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Archives of American Shakespeare Center Find New Home at W&L

Dating to its founders’ first amateur performance of Antony and Cleopatra in 1985, the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), now one of the country’s leading performers of Shakespeare, has kept a careful record of everything associated with the plays it staged. The center’s archives include directors’ notes, prompt books, set designs, posters, fliers, still and candid photographs, playbills, programs, and recordings of performances.

This month those archives formally came to their new home in the Special Collections of Washington and Lee University’s Leyburn Library.

“It’s a very rich treasure trove for anyone studying the performance of Shakespeare,” said Hank Dobin, dean of the college at W&L. Dobin was instrumental in bringing the collection to W&L and also serves on the ASC’s board of trustees and as head of its education committee.

“The American Shakespeare Center aspires to be the leading location for Shakespeare performances and Shakespeare performance studies,” said Dobin, a Shakespeare scholar. He explained that part of the reason for bringing the collection to W&L was for faculty and students in drama and English to use it for research. “If I were teaching a Shakespeare class, I would assign a research paper to my students to use this archive,” he said. “Maybe they could compare two different productions of Hamlet that occurred at the ASC over the years, or they could compare an ASC production of Hamlet to a movie production. So it offers a lot of opportunities for W&L students.”

The ASC began as the professional traveling troupe “Shenandoah Shakespeare Express” in 1988. But the company was without a home theater until 2001 when, in Staunton, Va., it built the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only authentic replica of Shakespeare’s indoor theater in London. “The ASC wants to be the place that is most loyally trying to recreate Shakespeare’s original playing conditions,” said Dobin. “This means that the research has to be ongoing so that we are more and more confident about what those original playing conditions might have been.”

The ASC’s Center for Education and Research promotes scholarship about the period and about performance, and hosts a bi-annual conference for Shakespeare scholars that attracts the world’s most prominent authorities on Shakespeare in performance.

Plans are also underway to recreate in Staunton Shakespeare’s second Globe Theater (the version that was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original in 1613). “With the second Globe Theater, we will have two playing spaces,” said Dobin, “and the American Shakespeare Center will really be a mecca for Shakespeare performance in this country and around the world. So this is a really important collection and will be increasingly important when the center’s ambitions come to fruition.”

Dobin noted that, in addition to seeing Shakespeare performances, scholars will now also be able to study the ASC archives to understand the ways in which the playing company’s performances have evolved over the years. “The ASC wants to make its archives available to scholars. At Washington and Lee we have the ability to do that in a safe and organized way, offering both really good long term storage and access to scholars,” he said.

Vaughan Stanley, special collections librarian at W&L, received the ASC archive in mid-August. “We’ve cleared a certain amount of shelf space for the collection in our vault,” he said. “We try to keep the air temperature and humidity regulated so that they never go beyond what is a good situation for the materials. Ideally, the best situation is about 50 degrees of relative humidity and about 66 degrees of temperature, although that does fluctuate a few degrees.”

Stanley said that he plans to set up a DVD player in Special Collections to allow individual scholars access to the recordings of the performances. “We’re also trying to deal with the question of how best to preserve the images of the plays for the long term,” he said. “I think we’ll have to convert some of them into another format to ensure that they last longer, and that would be in consultation with the Actors’ Equity Association which has guidelines on such transfers.

“Acquiring the collection is a very prestigious event for W&L, there’s no question about that,” he emphasized. “And we’ve already scheduled the delivery of more material in 2012 that the ASC has archived from 1988 to 2006.”

Stanley worked closely with Sarah Enloe, the ASC’s director of education, to bring the collection on campus. “This time, we brought the show inventory from 1985 to 2004,” said Enloe. “It includes all the shows performed, including our first professional show, Richard III, which we toured in 1988, and our first three years at Blackfriars. This is a very exciting event for us, and we’ll be making a formal event of it in October at our conference, with a reception and formal recognition of the transfer.”

Ralph Cohen, cofounder and director of mission at the ASC, said, “The American Shakespeare Center is glad that W&L, which has such first rate facilities, will be preserving our history. It gratifies us that the university recognizes that the work going on at the Blackfriars Playhouse, and its influence on the world of Shakespeare, warrants the care that Vaughan Stanley and his staff can give it.”

Although the American Shakespeare Center is most closely associated with its partner Mary Baldwin College in Staunton-which created the world’s only master’s degree program for the teaching, acting and directing of Shakespeare-Dobin explained that Mary Baldwin didn’t have the ability to house the archives. “So the ASC immediately thought of Washington and Lee because in addition to being a well regarded college in the area, there’s a clear regional identification with Staunton and the Shenandoah Valley,” he said.

The Blackfriars Playhouse website can be found at http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/