the generosity of Washington and Lee University located in Lexington, VA. WLU’s Special Collections houses our end repository. They get our production and marketing materials after they’re about five years old, so they house a majority of our collection from 1988 to, currently, 2017. This gives us an opportunity to not only work with a great nearby university–they are also responsible for our ability to host our archive recordings–but to lean into their functional capacity to maintain and care for archive holdings. The librarians in the WLU Special Collections are generally happy to help scholars, independent researchers, and students go through the holdings that they’ve received from us over the years. My goal, as Archivist, is to make sure that that relationship not only maintains, but improves! I am working hard to create a system that streamlines both the Staunton and Lexington collections.

This robust archive offers anyone interested in the history of the American Shakespeare Center a look into the inner workings of the institution. From students learning more about the plays to community members learning more about how ASC has worked in Staunton for so many years, we are happy and excited to invite anyone and everyone to experience our collection and know a little bit more about ASC, Shakespeare, and our small but active Archive.

Like this post? Be sure to share it and tag us on social media! If you’re interested in joining us at the Blackfriars Playhouse this year to help celebrate our 35th Anniversary, why not check out what we’ve got planned for the year ahead? Spring Season tickets are on sale now!