LIVING HISTORY: The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive
By Peter Royston
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
“Imagine if I had a video tape of Sarah Bernhardt in HAMLET.” asks Patrick Hoffman, Director of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT). “How many actors wouldn’t be interested in seeing that?” Unfortunately, Bernhardt’s performances, along with countless others throughout history, have been lost to memory. We can read about, and, if we’re lucky, view photographs of famous performances from the past, but seeing them as theatre is meant to be seen - living, breathing, moving through space in front of you – was a frustrating impossibility until the Archive was founded in 1970.
Now, 35 years later, TOFT has preserved thousands of live performances of plays, musicals, experimental and avant-garde productions, along with film and television adaptations of theatre productions, interviews and award programs.
“It’s never going to be the same as sitting in a theatre and watching a live performance. Nothing will ever replace that,” says Hoffman, “What we’re trying to create is what we call a ‘study print.’ We’re trying to give a sense of what it was like to see that performance.”
For a long time, Betty Corwin had been frustrated that so many important theatrical events would never be seen again after closing. After a lengthy process of receiving permission from Equity and the other theatrical unions – artists were, understandably, wary of piracy – Corwin began to tape performances under the auspices of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The first performance taped for TOFT was a 1970 Off-Broadway rock musical called THE GOLDEN BAT. Today TOFT includes over 5,000 tapes, including the 1975 production of EQUUS with Anthony Hopkins, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF with Zero Mostel, and the original production of A CHORUS LINE at the Public Theatre.
TOFT's Patrick Hoffman
TOFT is living history, a formidable tool for any theatre artist. But Patrick Hoffman, who took over as Director of the Archive when Corwin retired in 2000, reserves a special place in his heart, and more important, in his daily schedule, for actors. “Actors are the largest group that use the collection,” he comments, “I want as many actors to know about TOFT as possible.”
“When we renovated the building,” Hoffman continues, “we had a very sophisticated computer matrix system installed which allowed us to send a signal from any deck in our playback suite to any monitor in our screening room in any combination. So that if we have a cast of eight people, we can send the signal to eight monitors simultaneously. This is really great for screening tapes for casts or for classes. Or even if you have two actors who are playing Blanche and Stanley together and they want to watch a previous production of Streetcar, they can come and watch side-by-side.”
In arranging the Archives’ daily schedule, Hoffman takes actors’ often-uncertain lives into account: “We have a limited number of what we call ‘walk-in appointments.’ We hold back a number of our monitors with actors in mind. We know that oftentimes they will get a call from their agent that morning that they have an audition the very next day. The walk-in monitors are given away on a first-come, first-serve basis. I always encourage people to call for an appointment if they can, but if they can’t, they’re welcome to try for a walk-in monitor. It depends on what’s going on in town. For example, when the Roundabout Theatre Company announced that they were going to do a major revival of PACIFIC OVERTURES, for about three weeks, we had what must have been every Asian-American actor in the tri-state area in our screening room, viewing the original version of PACIFIC OVERTURES and the York Theatre revival!”
“On almost any given day, you’ll see someone here working on an exciting project,” says Hoffman. Whether it’s viewing a director’s previous works, as Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie did before starting KISS ME, KATE with Michael Blakemore, or honing your performance by watching yourself, as Judy Kaye did with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, TOFT’s utility seems limitless. “It was incredibly instructive to me to see an entire performance,” wrote Kaye, “to get a real feel for the flow of the piece…I learned so much about myself – what moments worked – what didn’t…I know it will improve my work.”
John Cariani used the Archive before teaching a class: “I saw a remarkable version of TAMING OF THE SHREW with Meryl Streep and Raul Julia. I was teaching the play, and wanted to SEE it. It helped me approach the play as a PLAY--not as a piece of literature! And the people there are so helpful, and knowledgeable--if they have more than one version of a play on hand, they'll guide you to the best version for you, depending on your needs.”
Hoffman is proud that the collection is utilized by theatre artists from around the country and around the world: “Last year we had researchers from 35 countries and 47 states, with quite a few artists from regional theatres throughout the United States. With summer coming up, we’re expecting a lot of artistic directors, planning their next season!”
When the Performing Arts Library was renovated, Executive Director Jacqueline Davis called it “the silent partner of the theatre community.” Nowhere is this more true than in the TOFT collection. “I really consider the collection an active part in the creation of new work for the theatre,” says Hoffman, “because we not only are assisting actors who are studying for roles, but also we are often invited to tape workshops of new musicals. The creative team comes to the Library, works with the tape over time, to develop, rewrite, revise. Sometimes the show actually gets produced because of the work done here at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. For example, when it began, the musical CONTACT was only Act Three. They used the tapes of the workshops to help create Acts One and Two. We taped SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE when it was only Act One at Playwrights Horizons, then Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine used the tapes here to create Act Two.”
Before the advent of TOFT, not preserving a show on tape was the norm, but today, when Patrick Hoffman can’t tape a show, it’s frustrating. “Unfortunately, there’s a misconception out there that we tape every show. We can’t afford to tape every show. We’re always looking for funding sources; it’s a constant struggle. I spend as much time trying to raise money as I do taping shows. It’s especially frustrating during a rich season like this, when you have only enough money to tape a certain number of shows, but there are many more shows out there you want to tape. It’s a very tough decision to decide what you’re going to tape and what you’re not going to tape. It’s probably the hardest thing I have to do in my job.” Primary funding sources for the Archive come from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), but as with all non-profit arts organizations, TOFT is facing increasing challenges. Hoffman encourages organizations or individuals who are interested in funding an entire taping, and also welcomes individual donations. Tax deductible donations can be made out to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive and sent to the attention of Patrick Hoffman.
Before joining TOFT, Hoffman was associate curator of the theatre collection at the Museum of the City of New York. Now he wrestles with living history, preserving what D.S. Moynihan, Creative Arts Director for the Shubert Organization called, “our connection to the future.” In her essay “Theatre and Film,” Susan Sontag wrote, “Movies preserve the past…Films age (being objects) as no theatre event ever does (being always new)” In the loving hands of Patrick Hoffman and the staff at TOFT, theatrical events become permanent historical objects for actors and other artists to study for years to come. Or as Hoffman says, “We love actors. Our work is to document their work.”
Peter Royston has written about the Unicorn Theatre and Outdoor Theatre in the U.S. for Equity News. His 2003 timeline/history of Actors Equity won First Award from the Metro New York Labor Communications Council.