English 738T, Spring 2015
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Posted by LaRonika Thomas on Sunday, May 13th, 2012 at 12:57 am

In my part of the group blog post for the encoding group, I began my section by discussing the difficulty of beginning to the process of encoding when you feel discomfort with the tools of encoding.  After discussing how I moved through my discomfort, I ended my section of the article by beginning to contemplate other possibilities for digital encoding and archiving, particularly in relation to my field of theatre and performance studies.  I would like to take the opportunity in my individual post on our group project to expand on some of these questions on archiving and theatre that our encoding has brought to light for me.


When I have attempted to describe our encoding project to others outside of our class, many people are confused as to why it would be necessary to take an image of a work and do more than simply post it to a web site.  In order to explain our encoding work to these people, I have often described it as taking text and turning it into data via the encoding.  I have referenced the examples we examined in Mining the Dispatch and I have pointed out how these types of projects make it possible for the humanities to consider questions it might not have been able to consider prior to this technology.  But, first, I would like to touch a bit more on our project, and its significance as performance.


As Peter Stallybrass points out in his response to Ed Folsom, the Walt Whitman archive was a chance to “liberate Whitman from the economic and social constraints that govern archival research,” (1580) and the existence of digital archives may actually be encouraging visits to and use of the physical archives.  However, Stallybrass then continues, “databases are neither universal nor neutral, and they participate in the production of a monolingual, if not monocultural, global network.” (1583)  Jerome McGann, also in a response to Ed Folsom, is critical of Folsom’s description of the archive as a database, pointing out that, not only is database creation influenced by those who create the database, but that human perception and perspectives also influence how we interact with the database.  McGann says: “these tools are prosthetic devices, and they function most effectively when they help to release the resources of the human mind – in short, when their interfaces are well-designed.” (1591)


Folsom is correct that an archive is a database, as he says in his rebuttal, but I believe Stallybrass and McGann are also correct to point out the human component in database (and, hence, archive) construction and use, and our desire to craft narrative from a database.  After all, what is it that historians do if not take information from a database (whether it is a manuscript in a library, the letters of someone from the past, or the memories of a person being interviewed today, or other such information) and create a plausible, interesting story for a reader?  At both this stage and at the other end of the process, when I database (either physical or digital) is being created, I would argue something else is happening.  The very existence of this human component and the action required by a person in relation to an archive indicates that archives/databases are performed.


Image Credit: The Second Life Shakespeare Company (www.slshakespeare.com)


Our group took on the task of encoding Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein for the Shelley Godwin Archive.  In a sense, we performed Frankenstein, page by page.  We had to make decisions as to what we were seeing on the page and what on the page was important, if we agreed with the transcript of the pages we had been given (if we thought they matched the image of the scanned page), how many of the non-language marks on the page were to be represented in the encoding and how to represent the page spatially using the XML language.  We had to do something, we had to act in order for the text, in order for the page, to become data.  I had to ask, for example, if the mark at the bottom of a page, a sort of curve under the last paragraph, was a doodle or just an errant mark.  Was this a mark of intention or accident?  And did it belong with the text, or represented as apart of the paragraph?  My typing laid claim to the author’s intention, and provided interpretation for how a reader would eventually view this as data.   For that mark to exist as data, first I had to perform it.


Diana Taylor writes in The Archive and the Repertoire,[1] “My particular investment in performance studies derives less from what it is than what it allows us to do.  By taking performance seriously as a system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge, performance studies allows us to expand what we understand by ‘knowledge.’  This move, for starters, might prepare us to challenge the preponderance of writing in the Western epistemologies. . .writing has paradoxically come to stand in for and against embodiment.  When the friars arrived in the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as I explore, they claimed that the indigenous peoples’ past – and the “lives they lived” – had disappeared because they had no writing.  Now, on the brink of a digital revolution that both utilizes and threatens to displace writing, the body again seems poised to disappear in a virtual space that eludes embodiment.  Embodied expression has participated and will probably continue to participate in the transmission of social knowledge, memory, and identity pre- and postwriting.  Without ignoring the pressures to rethink writing and embodiment from the vantage point of the epistemic changes brought on by digital technologies, I will focus my analysis here on some of the methodological implications of revalorizing expressive, embodied culture.” (16)


Just as Lev Manovitch put the database and narrative in competition with one another, Taylor here has put digital space and embodiment at odds with one another.  To be fair, her study is not at all concerned with digital technology, and this section of her introduction is one of the few places she addresses virtual space.  But the contrast she makes between the virtual and the embodied are clear, and I would question that dichotomy as a false one.  Can the digital be embodied?  The digital can be performed, and those performance require not just a human mind, but also a human body – eyes to see the computer screen (or ears of hear the audio interpretation) and fingers and hands to type on the keyboard, at a minimum.  An establishment of the notion that database and (digital) archives are performed leads us to conclude that they are also embodied.  Database and archives also allow us to do, and open up possibilities for what we might do.


There are many possibilities for the use of digital archives in relation to the study of theatre, theatre history, and performance.  I believe that the performative nature of digital archives makes the pairing between a database format and theatre quite natural.  There are in fact, several projects already in existence, including the Shakespeare Quartos Archive, Theatre Finder, and the Visual Accent and Dialect Archive at MITH, among others.  I would like to consider for a (brief) moment two other possible projects, and the implications for performed databases that each holds.


The first project is the American Theatre Archive Project.  As stated on its web site this archiving project “is a network of archivists, dramaturgs, and scholars dedicated to preserving the legacy of the American theatre. ATAP is guided by the work of four Committees, which help develop partnerships, facilitate communication, create guidelines, seek funding, and disseminate best practices. Location-based Teams help individual theatre companies evaluate their records, develop an archiving plan, and secure funding to support long-term archive health.  Once created and made accessible to theatre makers, scholars, patrons, and funders on premises online, and/or in a repository, a theatre’s archives support institutional integrity and development.”[2]


There is a brief mention of online archives in the above description.  The original goals of the project certainly include a consideration for digital technology, but the main objective was to simple identify where (and if) the archives of these individual theatre companies across the country exist, and in what form and shape.  This is a long-term, ongoing project, but I can not help to think on the day many years from now when a theatre historian might be able to find (and read, and, hence, perform) the archives from a theatre in Seattle from the relative comfort of her office in Atlanta.  I am actually on the Baltimore team for this project, and I hope the digital component of our conversation can always be a part of our thinking as we work through our local archives in relation to the national project, as it has implications for both theatre practitioners and theatre scholars.


The other project is in many ways just a dream in the mind of one particular writer.  Gwydion Suliebhan is a DC-based playwright and the DC representative for the Dramatists Guild.  He does a lot of thinking and writing about making plays and getting them produced, and the state of playwriting and theatre in the mid-Atlantic and across the country.  Back in February of this year he wrote an essay on his blog (with an abbreviated version over at HowlRound) about the need for technological intervention in the process of new play development and production here in America.  I will not dive in to his entire idea here, but he suggests, basically, a national database of plays, uploaded by individual playwrights or their agents, and accessible to any theatre looking to produce said plays.  This is all in hopes of ending what is quickly becoming an archaic, time-consuming, and one-way conversation of playwrights submitting copy after copy of their scripts to theatre companies, sometimes never to hear back from the theatre.  Gwydion basically asks what would happen if we took that process and, using all of the advantages of digital databases, turned it on its head.  This would be the performance of archives on a large scale.  While the original and primary goal of this “New Play Oracle” would be to change the way theatres and playwrights communicate with each other, there are profound implications for scholars as well, who would be able to (if the user interface was designed for it) search the database in order to find answers to questions about the state of contemporary American theatre that they might never have been able to ask before.


Most playwrights, I feel confident saying, work digitally from the beginning of their process now, which changes the difficulty of encoding and interpretation of a playscript.  However, the playscript for a play is not ever the only version of that play.  Each production essentially produces its own script.  What if there were a database that held, not just a new play as uploaded by a playwright, but also the promptbook of the stage manager from every production of that play?  Or the accompanying set, lighting, and costume designs?  Or the program and production notes?  What if they were all encoded so that they were searchable?  And there are countless other possibilities as well, including the notion of a play as video game (meaning, a play structured as a database where the audience must extract their own narrative).


It is easy to get carried away with grand ideas at this stage.  But the larger point rings true – archives and databases, because they are performed, are not situated in opposition to performance and embodiment (and even liveness, which I did not get to touch on here), but rather in agreement with them, and are therefore possible tools (prosthetics, even) for theatre practice and scholarship.  Our group encoding project of Mary Shelley’s manuscript made these ideas seem, not only obvious, but also practically inevitable.  Taylor, in the above quotation, states that “by taking performance seriously as a system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge, performance studies allows us to expand what we understand by ‘knowledge.’” (16) I believe that statement can be extended to database and archives, and to the relationship of the two to performance and the performative.


[1] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003.

[2] http://americantheatrearchiveproject.org/about

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