Adventures in Archives

In the last week I have managed to:

Find items listed in the card catalogue that it took three archivists and a reference librarian to figure out what these items might be, and that the library probably doesn’t have what I’m looking for anymore (though they obviously did at one point) but if these items were still, somehow, in the collection how I could fill out a call slip to maybe see what I wanted to see.

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Shot I took on my way to NY Municipal yesterday. Ain’t she a beaut’?

Fill out the call slip in the way the librarian told me to.  It did not get me my broadside, but it did get me a collection of clippings that were mildly useful so I’ll call that particular adventure a wash.

Find an item listed in the card catalogue which, when delivered to the desk, was in such fragile condition that I was not allowed to take the item from the desk but rather had to make a special appointment with a special archivist so that she could turn pages for me.

Find a series of items that was collected in so many different forms that the archivists had to bring me no less than three book cradles and two sets of book weights to figure out how I could view them safely without damaging or putting stress on the items.  These items, by the by, were included in a series of circus ephemera which also included all kinds of broadsides, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and crumbling papers arrayed in scrapbooks in what I’m certain made sense at the time they were put together but now, one hundred and fifty years later, is the most convoluted organization possible.

Find an envelope containing locks of hair and adoring notes from Edwin Booth’s groupies.  Apparently fan-girling is not a modern invention and, in the nineteenth century, was way creepier than it is today.

Procure and subsequently lose approximately fifteen pencils.

Increase my average daily physical activity by approximately 200%.  This is not hyperbole; my step tracker counted.

Make and cancel and re-make so many plans that I’m hoping my calendar remembers where and when I’m supposed to be at a given time because I certainly don’t.

Attain and attend appointments at all of my target archives and sift through so much material that I’m going to be reeling for a while.

And now, they’ve paged my next batch.  Catch you later!

The Big Dig

Today I’m working at the Rare Books and Manuscripts division of the New York Public Library.

The Stephen A. Shwarzman building looks like a piece of Hogwarts right in the heart of New York City.

The building is open to the public most days during reasonably convenient hours.

I can’t believe I’ve lived most of my life in New York and never until today been into the library building.

I also can’t believe that I’m working in a private section of a public building which requires a special appointment, special passwords, and special knowledge of the interior workings of the system to access. When I leave the reading room to grab a drink of water or take a break, I have to walk across a beautiful rotunda filled with works of art that defy description and many gaping tourists taking pictures of them. When I return to the reading room, I have to go down back alley corridors, ring a special bell, and get a wave-in from one of the archivists because “she’s with us”.

Last night, while on the phone with my best beloved, I actually used the phrase “I’m in the

Hogwarts, I tell you

Hogwarts, I tell you

field…”. This makes me think of Indiana Jonesing my way through temples filled with traps and pitfalls all to find the Golden Idol of Treasure sitting atop some elaborate dais. This metaphor seems reasonably accurate to what I’m actually doing at the moment so I think that I’ll leave it that way. In case you get bored, just imagine me with my bullwhip and fabulous hat swinging my way through Times Square shouting “It belongs in a museum!”.

…you really won’t be so very far off from the truth.

….and now back to the big dig.

Scope

One of the problems of archival research is scope.

So you have a project. The project is interesting. The project involves a lot of dates, figures, places, etc. You do a search of an archive’s holdings on these various keywords and come up with a handful of findings that look like they may be pertinent. On paper, looking at this handful is totally doable within your allotted time frame.

But then you arrive at the archive and find out that one line of innocuous catalogue entry is actually representative of a collection which spans boxes and boxes of items; some of them large, some of them small, some of them will require a simple glance and reference picture, some will require careful reading. The collection is catalogued in a finding aid which, in itself, is approximately book-length and has entries for each individual item but those entries consist of a perfunctory three-word description which might possibly relate to your research or it could be a wild goose chase down a rabbit hole of really interesting stuff.

Me and honest Abe on the steps of NY Historical Society

Me and honest Abe on the steps of NY Historical Society

That’s the real problem: all the things that you could ask the archivist to pull are, in their own right, really interesting. They might be old, they might be antique, they might be related to whatever it is that you’re doing in a way that is so tangential that it might not even matter in the long-run but, being a thorough researcher, you have to document these findings and at least do enough looking-into that you can claim due diligence. So the one line of catalogue entry suddenly consumes hours (if not days) of your archive time and, in the words of Indie, “X” never marks the spot. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent following leads just to say that I’ve mapped the terrain.

This week, I’ve devoted attention to looking at materials that are probably not related enough to my dissertation to matter, but hat I had to look into anyway to rule out their collections from the greater body of work which might matter. The research treasure hunt is always fruitful in that you are constantly handling interesting things. This week alone, I found myself pawing through a batch of Edwin Booth’s cancelled checks, and a folder full of locks of hair given to him by various groupies, fan-girls, and sweethearts throughout the years (like I said…. REALLY INTERESTING STUFF but how are these things related to performances of Hamlet and Julius Caesar in the nineteenth century?).

I’ve also been pointed in the direction of collections that will require a great deal of time to sift through by archivists whose job it is to help researchers like me find things they’re looking for. These archivists know their stuff and the things they pointed me at are probably extremely fruitful. But do I really have time to read the personal correspondence of several prominent families spanning the course of about a hundred years in hopes that they will turn up details of the five performances I’m looking at?

Oh, yes, there are ways to narrow the field. In the instance of personal correspondence, I certainly have some target date ranges that I could look at. But I definitely didn’t allot time to look at these things (at least during this research trip) so do I have that time to do it? And can any of these things be found digitally so that I don’t waste precious time in a reading room looking at things that I could be looking at when I get home?

This research adventure has so far been extremely fruitful. So fruitful, in fact, that I’m beginning to worry about having enough time to look at everything I want to see (despite the fact that I have four more weeks in which to do it). I have begun to strategically rule out things that perhaps don’t need my attention (do I really need to see another portrait of Edwin Booth or yet another copy of John Wilkes Booth’s Carte De Visite upon which they based the picture displayed upon his “Wanted” poster after he shot the president?). I have also begun to prioritize items which are pertinent to sections of my diss for which I have fewer options for primary documentation (just you try finding materials relating to African American Actors in 1820).

I’ve also tried to start pacing myself; it would be really easy to burn too hot too fast on this. Brain work is taxing and I find that I come home simply exhausted at the end of the day (never mind the entirely new and exciting running possibilities that Riverside and Central Parks have opened up to me and I’ve taken perhaps too much advantage of). I also find that I’m really excited for more; that I’m doing exactly the work I hoped to do; and that I fight back imposter syndrome with every day that I walk into that reading room like I know what I’m doing.

….even if I only kinda know what I’m doing and a lot of this is figure it out on the fly. Hey, we’ve all gotta start somewhere!

A New York Minute

There really is nothing quite like being home.

It’s been many a year since I’ve spent any significant time in New York. Twenty four hours have been enough to put a smile on my face at the most mundane of things: bumping into tourists in Times Square on my way to an important dinner meeting, correcting tourists’ directions when they are completely lost because they’re one street south of where they think they are, iced coffee that doesn’t taste like it comes from a franchise (sorry, Dunks, you’ve got nothin’ on NY), random iced hot chocolates from Jacques Torres on my way from one archive to another.

Oh and the archives! This morning I spent some time at the beautiful reading room of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New York Historical Society. Big, airy, lofty, and just covered floor to ceiling in art, this was such a glorious place to weather the stormy New York morning. When my eyes got bleary and I simply couldn’t look at any more advertising pamphlets, I took a walk over to the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public library to check out their card catalogue and begin to page my requests.

Museum of Natural History from my Walk-By this morning.

Museum of Natural History from my Walk-By this morning.

So far, I’ve found a lot of things that will be useful, and several dead ends. Dead ends are actually a huge relief because they mean that I don’t need to continue a line of inquiry. Turning up stones is sometimes hard work and if you find too many salamanders, your menagerie overflows. This morning was so fruitful that I was beginning to worry about the carry capacity of my tanks. This afternoon has definitely been an exercise in page the material, read the material, be glad that you’re a thorough researcher and forget the material.

In between, I’ve scoped some plays I want to see (In addition to the requisite Shakespeare in the Park and Sleep No More viewings, I think a trip to Newsies is in my near future… especially because it’s set to close in August), taken a run down Riverside park, had a real NY bartender make my real NY cocktail without giving me funny looks about how oddly specific I was being in terms of my instructions, and eaten food that I had never even heard of before it was on my plate.

Again, this is only day one of a five-week trip. I’m happy to be home, and excited for my continued New York adventures (including the consumption of bagels…. Though I can’t do it today because I’ve already blown my frivolous calorie expenditure with aforementioned frozen hot chocolate concoction).

Also: for the record, when you’re away from home long enough even its quirks that drove you nuts when you lived there become endearing. I’ve had to dodge a serious of pretty serious rainstorms with strategic application of libraries and bars for the so-far duration of my stay and haven’t thought a bad thought about it yet other than, “Oh, you New York!”

Yup. I was fiending for some Billy Joel and water with a bit too much fluoride to be well and truly practical.

And now, I think they’ve paged my materials. Back to work.

Now is the Winter of our Discontent

In these, the waning days of my winter break, I am taking stock of all the sundry things that I have managed to commit to for the semester to come.  And let me tell you; apparently I don’t know how to have a quiet semester.

I’ll be taking one class, TAing a second, working on my usual assortment of personal projects having nothing to do with work, dramaturging Measure for Measure, brushing up on my German, passing my German exam, in a show (this is my semi-secret-not-so-secret-not-yet-ready-to-be-released-to-the-world project), podcasting, and blogging.

No wonder I’m already going through all the stress symptoms I usually associate with the end of the semester.

For that, I think with a good system of organization in place, I should be able to hit everything I need to hit without overmuch stress on myself.

At least I hope so.

So, since I’m still working on enjoying my break, I’ll leave you with this truncated post and some pictures from my trip to New York over the holidays.

Happy Break, y’all!

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Not Yet Dead

This is an obligatory “I’m not dead” post (also, incidentally, my first post of the post-apocalyptic 2013…. If we think of this year as “post-apocalyptic”, it’s guaranteed to make no matter what happens at least 50% more magical and 25% more awesome).

Since I got home from New York, things have been rather quiet.

I’m clearing off my desk, I’m sending e-mails that I had been putting off, I’m having meetings that had to wait until after finals, and I’m catching up on quality me-time.

I’m getting my knitting docket all lined up for the semester, I’m kicking off some exciting projects (can you say “eight person Twelfth Night”!?  Stay tuned!), I’m ordering my books, I’m obsessively checking online grading system, I’m trying my darndest not to think about German or Comps for another week.

I’m getting my gym and eating habits back on line, I’m catching up with old friends who

my favorite shot from New York: the Union Square Holiday Market (best experienced while sipping Italian Dark hot Chocolate from Max Brenner's which, by the way, I was)

my favorite shot from New York: the Union Square Holiday Market (best experienced while sipping Italian Dark hot Chocolate from Max Brenner’s which, by the way, I was)

got sacrificed under the finals bus (and were nice enough to understand), I’m mentally resetting and preparing for the last semester of coursework for my PhD.

I’m learning to use my brand shiny new cappuccino machine (thanks, mom and dad!), I’m getting my new computer set up with my docking station (again, thanks to the best daddy on the face of the planet), I’m trying to figure out how to get icloud to sync my calendars without fubaring things (surprisingly difficult given apple’s generally idiot-proof interfacing).

I’m podcasting (http://www.offensiveshadows.com in case you hadn’t heard), I’m rehearsing, I’m web committee chairing, I’m reviewing syllabi for my Spring TA assignment.

On the whole, I’m doing my best to rest and rejuvenate.  I’m also aligning things so that all of my projects are on a roll before the semester starts and thus will not need extra kicking to begin rolling down long bumpy hills when I’m in the middle of paper-drafting or midterms-grading or any number of inevitable things that the semester brings with it.

I highly recommend that you do the same.

The semester will soon be upon us and we all need to be prepared for its onset.

Happy Tuesday!

It’s been a while, so as is my wont now and again… it’s random list time!

1)    For those who have not heard, I have been cajoled out of retirement to play the part of Rosalind for the Winthrop Playmakers’ production of As you Like It!  This is a dream part for me and one, due to the small-mindedness of most professional casting folks, that I wouldn’t normally be given the chance to play.  I’m extremely excited (especially because my script came yesterday) and can’t wait to get down and dirty with the Bard.  The show performs October 5-14 Friday, Saturday, Sunday, so mark your calendars.  Should be lots of fun, and if nothing else you can come laugh at how rusty my acting skills are.

2)    My partner in crime and I took a trip down to New York this weekend past so that I could take him to see Sleep no More.  This show has been making a big splash in the

Gallow Green, the awesome rooftop bar they just added to SNM

theatre communities due to its fairly revolutionary approach to Shakespeare and its rampantly successful run in New York.  Half theatre, half art installation (I described it pretty well in my post post-first-visit); Sleep no More combines Macbeth andHitchcock’s Rebecca to weave a non-linear story of murder, terror, and uncanny humanity.  Due to the free-form interaction audiences have with the experience, I saw a lot this time that I missed the first time.  I also had the privilege of two one-on-ones (for those not in the know: during this show, actors will grab random unsuspecting audience members, lock them in rooms, and perform private vignettes for only those audience members to see), and a “fetch quest” (was given something to give to someone else which then made things happen).  If you’re at all curious, GO SEE IT.  I’m being purposefully vague because I truly think that everyone should experience this show at least once (and you’re going to want to go more than that, trust me, my partner in crime and I are already looking to schedule another trip).

3)    Life without the internet is hard!  Last week, a giant thunderstorm brought in its wake the demise of our interwebs for the period of four laborious days.  I will admit, I got a great deal done during that time which otherwise would have remained a wish and a dream (like cleaning out my closet and re-organizing my shoes), and the local coffee house did lend itself well to practicing my German since I actually couldn’t leave until I had finished my goal for the day, but I am more than glad to be able to google random bits from my own chair again.

4)    Thirty hours in New York is nowhere near long enough.  While I did get to spend most of my waking time wandering Central Park and/or eating wonderful food, this time was just long enough to make me remember how much I sorely miss home.  Boston’s great but it ain’t New York.  Sigh.

5)    Changing up one’s exercise routine is a great way to keep oneself motivated to go to the gym, a great way to kick one’s own buttocks, and a great way to sleep better at night.  In an effort to push my cardio to the next level, I started C25K as part of my cardio regime.  There are all kinds of resources available for folks who are interested in the program (including a free app for your iPhone that remembers where you are in the program, checks off workouts you’ve already done, keeps track of time for you, lets you pipe in your music during your jog, and congratulates you when you finish a workout).  This summer, I’ve been really hitting the gym hard in an effort to boost my endorphin dependence before the semester starts and, as a byproduct, boost my required gym time by about two hours a week.  Working out has a plethora of health benefits, which I’m certain you’re aware of, but I’m mostly concerned with how it helps me manage stress.  Also with how morally superior it makes me feel.  Yea, I work out, I’m automatically better than a couch-sitter.

6)    Paper writing is a long-term aspiration, not a short-term project.  They’re called “projects” for a reason, so I should think of them more as something that I live with than something that I can do in a reasonable amount of time.  Also, I shouldn’t over-commit to the number I can handle on my desk at any given moment.  Also, I should remember that a good paper is like a fine wine: letting it sit on a shelf and age for a bit will improve its overall quality, but let it sit too long and it turns to vinegar.

7)    I will be seeing some exciting theatre this week (including Coriolanus on Boston Common, and the Boston Opera Collective’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld … god do I love Offenbach).  Stay tuned!

A little house-keeping: if you’re reading this, why not make it official that you like me?  Head on over and tell me so on facebook.

Mourning an Old Friend

The day I turned sixteen, my dad took me to get my learner’s permit.

The first instruction he gave me about driving was “it’s just like flying an airplane, except when you pull back on the steering wheel, the car does not go up.”

A few weeks later, that coveted card arrived in the mail.  I treasured and cherished it, for it was my freedom, my solace, the thing that said I could go places and do things.

When I turned 18, the permit turned into a full-fledged license.

About this time, I turned into the official Designated Driver.  Not because me and my friends went bar-hopping in New York City (and, really, if we did (and I’m not saying we

New York City… center of the Universe

did), we totally would have taken the subway home), but because I was the only one with a license and access to a vehicle.  We would road trip up to see friends in Massachusetts or Connecticut, and my golden card would permit me to be the responsible one who got us there and back again.  I was the pilot.

When I turned 21, New York State sent me a birthday card with another version of my license.  It looked the same as the old one, except this one lacked the giant red letters beneath my picture designating me “UNDER 21”.

At this point, those trips to New England often involved beer of some kind.  And it was a point of pride with me, when we all whipped out our IDs, that mine was from New York.  It showed everyone and anyone who asked who I was and where I came from, and it made me firm in my sense of self.  “I’m a New Yorker!  This official card says so!”

I’ve been a gypsy for many years.  Since graduating my undergrad in 2008, I’ve lived in six different living scenarios in three different states.  Over the course of that year, I moved six times.  Since I lacked a permanent address to call my own, my parents’ place was the most stable domicile at which to reach me, and as far as my ID was concerned it was where I still resided.  No point switching your license when you have nowhere to tell it that you live.  So my identity was intact, I was still a card-carrying New Yorker, and when I was lacking the fortitude to truly find myself on any given day, I could look in my wallet and there I was.

I signed the lease on my current apartment on June 1, 2011 with some knowledge that I probably wouldn’t be going anywhere fast, barring horrible catastrophe or cataclysmic life-altering event.  When I renewed my lease this year, I realized that perhaps it was maybe time to admit that I’m not going anywhere for a while.

Tomorrow, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles claims my New Yorker card.

“It’s just a card”, says you.  “That card has nothing to do with who you really are!”  The logical side of my brain says that you would be correct.  But for whatever reason, I’m really having a hard time letting go of that stupid card.  Somehow, turning it in feels like being less of a New Yorker.  It also feels like I’m adopting Massachusetts as home and, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Boston.  I rather like it here.

But it sure as hell ain’t New York.

I’ve been dealing with a bout of homesickness lately; a deep longing for bagels, real Chinese food, street fairs, and Tasti-D-Lite that simply can’t be sated on the streets of Harvard.

Another thing that this drastic step means is that I’m well and truly stuck.  Changing my license over means that, at least for now, I’ve hung up my wandering boots.  This wasn’t the first indication; it’s much more difficult to move when you have furniture and your stuff no longer fits in the back of your car.  Despite that, this feels like a definitive clunk as my life settles into a firm footprint until I find the momentum to push it over the ledge again so it can roll around in the great shoebox of the universe.

If I stay in this apartment for a day over two years, it will be the longest that I’ve lived anywhere since I moved out of my folks’ place.  That’s huge and panic inducing to a wandering soul like mine.  It feels settling… grown-up… and, somehow, wrong.

So excuse my moping and the copious amount of ice cream that will be consumed tomorrow over the grave of a proud piece of plastic that, for so long, has meant so much to this little bardy gypsy girl.

Dearly Beloved, we have gathered here to say our goodbyes…

The Space Race

This week in New York theatre was a big week for Shakespeareans as the acclaimed Theatre for a New Audience broke ground on their long-anticipated space in Brooklyn. The new theatre, scheduled to be operational by the Spring of 2013 when Julie Taymor will direct their pilot show, will feature 27,500 square feet, a 299 seat house, fully adjustable seating, trap doors, a 35-foot fly space (absolutely novel for an off-Broadway house), and be the first large house in New York specifically built for classical theatre since Lincoln Center built the Vivian Beaumont in 1965.

It is more than interesting to me that New York has remained the American capital of Theatre for this reason in particular: the one thing that Theatre absolutely requires (and is

Theatre for a New Audience's concept sketch for the new theatre; inside

at a premium in New York) is space. Theatre requires space in vast quantities and not just for performance. Rehearsal, planning, pre-production, storage, building; every single step of the theatrical process is large and booming and cannot be accomplished without this most basic of necessities.

Having owned and operated a small theatre company in New York, I can tell you from personal experience that the city itself, which should be a veritable playground for thespians, is theatrically prohibitive. Space is difficult to come by and thereby expensive. Renting space in New York is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming company, and let’s not even get started with what it would take to purchase a space. Perhaps the worst part is that minimalists like me are doomed to the realm of unprofessionalism (though the city has seen an upswing of alternative performance spaces this season). There are only so many of your friends whom you can convince that rehearsing in your living room is a good idea. By the time you’ve entered the realm of classical theatre; of swordplay and dancing; you’ve outgrown any such capacity. Perhaps meetings and readings are coffee table fare, but the cost of a latte (even a Starbucks latte) will only take you so far into the rehearsal process.

Theatre for a New Audience's new theatre - architectural rendering; external

Creativity is pivotal to the would-be New York producer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve choreographed fights on rooftops for lack of a better play area. Perhaps the most inspiring space I’ve worked in was a kindergarten playroom within the 92nd street Y at which several afternoon of hacking at “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abrgd]” yielded an interpretive dance of the apocrypha featuring a giant wooden cross made of legos and a punching nun pursued by a toy Godzilla lashed to a remote-control car (…we may or may not have acquired any number of these items from the playroom directly…).

There is something to be said, however, for consistency in a rehearsal space. Semi-permanent resources within the rehearsal space can be a lifeline in even a simple production. Rehearsal boxes (square boxes of varying sizes painted black and found in just about every professional rehearsal space) can become anything at the drop of a hat. Often directors get so attached to these boxes that they become integrated in the final production. Beyond this, the chest of random costume/prop items inevitably required at some point in the rehearsal process can become prohibitive for Stage Managers to drag into/out of rehearsal spaces (especially when dealing with public transportation). The rehearsal space is where you eat, breathe, bleed, cry, and (sometimes) sleep. It’s important to be comfortable there. A coffee maker in the rehearsal room can brighten the day of any SM (and generally appease cranky directors).

Then there’s the performance space. With rental costs in New York being so very high, generally the small theatre company looks to rent a space for the least amount of non-lucrative days as possible. What this often means is a rushed tech in one day and (at best) one full dress run before the show goes up, then load-out on closing night between curtain and the cast party.

Believe me, it sucks.

So why hasn’t the base of theatre operations moved somewhere a little more spacious? Somewhere where elbowroom is a-plenty and the cost of land is low? Somewhere a mere train ride away from the hustle, bustle, and main audience of any given production? Regional summer-stock is a time-honored tradition amongst the flocks of New York actors who suddenly find themselves employed to travel for three months out of the year… but why haven’t most of these theatre companies expanded to offer year-round employment opportunities for ramen-eating artists?

I really have no idea. It seems to me that the quality of theatre (or at least its flashiness) could be greatly improved by such a move as it would mean much less money devoted to the bare-bones necessities which could instead be diverted to other productions costs. I think the sensible businessman would whine about the reduced potential audience of a show staged on a commuter rail rather than a subway line, but accessibility historically hasn’t stopped regional theatre. Are we just holding out for a big Broadway dream and wavering on progress because of tradition? Is the theatre community stifled by some idea of what it should be rather than what it could be?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally stoked about this new space. I hope to perform/direct there someday. And, Spiderman aside, I’m wickedly jealous of Taymor’s opportunity…. It just seems to me that the money spent on this facility could be better spent on a facility somewhere a little less expensive.