As we’ve been digitising the Abbey Theatre archive here at NUI Galway over the last couple of years, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what constitutes “useful” archival information. For example, I heard last year about a project to digitise theatre programmes, in which the researchers were going to omit the programmes’ advertisements, deeming them uninteresting. Yet I find the ads in Abbey programmes fascinating – if you know what the theatre thought it could sell its patrons in the 1930s (chocolate and engagement rings, mostly), you understand better their programming choices, for example.
Something I’ve been noticing a lot in archives (not just the Abbey) is that when people are working on productions they can sometimes leave traces that have relatively little to do with the show itself. Hence you can find scripts that have phone messages, shopping lists, and the like.
Something that seems to happen quite frequently up to the 1980s is that a lot of prompt scripts (again not just at the Abbey) feature doodles – that is, images drawn, seemingly half-absentmindedly, while a show was underway or about to begin. So for example today I came across this pic in a show from the 1960s:
Followed by this one:
Sometimes these doodles are very interesting – there is a great one from the 1920s that appears to be a sketch of FJ McCormick, for instance.
But these pics don’t seem to have any link at all with the show – or at least none that I could determine. Perhaps more research could answer that question.
But they are also interesting in capturing the state of mind of the person who made the picture – you can sometimes get what appears to be a hint of boredom or frustration in these marginal doodles. It would be interesting to try to determine how many prompt scripts feature these kinds of insertions and to try to track that against the reputation of the show. This could be a complete waste of time, of course, but with hundreds of scripts in the Abbey Digital Archive, this kind of ‘big data’ question could be interesting.
As far as I can tell, these kinds of doodles disappear from the 1990s onwards (lest any stage managers out there feel I am attacking their professionalism!)…. But they offer a great example of how interesting apparently useless archival information can be.