Author Archives: Ashley Williams

An Archivist’ Farewell

Today is officially my last day for this grant project. I look back at the past year and I just think “wow.” Wow on different levels. Wow, I have worked with some amazing people. Wow, I have learned a lot about outdoor theatre. Wow, how has it been a year already? Wow, this collection is massive.

It sounds cliché, but honestly this collection is like no other in the world that I have found. And I have gone looking to try and see how other places organized the materials. There simply isn’t any comparable collection I have been able to find. Play scripts, correspondence, clippings, publicity materials, financial, photographs, programs, and attendance information for hundreds of different outdoor theatre productions across the United States; many still running currently, many not. Beyond specific productions, there is feasibility studies and publications with “how to’s” for a wide variety of topics within outdoor theatre. What do you have to consider when selecting a site? Where can you find financial support? What are the audiences various demographics? How does a production promote itself? There is a wealth of information within the archives just waiting for someone.

The collection is now open for researchers. The finding aid can be viewed at https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/special/ead/findingaids/1250. Items that have been digitized can be viewed through the finding aid as well. One particular aspect of digitized items I am excited about is by the end of January, all of the audio components should be digitized and available online. A big thank you goes to Justin Borer, Joyner Library’s audio digitization specialist, who is working to get these items digitized.

Something else I am really excited about is the exhibit I mentioned in a previous blog post. “The People’s Theatre: The Institute of Outdoor Theatre and North Carolina Productions” will be installed in early January on the 4th floor of Joyner Library, and there will be an opening reception on Friday, January 15th at 4:30 pm.

Poster Final

I do want to say thank you to all of the people who have been involved with this project: my graduate students Jeff and Kate, Susan and Michael from the Institute of Outdoor Theatre, the numerous people at Joyner Library including Dale, Martha, Jennifer, Lynette, Joe, and those I know I have forgotten to mention. Without all of you, this project would not have been as successful as it was. And to the National Historical Publication and Records Commission for the grant, making this project possible.

So what is next for me? Well, I am staying at ECU for a bit longer. I am going to be the project archivist for an LSTA grant to get the finding aids for Laupus Library (our health sciences library) history collections online. This means that I will get to see my exhibit in its final stage and hopefully hear and see people using the Institute of Outdoor Theatre archives.

Outdoor Theatre and the New Deal, Take Two

Back in February, I first wrote about two amphitheaters represented in the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives that were constructed through New Deal programs. I now present another amphitheater that has its beginnings in the Great Depression and New Deal programs: Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina.

 

Roanoke Island residents in 1936 commissioned Paul Green to write a play to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare. In 1937, the play, The Lost Colony, debuted at Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina. The world and the United States were in the depths of the Great Depression, and would remain so for another two years. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had placed relief and reform measures in place to help lessen the worst effects. Those involved with the The Lost Colony benefited from New Deal programs, and without them, the drama may not have developed.

Waterside Theatre was built by local Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) labor and Works progress Administration (WPA) funding. Construction was led by Albert Quentin “Skipper” Bell, and was completed within about six months. The Lost Colony’s first director, Samuel Selden, requested the stage be built first so rehearsals could take place while the seating was completed. Costumes were made by local WPA seamstresses, and boys from a nearby CCC camp had roles as Natives. While many of the other actors in the play came from Roanoke Island, six leading roles (along with several assistants and counselors) came from the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project in New York City. Among the actors were Katherine Cale, as Eleanor Dare, and Lillian Ashton, as Queen Elizabeth. 

The Lost Colony was originally intended only for the summer of 1937, but public outcry warranted the drama becoming a yearly production. The theatre had not been built to last as a permanent structure. In 1941, with funds matched by the WPA and under Bell’s watch, the theatre was improved to resist the “peculiar atmospheric condition” of Roanoke Island. (1941 souvenir program)

Since the Waterside Theatre was first built, it has been destroyed twice – once by fire in 1947 and once by Hurricane Donna in 1960. Despite these obstacles, the theatre was rebuilt and the stage remains much the same as 1937 when The Lost Colony first debuted. What has changed is the seating and addition of rain shelters and concession stands, but the stage is still very much recognizable as Bell’s 1937 construction.

Waterside Theatre

Less Than a Month to Go

The NHPRC grant project is starting to wind down and is in its last month. I know I have said it many times before, but I cannot believe how fast this project has gone by. The good news is that the project is well ahead of schedule. There are a few little things to finish up with the finding aid, including calculating the extent and triple checking the folder list and notes, and to put the last handful of oversized items into a folder and their new permanent home. But other than those small things, the project is complete and I would say it has been successful.

In part because the project has been ahead of schedule, I am working on creating an exhibit for the fourth floor of Joyner Library. The exhibit – the name is still a work in progress – will open in January. I am fortunate that I will still be at ECU at that time and will be able to help install the exhibit and see my vision come to fruition. The exhibit is not in a finished state on paper right now by any means, but it is really beginning to take shape and I can envision the overall look. A history of the Institute of Outdoor Theatre will set the stage (no pun intended) for visitors in the initial display cases. The other cases will highlight outdoor productions across North Carolina: The Lost Colony, Strike at the Wind, Sword of Peace, Horn in the West, Unto These Hills, and Montford Park Players. As the exhibit gets closer and solidifies, I will try to post again with more information.

Update on Oversized Materials

Oversized

All the oversized materials

The oversized materials have been a bit tricky to figure out how to store. There is a vast amount of oversized materials and a variety of formats: posters, photos, blueprints, foam core, etc. The oversized materials came to the library in a few boxes, but were all together. Originally, I had sorted them by state. It made sense to me since most of the material corresponded to specific productions and theatres. But with all of it sorted that way, I really wasn’t sure how to store the material. Some productions had rolled and unrolled items, blueprints, and photos. From a conservation and preservation standpoint, they should not be co-mingling. So, it was back to the figurative drawing board. Through discussions with the conservator, digital librarian (who works with the finding aids), and manuscript archivist, a new plan was devised. Create a new series of oversized materials, sort them by type, and list the items included. It makes for a little more work right now, but I think it will ultimately be better for researchers.

Oversized by Type

Oversized materials sorted by type

Done Labeling (Almost)

Over 3,400 folders labeled. It took longer than I had hoped, but with the exception of oversized items, everything has been assigned a number. Audio-visual items took longer than I had anticipated because some had to be rearranged into alphabetical order while others were put in an archival box, but then I found a different archival box that would fit them better. So there was a couple of times that I ended up moving materials twice into archival boxes. Let me break down some of the numbers:

  • 3,437 folders
  • 425 boxes (of varying size)
  • 103 audio cassettes
  • 89 audio reels
  • 93 CDs
  • 41 floppy disks (3 ½” and 5 ¼”)
  • 80 film reels
  • 5 records
  • 131 VHS and DVDs
  • Over 6,000 slides

There are items from as early as 1921 (Pilgrim Pageant in Massachusetts, which was featured in this blog post) to this year. That is 95 years represented in this one collection. It was an entirely different world back then. Photographs are one way to see this evolution. The early photographs are in black and white, and at times can be grainy, and now most photographs are digital, in color, and highly detailed. Both ends of the timeline, along with thousands (I am not even going to try to estimate exactly how many photos are in this collection) from in between, including slides, are available in the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives.

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What do I do now? Well, after I did a small celebratory dance that folder numbering is done, I am starting with the oversized materials. I have an inventory of all the oversized materials, I just now need to put them into their proper order. The vast majority correspond to a production represented in all of the state files. What will make this process of sorting and rehousing the oversized materials into archival boxes or oversized folders is there are both rolled and flat items. If a production has an item rolled and a flat item, I will need to make a decision on how they will be described in the finding aid – do I list them separately? Flatten the rolled item? Roll the flat item? I am hoping this will not be a big issue, but I won’t know for certain until I start sorting all of the oversized items.

Oversized 1

Just a portion of the oversized materials

Numbers, Folders, and More Numbers

When last I updated, I had just figured out the series and order the folders were going to go in and was working to rearrange them. Well, in the ten days since, I have numbered just over 2100 folders. That’s a lot of folders. It is far from the glamorous part of this job; in fact, at times it is downright tedious and boring. But it is essential. Every folder must be properly numbered and a running list of folder names, date ranges, and assigned number must be maintained. This list will become the container list, and it is only as useful to the researcher as I make it clear and accurate. Here is a preview of what the folder list looks like:

Folder List

How do I keep myself from going crazy? There have been a few times when that was not possible – I’ve given up numbering for the day and worked on figuring out the actual folder number for digitized items so it can be corrected. (Because folder numbers were not known at the beginning, items were digitized assigned a place holding number until the correct folder number was determined.) I try to get up every hour or so to stretch and just look at something other than “#1250.220.e” and “IOT Archives.” Even if I just walk around the offices, it is something. While numbering the folders I have worked in relative silence, listening to music, or the one I find most enjoyable is to listen to podcasts. And generally the podcasts I listen to are nothing very serious (ok, I have been listening to Disney podcasts, and if you know me this should not come as a surprise whatsoever).

This is what my work area looks like on a daily basis.

This is what my work area looks like on a daily basis.

After ten days, I believe I am just over halfway through the folders. I would love to have everything numbered by the start of August, but I do not think that is a realistic goal. I think by the first half of the second week in August is a much more doable timeline, but any time before than would be amazing.

Until next time, I am off to continue numbering. #1250.239.a, #1250.239.b, #1250.239.c….

Three Months To Go

Just under three months left. It doesn’t seem possible. The project has come a long way since October. For one, the archives are now in a temperature and humidity controlled environment which will help to slow down the decay process. With the exception of oversized materials (such as blueprints, posters, and large photographs), the paper materials are in archival folders, awaiting their move to archival boxes in the coming weeks. Now that everything has been gone through and put into proper folders, it was time to arrange them into an order that makes best sense…to create series. The Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s organization and arrangement of materials naturally created some of the series, with a couple of boxes seemingly out of place from packing all the materials up, particularly the last box Puzzle Piecesbrought over which contained files that had somehow been missed when initially packed. And audio-visual material boxes being spread throughout the initial box list.

I took my handwritten notes and used them as puzzle pieces to figure out the best order. Some pieces were re-arranged, discussed, and moved again. Soon, the puzzle pieces fell into place and the larger image of the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s Archives developed.

 

Order Boxes

Getting the folders all in order

Now comes the part of making sure the folders are in the correct order, adding the few materials that had slipped into the wrong place to their appropriate folder, and begin numbering the folders and re-housing them in archival boxes. From there, creating the actual finding aid and container list.

 

Early Texas Heritage Foundation, Paul Green, and Kermit Hunter

Paul Green and Kermit Hunter are names found again and again in the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives. Between them, over 43 outdoor dramas are represented in the archives, with multiple dramas still being performed presently. Both great writers in their own right, but what if they combined their efforts for one drama?

In May 1968, this was the intention. A planning group and feasibility study was being done by the Institute for Early Texas Heritage Foundation in La Grange, Texas. There are a couple of letters between Green and Hunter discussing the possibility of collaborating on the script. Green was originally contacted about writing a script for an outdoor drama about Sam Houston. It is unclear when exactly or how Hunter was brought into the project. But in a letter dated 2 May 1968, Green wrote “…you can see how pleased I am that we finally have a chance to work together on a good, and I mean good, outdoor drama project.” Hunter responded in kind, saying he was “delighted at the prospect of our working together.”

In a separate letter Green wrote to Early Texas Heritage Foundation President Charles Lemmons, Green said “I am delight too at the prospect of having Kermit Hunter come into the picture as co-author…He and I in times past have talked of collaborating, but the proper project didn’t come along. Now I believe it has. We have been close friends for years and I am sure we will have fun in bringing this project to fulfillment.” Hunter studied under Green at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, completing his master’s thesis (Unto These Hills) in 1949. By that time, Green had already found success with The Lost Colony and The Common Glory.

Despite the early excitement for a drama about Sam Houston, the feasibility study produced does not make that recommendation. Instead, the drama should be based on the men and women who lived in the area and not just passed through. Focus on a minor historical figure, such as Joel Robinson who captured Santa Anna, giving the playwright “great freedom in creating out of him a fully realized dramatic character who would represent the spirit of the region and the times,” specifically recommending the Texas Revolution. With less widespread knowledge of the historical figure, the playwright could take more liberties with the drama, an option that would not particularly be available given a well-known person such as Sam Houston.

Unfortunately, the materials all but stop after the feasibility study. Members of the Foundation left for a variety of reasons and the whole project lost steam. By May 1973 the project lay abandoned.

A Trip to The Lost Colony

Paul Green Bust

Paul Green bust

I have now been working on the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives for more than eight months, and had never seen an outdoor drama. I knew once I started on this project I was going to have to go see at least one, particularly since there are nine different plays and companies in North Carolina alone. Well, this past Friday I finally saw my first outdoor drama: The Lost Colony. And what better than to start with the outdoor drama that has been produced since 1937, making it the oldest outdoor symphonic drama in the country. It was written by Paul Green, a name I have come across countless times in the material.

But what made this trip even more interesting for me was I got to see more than just the play. Susan Phillips, from the Institute of Outdoor Theatre, had arranged for a backstage tour and trip to their archives earlier in the day. The day started out with stopping by the administrative offices for The Lost Colony where we met Bill Coleman and Lance Culpepper, both of whom I had met at the Institute’s conference in January. Inside the administrative building was a large room that had a artifacts in display cases around the edge: items that had survived one of the multiple fires over the years, a deer headdress I immediately recognized from photos in our collection, and various photos and trinkets from the early years.

Women's dressing room.

Women’s dressing room

Bill took us over to the theatre area Read more

Blackbeard in Outdoor Theatre Exhibit

For the past two months, we had an exhibit, Blackbeard in Outdoor Theatre, in Joyner Library. It focused on the four plays in North Carolina that featured Blackbeard. The first one, Queen Anne’s Bell, was produced in 1955 to celebrate the town of Bath’s 250th anniversary. To honor the heritage of Bath’s people, everything from Bath’s founding to traditional Bath Christmases were depicted, including one of Bath’s most notorious residents, Edward Teach – better known as Blackbeard. Teach was depicted as a boisterous drunk, lacking any moral fiber. Despite this, the greedy Governor Charles Eden and his secretary Tobias Knight allowed Teach into Bath to trade his ill-gotten goods. Because of those two gluttonous colonial officials, Teach was allowed to disturb the otherwise tranquil town.

The second play, Blackbeard: Raider of the Carolina Seas, was written by Ruth Peeling of Carteret County and first performed in 1963. The play centered on the fictional characters of Loretta Thaxton and Theodore Buckman, and their shared hardships while prisoners aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge beginning in July 1718. Blackbeard was portrayed as an impulsive, self-centered man exemplified by his decision to keep Loretta as his servant against the wishes of his crew, instead of ransoming her at Charles Town as planned. Both Loretta and Theodore finally gain their freedom after Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal navy tracked down Blackbeard and put an end to his career. But as the two former prisoners go off to live their lives, they see the ghost of Blackbeard, explaining the legend of Blackbeard sightings.

The last two plays were both written by Stuart Aronson. The first, Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag, was performed for ten years beginning in 1977, and revived in 2005 for Bath’s tri-centennial. The play sought to humanize Blackbeard during his last five months. Told from the perspective of Mary Ormand, Blackbeard’s wife, the play explained that Edward Teach was a man capable of great kindness, and that his ferocious persona of Blackbeard was all an act to create his notorious reputation. Spurred to piratical raids by the greedy Governor Eden and his secretary Knight, who were portrayed as the true villains, Blackbeard became an empathetic person trapped in an unfair world. The play ends with Mary learning of Blackbeard’s death and Lieutenant Robert Maynard decapitating the body.

DSCN0106The second, Blackbeard’s Revenge, debuted in 1985. In what Aronson freely admitted as a “fanciful romance,” the play filled in the gaps of the pirate’s early career. Beginning with Teach’s service as a seaman onboard Captain Hornigold’s privateering vessel, the play proceeded to chronical Teach’s rise to the notorious persona of Blackbeard. But the play did not last long. Resulting from financial difficulties, Crystal Coast Amphitheatre, where the play was performed, was sold to a Christian organization in 1987. The new owners opted to replace Blackbeard’s Revenge with a passion play, ending the beginning of Blackbeard.

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The exhibit was recently taken down, but above are photos. Items used in the exhibit include photographs, souvenir programs, and publicity material. Additionally, the Institute’s archives has correspondence and various other materials related to each of the four plays involving Blackbeard.

There are currently no outdoor plays that focus on Blackbeard. But there is always the possibility of one of these plays being revived or a new play written. What do you think? Is there enough interest to generate a Blackbeard play? Or perhaps you attended one of the plays mentioned?

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