American Theatre Archive Project Takes Boston

"A world without the arts is a world lost," says Elizabeth McGorty '15LS, a GSLIS dual master's degree candidate in archives and history. "The arts allow us to understand life and give meaning to it."

Thumbnail image for DSCN3179_2013-09-12_11-22.JPGMcGorty became fast friends with fellow GSLIS student Anne Mansella '14LS after they met in a history class. Sharing a love for the performing arts, archives, and history, McGorty and Mansella were recently appointed co-chairs of the Boston chapter of the American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP), an initiative of the American Society of Theatre Research. Learn how these students are helping organizations preserve their histories and sustaining the intimate connection between performing artists and their audiences.

Why did you decide to take on a leadership position for ATAP?

Elizabeth: My focus at Simmons GSLIS is to merge the worlds of librarianship and the performing arts. I had been following the work of ATAP's former Boston Team Chair Jessica Green and reached out to her in the beginning of this year because I wanted to get involved. I helped facilitate a Boston Team training session in May, and a few months later, when Jessica was moving to England, she offered me the chair. Around this time I was taking a class with Anne Mansella, and I knew of her interest in theater. I asked her to join me in leading the organization.

Anne: As I work toward a dual degree in archives and history, becoming an ATAP leader allows me to pursue my performing arts, history, and archives interests at the same time. I had heard of ATAP's work with theater and dance companies to establish archives and preserve their records. Since theater and archives are my personal passions, I was ecstatic when Elizabeth asked me to be her co-chair.

What is your vision for ATAP? What do you hope to accomplish as co-chairs?

Elizabeth: As co-chair, I want to further the mission of ATAP, which supports theater practitioners in preserving their records for the public, not only as a source of cultural heritage, but also to ensure the idea that the performance does not end when the curtain falls.

Anne: Since our team is new, the first big step is creating an infrastructure that allows us to provide our services to a variety of performing arts organizations. Most of our 21-member team is made up of Simmons GSLIS students. However, theater students from other academic institutions, librarians, and archives volunteers who are actively engaged with the performing arts community are also involved. We are looking to add seasoned archivists to the team and to refine our marketing strategy.

 Is ATAP a registered non-profit organization or is it based solely on volunteer efforts?  How do you plan to motivate volunteers to accomplish the goals of the organization?                              

Elizabeth: ATAP is a project of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR), which is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit. ATAP began as an initiative of ASTR, and was proposed at ASTR's annual conference in Puerto Rico in November 2009. ATAP covers the Mid-Atlantic, New England, South, and Pacific Northwest regions. States actively involved in ATAP are New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Texas, and Oregon. In addition to the regional teams, national committees, including advisory, training, and steering, are composed of members from throughout the United States.

ATAP operates on a purely volunteer basis.  Most members, students or library professionals, are offer their time and expertise to approach performing arts organizations and introduce the idea of record preservation.

Anne: Being able to participate and network in the performing arts community as a librarian or archivist is always a draw for our volunteers. ATAP is connected to several partners, including the Theatre Library Association, which provides a space to collaborate and share ideas in the professional LIS community. For students, the opportunity to put archival theory into practice in a different way from what their internships provide is appealing. For those committed to the arts, the feeling of accomplishment one gets from promoting and preserving them may also be a motivating factor. I also like to think that we motivate volunteers with our shining personalities.

Does ATAP offer its services for free or do they charge a fee?

While all of our educational website resources are free, there are costs for a company to use our services. We have a three-pronged approach to delivering our services: after we deliver our formal pitch, the performing arts organization secures funding through grants, existing resources, or donations, and then we implement our approach. The ATAP initiation program places an archivist and documentarian team with a theater company to conduct a needs assessment, which involves talking with department heads about their preservation needs and goals, as well as evaluating records of historical value and formally establishing an archive for the organization. The ATAP consultants create a report that provides recommendations about why and how they should preserve record, as well as which ones to save. The program currently costs $1,000, which includes $600 for the archivist and documentarian stipends, and $400 for archival supplies (e.g., boxes, hard drives) for the organization. Local or national grant funds may be available to cover this cost.

Elizabeth: Since performing arts development departments are often taxed to find funds to develop and execute productions, we plan to offer financial assistance by directing companies to research funding opportunities.

What are the challenges associated with motivating theater and other performance organizations to archive their collections? How does ATAP propose to help them overcome these obstacles? What opportunities do you see for archivists in theater?

Elizabeth: Many theater practitioners live in the present or in the future. Their top priority is getting their shows up and running as smoothly as possible, and seasons are planned long in advance. The largest obstacle performing arts organizations face is funding. There isn't subsidized interest in the performing arts here in America as there is in Europe, for example. Development departments in these organizations work hard to insure shows can be produced, and such productions are expensive.

ATAP's plan is to introduce another perspective and to help them understand that establishing an archive is cost-effective and worthwhile. Preserved records can be used for research and social media outreach, among other initiatives. There are exciting opportunities for archivists in the theater. Unlike manuscripts, the performing arts are fluid and alive, allowing their audiences to be active participants. Performing arts archivists need to consider the complex issues of managing records in accordance with copyright regulations, which is an area I hope ATAP can get other archivists to think about in practical terms.

What opportunities do you see for theaters to organize their collections? What benefits can they gain from having their own archive or would you encourage starting a cooperative, multi-institutional archive?

Organizing their collections provides companies with many benefits and opportunities. It is beneficial for the organization's daily operations to be able to manage and organize records for easy access and retrieval. A records management program saves time and money. Inter-departmental communications are improved as are connections with the outside community. Legacy-specific grants are available for procurement.  Having an archives program in place improves how a business functions and gives back to the community, and also secures a company's place in history.

What consulting projects has ATAP completed?

Anne: Our priorities are to establish a strong volunteer base fluent in our pitch so that they can effectively deliver our presentation, sell our service, and consult. We are also in the process of recruiting a professional archivist who can provide services. While ATAP Boston is still in the early stages of implementation, the New York chapter has achieved success with 13P in preserving their records and establishing an archive.

Please describe the ATAP presentation that will be featured in the "Your Archives, Your Voice: Preserving Diversity Through Theatre Records" session at the New England Theatre Conference (NETC) in October.

Anne: We are going to deliver our pitch in a roundtable discussion at NETC and ask the audience for feedback. The pitch is intended for theater professionals who are interested in establishing an archive, but have not yet made the commitment. It is a 20-minute lecture and Q&A session that any trained ATAP member can present at a conference, or a community meeting, or to a theater's board. After the pitch, theater companies can fill out the application and secure funding on their own if they would like to apply for the ATAP initiation program. We are hoping that the audience at NETC, composed mainly of theater professionals, can help us improve our pitch and let us know what works.

 In addition to the upcoming October conference session, are there any meetings ATAP will be presenting at later in 2013 or in early 2014?

Elizabeth: An important upcoming ATAP presentation is at the ASTR annual conference this November in Dallas, Tx. "Expanding Scholarship Through the American Theatre Archive Project" is a working session that should accomplish two goals: to introduce new members to ATAP and give them specific tools and resources to extend the project into their areas and institutions. Participating scholars and archivists will be given a forum to formally present their projects, share best practices, and analyze ATAP's work in various geographical and historical contexts.

When you are not working on ATAP or at school, what other activities or hobbies are you pursuing?

Elizabeth:  In addition to being a student in the GSLIS dual-degree program, I am an Archives/Research Assistant at Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives. Anne and I are working together in the American Theatre Programs Collection at the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections. She digitized the playbills and I'm creating metadata for an online exhibit. I'm also an intern for the Society of American Archivists Reference, Access, and Outreach  Primary Sources Working Group.

Anne: I am a professional trombone player, and I currently play for the Boston Windjammers, a parade circuit that plays throughout New England. I am also the Continuing Education Assistant at GSLIS. I am working on an independent study for the history department this fall that involves researching and creating a digital exhibit illuminating the often overlooked contributions made by women composers and lyricists to the world of musical theater. By creating a participatory digital exhibit that allows visitors to be actively engaged, I hope to start a dialogue about the role of women in musical theater and perpetuate the memory of these women and their work.           

Follow ATAP at @ATAP_Boston on Twitter. For information about ATAP, contact Anne Mansella at or Elizabeth McGorty at

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer

December 2013 | Feature story | Infolink Newsletter | News | Student Profile