Theatrical Collections a Specialty of University Libraries Archives

Posted: July 16, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Johnny Johnson set design
This set design for the 1937 Federal Theatre Project production of “Johnny Johnson” is one of the items in the University Libraries’ theatrical collection.
George Mason University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

By Colleen Kearney Rich

When the Special Collections and Archives of the University Libraries receives a new collection, it is much like a celebration with gifts — except for the white gloves. Despite the excitement that opening each new box brings, the staff still maintains their professional demeanor and protocol, which means donning white gloves to protect the materials, many of which have not been properly stored for archival purposes before reaching Fenwick Library.

Recent excitement on the Fairfax Campus had to do with the receipt of a new collection from actor Robert Prosky. This collection includes letters, photographs, scripts and memorabilia spanning Prosky’s long career in theater, television and film.

Prosky, who is best-known for his role as Sgt. Jablonski on the television series “Hill Street Blues,” considers Washington, D.C., his home. He continues to perform in live theater at the city’s Arena Stage, a relationship that has spanned more than 35 years. The Arena Stage Collection is one of the archives’ pre-eminent theatrical collections, and it features Prosky prominently.

Arena Stage Collection

This archive, which documents the 57-year history of the critically acclaimed Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., contains cast photographs, set and costume designs, playbills and original production books created for each play the theater has produced. The collection was acquired by Mason in 2000, but it continues to grow as materials are added at each theater season’s end.

Arena Stage playbill cover
This playbill cover from the 2000 production of “Blue” is part of the Arena Stage Collection.
George Mason University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

In addition to taped interviews, handwritten correspondence and financial records, the collection also holds the personal papers of Arena Stage founders Zelda Fichandler, Thomas C. Fichandler and Edward Mangum.

One of University Libraries most frequently accessed collections, the archive supports a wide variety of scholarship. In 2006, the Arena Stage Collection web site was accessed more than 1,200 times, and 32 researchers inquired about and/or accessed the collection. Records for 2007 so far show 267 hits for the web site, and nine researchers have looked at the collection.

John C. Becher Playscript Collection

The U.S. Army has always been known for being resourceful, but one would have to take a look at the John C. Becher Playscript Collection to see how innovative it was. Acquired in 1979 through a gift from Harold Arburg, a former director of arts and humanities at the U.S. Office of Education, the collection contains scripts and other materials from the Army Special Services Division (ASSD) from the 1940s and 1950s. The scripts are primarily of Soldier Shows from ASSD’s Entertainment Division. The Soldier Shows were plays or variety shows written by and for soldiers and sent to Army units around the world. In addition to the scripts, units were given instructions on how to make the costumes and build the sets out of salvaged and recycled materials, such as old light bulbs, lard cans and newspapers. Also included were instructions for boosting morale.

Federal Theatre Project

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) archive is one of the libraries’ oldest collections. Special Collections and Archives began gathering FTP materials in 1974, when Mason Professor of English Lorraine Brown discovered a collection of scripts, designs, photographs and posters from the project in an old government airplane hangar. Placed on loan to Fenwick Library by the Library of Congress, the collection was then processed, arranged, stabilized, preserved and made available to researchers. Over the years, the collection inspired a number of faculty books and several FTP festivals.

Though the original collection was recalled by the Library of Congress in 1994, Special Collections and Archives, with Brown’s help, obtained other materials relating to FTP, including oral histories from project participants and personal mementos and scrapbooks. Some duplicate items from the original collection, such as photographs, musical scores, playbills and scripts were retained for Mason’s archives as part of the negotiated agreement with the Library of Congress. Mason’s holdings include photographic images of the entire FTP’s poster collection.

Part of the Works Progress Administration, FTP operated from August 1935 to June 1939 and employed more than 12,000 people. Burt Lancaster, Orson Welles and Arthur Miller were among those actors, directors and playwrights who participated during the project’s four-year run.

Robert and Wilva Breen Theater Collection

The Robert and Wilva Breen Theater Collection focuses on the touring productions supported by the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA). Under ANTA’s executive secretary Robert Breen’s leadership, the group’s theater, ballet and opera productions toured the United States as well as Europe, South America, the Middle East and the Soviet Union.

One of the more notable ANTA productions was “Porgy and Bess,” which toured 29 countries, including the Soviet Union, in four years. Maya Angelou, who was a chorus member for eight months during the European and Middle Eastern leg of the tour, wrote about her travels with the company in her book, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas.” Truman Capote traveled with the group during its tour of the Soviet Union and wrote about his observations in his book “The Muses Are Heard.”

“Porgy and Bess” was a notable production of the American National Theatre and Academy. This photo from an unknown newspaper shows a scene from the 1954 New York run.
George Mason University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

The collection, which spans the years from 1933 to 1980, includes photographs and slides of the productions and reviews from the international tours, as well as Breen’s personal papers and correspondence.

University Librarian John Zenelis notes that all these theatrical collections form a strong complement to Mason’s theater and performing arts programs, as well as the broader liberal arts.

“While for the most part the theater collections have been used by researchers, and this is likely to continue to be the case,” he says, “library staff are working with faculty so these valuable and unique resources are also integrated into courses to enrich students’ learning experiences.”

Veronica Fletcher, Rebecca Forrest and Robert Vay contributed to this article. For a more in-depth look at University Libraries’ theatrical collections and archives, see the fall 2006 issue of Full Text, the newsletter of George Mason University Libraries.

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