Starting with 3D Data: A 3D Data Book Sprint

When Ian’s Smith archive was donated to the Theatre Collection (TC) in 2020, it arrived with laser scans of his studio captured in 2018-19.  Ian’s studio was much more than a place of work.  It was like an artwork in itself that reflected Ian’s practices and artistic concerns, the interior including Ian’s collections of books, LPs, model toys and furniture, all carefully arranged and displayed.  Ian died in 2014, but it had felt important to create a record of this space to put with his archive. 

Artist's studio space
Ian Smith’s studio photographed by Malcolm Brown

It was the first accession at the TC to include these types of digital files and it really started us thinking about 3D data and asking questions about how we preserve and facilitate access to these files.  Since then, we have also started to 3D capture objects within our collections, raising even more questions and queries about the data produced at the point of capture. 

Thanks to The National Archives Archive Testbed Fund, we held a three day event using the ‘book sprint’ format to explore some of the questions that we have surrounding 3D data capture and preservation, using Ian’s studio as our case study.  The idea of a ‘book sprint’ is to produce a collaborative piece of writing in a short period of time and in our case, we wanted to produce a basic in-house guidance document (Starting with 3D Data) that would help us develop principles, workflows and procedures for managing 3D data. We wanted to share this guidance with the wider archive community, as we hope it will provide a starting point for non-specialised archive services, who, like us at the TC, are meeting the challenges of managing 3D data for the first time. 

We gathered a group of people together to take part with a variety of different expertise and experience in 3D data capture and preservation including: 

  • Sam Brenton, Digital Archives Assistant, University of Bristol
  • Malcolm Brown, Deputy Photographer, Cultural Heritage Digitisation Service, University of Edinburgh (created the 3D scans of Ian Smith’s studio in a freelance capacity)
  • Sarah Bustamante-Brauning, Digitisation Officer, University of Bristol Theatre Collection
  • Catherine Dack, Research Support Librarian, University of Bristol
  • Angie Dight, Director and Co-founder of Mischief La-Bas, wife of the artist Ian Smith whose studio was scanned in 3D
  • Stephen Gray, Head of Research Support, Library Services University of Bristol
  • Emma Hancox, Digital Archivist, University of Bristol
  • Kieron Niven, Digital Archivist, Archaeology Data Service, University of York
  • Sean Rippington, Digital Archives and Copyright Manager, University of St Andrews
  • Julian Warren, Keeper: Digital and Live Art Archives University of Bristol Theatre Collection
  • Sian Williams, Project Archivist: Ian Smith Archive, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

This blog focuses on the three key discussion areas we addressed each of the three days of the sprint that helped us develop our 3D data guidance document, Starting with 3D Data

Day 1: Data Creation

As Ian’s studio was our case study, we asked Angie to introduce us to his studio and guide us around the space with the photographs that were captured by Malcolm in 2018-19.

Angie talking through images of Ian's studio on the screen
Angie talking us through Ian’s studio

Ian Smith (1959-2014) was an artist, performer and artistic director, founding the acclaimed Glasgow-based performance company, Mischief La-Bas, with his wife, Angie in 1992.  As Angie explained, Ian, as a child of the 1950s and influenced by his older brother, loved 50s pop culture, was captivated by David Bowie and saw no divide between high art and low art.  His studio, ‘The Den’ was his thinking and ideas place, and it really encapsulated his eclectic collecting and creativity.  His artistic creations, known as ‘Pulptures’, described by Ian as ‘like sculptures but not as good’ adorn the walls and models of characters from film and TV, including his own bastardised creations, line the shelves.      

Ian’s studio became the springboard for our all discussions, but in terms of data creation it helped us to address the fundamental questions: 

Why capture in 3D?  In terms of Ian’s studio, it was part of the WASP Artist Collective of studio spaces in Glasgow, so it would not have been possible to preserve his studio in situ in perpetuity.  As described by Malcolm, the studio was like “stepping inside someone’s head”, as it really captured Ian’s personality and creativity.  As Malcolm recognised at the time, there was a compelling case for not only capturing the space in 2D, but also to experiment with 3D capture.  Although 2D can capture detail, laser scanning presents the possibility of capturing the space as a whole, its scale and relationships between objects. 

As with Ian’s studio, Malcolm recognised the value of capturing the studio in 3D, but it was agreed there should always be a criteria for 3D capture. In terms of preservation, there is limited argument for scanning robust objects.  Items should be prioritised for scanning based on a preservation need i.e. objects made inherently of material that degrades quickly and therefore require minimal handling or spaces/objects which may no longer exist.  At the TC we hold many set models, which were only ever made with the intention of being temporary.  The models are particularly vulnerable to damage with multiple and often fragile moving parts, but are high-use objects by researchers and teaching groups.  In these cases, there is a clear need to 3D capture and create a digital surrogate, as 3D models can be manipulated in ways the original set model cannot be due to risk of damage. 

How do you capture 3D?  Ian’s studio was captured by LiDAR or laser scanning, which uses light waves to calculate distance and is often used for larger spaces.  We explored other methods of 3D capture including photogrammetry, structured light and a hybrid version of both, as well as the challenges of each and different considerations depending on the method of capture, including cost implications and equipment requirements. 

Day 2: File Formats and Metadata

To ascertain what file formats we should be requesting at the point of deposit and what metadata should be captured and recorded, we heard from those in the group with experience of 3D capture, so we could understand the process in more detail.  Using worked examples, we looked at photogrammetry with 3D models of objects including set models.  We explored the challenges at point of capture i.e. difficulties with using a green screen and white objects on white background, what files to keep (DNG, TIFF) and creating a mesh to produce a 3D model.   

Group looking at worked examples
Book sprint discussions

Ian’s studio was LiDAR scanned to experiment capturing the space beyond 2D, but it was not processed at the time into a usable 3D model.  In terms of future deposits, it would be more likely that the depositor would produce a 3D model as the final product, as this would be the primary aim of capturing the space/object.  We are currently experimenting with the files of Ian’s studio to see if we can produce a workable model, and you can see how far we’ve got on Sketchfab.

What file formats and metadata should we have asked for at the point of deposit?  In archival terms, we want to preserve the raw data with minimal intervention at the point of capture.  But as our discussions highlighted, there is difficulty in this with 3D capture in terms of what is considered the raw data, as there is a lot of process involved in capturing and creating usable models.  In order to access the data it requires a process to create a model by creating a mesh.  This often requires the use of proprietary software.  We would therefore want to ask the depositor for their raw files (whatever they might consider that to be), as well as an access copy of the finished 3D model that the depositor is happy with i.e. a meshed OBJ file. 

In terms of metadata, it was helpful to hear about the Archaeology Data Service, and what we can learn from archaeologists, who regularly capture 3D data. The Archaeology Data Service already has a set of principles in terms of what metadata is requested from the depositor, which will help to develop our own set of principles.  We started to consider what questions we should have asked for at the point of deposit of Ian’s studio scans, such as:

  • Reason for capture and additional context 
  • What type of device was used
  • What software was used
  • Copyright holder information i.e. person who has made the decisions in the scanning process, as well as the objects that are included in the scans
  • Image of the equipment setup and colour capture
  • Accurate measurements of the space/object
  • Location where scan taken 
  • Number of points of capture
  • Capture date 
  • How many scans within the model
  • How the files are structured and arranged

Day 3: Audiences and Access

With such innovative potential for 3D data, we discussed our audiences and how we could make the 3D data accessible to them.

Currently the TC is introducing the digital preservation platform, Preservica, but due to early development and lack of demand for a 3D viewer on the platform, its viewer remains fairly rudimentary at the moment.  We therefore discussed the need to use a temporary platform to access the 3D models in the meantime.  However, in using these platforms such as Sketchfab and 3DHOP, there are of course cost implications, as well as considerations with ownership and licensing in addition to the increased amount of time and resources required for the processing to produce accessible 3D models.  Using these platforms could potentially drive more traffic to our catalogue, but in using multiple platforms to making our digital models accessible this way we would need to ensure that the relationship with the catalogue is maintained.  As always with archives, we are thinking about the future and whether these platforms will exist or be usable in the long term, reinforcing the archival reasons for preserving the raw data.

These discussions that took place over the book sprint event have fed into our guidance document for the TC.  We will use this document as a reference point as we start to build our procedures and workflows for dealing with 3D data.  Just as Ian’s studio encouraged us to start exploring 3D data, we hope our guidance document may be a useful starting point for any non-specialised archive service looking to explore 3D data capture and preservation.    

Making a Scene Act V: Dress Rehearsal – Testing and Tweaking the Augmented Reality Workshops by Harriet Wilson, Heritage Participation Producer, Bristol Old Vic

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

After months of Making A Scene existing only in our imaginations, shared google documents, and thousands of emails, by the middle of March we were finally ready to begin testing.

Members of Bristol Old Vic Young Company testing ‘Making A Scene’, March 2022

Our testing phase was crucial for two reasons. 

First: we needed to stress-test the hardware.  Would the app crash halfway through the activity?  Would the AR tracking work in brightly lit classrooms and in dimly lit rehearsal rooms?  Would our accompanying paper archive ‘book’ resource disintegrate immediately in the hands of energetic teenagers? 

Second: we needed to see whether the content was any good.  We loved what we’d made, but would our target audience?  Would they enjoy designing their own scenes?  Would they have a greater understanding of different backstage careers at the end of the session? 

I was more apprehensive about the latter of the two reasons, and walking into OASIS Academy Brislington ahead of our first workshop did little to calm my nerves.  It suddenly felt like a long time ago that I was a teenager!  Luckily, most of my worries were unfounded.  The app worked and the response from the 37 students who trialled it was overwhelmingly positive.  They described it as ‘fun, interactive, and interesting’.  As we’d hoped, it helped them learn about the ‘different kinds of jobs you can get under drama’, and gave them ideas about possible future careers. 

My favourite piece of feedback came from the student who said it showed them ‘that there is more than just actors and director jobs in theatre’. Everything we wanted to achieve with Making A Scene distilled into a single sentence!  Throughout the next couple of months we delivered further testing workshops to University of Bristol Theatre and Performance Students, members of Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company, and students taking part in an IntoUniversity holiday, amongst others. These went similarly well, and also gave us a lot of food for thought as to how the workshop activities might be developed. 

Members of Bristol Old Vic Young Company testing ‘Making A Scene’, March 2022

What we found most interesting was how every group interacted with the resource in a completely different way.  OASIS Academy students were more interested in expressing their own creativity than following a brief or working to a budget.  They also worked collaboratively as a group rather than taking on a specific role as we had suggested.  Comparatively, University of Bristol students found the individual role and budgeting elements the most compelling part of the resource.  Based on our experience at OASIS, we originally gave the Primary aged IntoUniversity students complete creative free reign, but we found that they responded far better to being given a specific brief to respond to.  When they presented back to us at the end of the session we were blown away by how confidently they were able to articulate and explain their different design choices and how well they had understood their briefs.  We had less time with the Bristol Old Vic Young Company workshop, so we had thought we needed to focus on the AR app, but many of them gravitated towards looking through the physical archive ‘book’ regardless and wanted to spend more time with that.

Our learning from these iterative test-phase workshops has led to the process of implementing the following changes: 

  1. Creating a more tailored workshop offer.  As mentioned, each group we trialled the resource with responded to different elements of it. While we had originally imagined creating a single workshop for practitioners and teachers to deliver, we quickly realised we were going to need several different versions. As well as secondary school students and our target audience of young adults, it would be good to have a workshop we could also adapt for use by primary schools.  We’d also need a workshop for students who had prior knowledge of theatre and a workshop for students with no knowledge at all; a workshop we could deliver in 45 minutes and a workshop we could take over 90 minutes – 2 hours.  A major piece of learning for all of us, has been to embrace the fact that there is no single way to use the resource. Our role as practitioners is to encourage creativity and autonomy rather than seeking to hinder it by putting unnecessary rules and guidelines in place.
  2. We need to give the accompanying physical book equal status and importance.  We gave priority to testing the functionality of the AR app during the testing workshops for reasons of time.  In the final workshops we need to be clear and intentional about allocating time for everyone to interact with the physical resources properly and to give them equal weight and importance.  This will be particularly important where groups have less prior knowledge about theatre, as spending time reading through the different role bios and looking through the contextualising documents will provide vital context.  A University of Bristol student who didn’t get a chance to look at the accompanying book asked for exactly this in their feedback, writing: “More information about the actual roles would be helpful.”  Linked to this, we need to think carefully about the materiality of the ‘book’, choosing a paper that is both durable and robust enough to withstand multiple workshops but which also retains an authentic archival feel.
  3. Adding a glossary.  During workshops we were often asked to define or explain certain theatrical terms. To help practitioners with this going forward we are compiling a glossary for the back of the book.
  4. Removing sound.  During the R&D we devoted a lot of time to trying to solve the ‘sound problem’.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have any paper assets, like a sound cue list or a musical score (none were in the archive for this Babes In The Wood production) to incorporate alongside the sound designer role description that’s been included in the accompanying book. We also didn’t have any of the original sound files to download to the app alongside the 3D-scanned model box pieces and costume designs.  At the eleventh hour we came up with a compromise solution of creating some tactile touch tiles, which allowed users to ‘cue’ sound effects similar to those which would have been used in the production based on our reading of the prompt script.  Our hope was that they would give users a taster of what operating a sound desk is like.  We trialled the tiles during the workshops and unfortunately they weren’t a success.  On a practical level they could not be made loud enough to be heard in a busy classroom or workshop space.  On a creative level, limiting users’ sound options to five short sound effects hindered their creativity and ability to make independent decisions about how their scene should run.  By the end of the testing phase of workshops we came to the conclusion that it would be best to remove sound altogether.
  5. AR app tweaks: The ipad cameras had trouble picking up the AR tracking images on the black background we had originally picked out, leading to images not triggering correctly or flickering in and out of view. In between workshops, Zubr experimented with several different colour options before settling on a white and blue combination in time for the final testing workshop. The difference to the stability of the app was immediately noticeable.

              AR Tracking Images

 

Zubr are also going to incorporate some additional elements directly requested by users into the app. These include including a ‘recycling bin’ for items longer necessary on stage (users having eyes too big for their stomachs and ending up with horribly crowded stages was a recurrent theme during each workshops…), and the ability to bring back characters ‘disappeared’ down trapdoors.

Being given the time to do a lengthy and rigorous testing stage, encompassing different age groups, locations and workshop lengths, has been vital to the success of the project.  The feedback we’ve received and are now acting on will ensure that ‘Making A Scene’ is a truly user centred resource; one created in collaboration with our target audience in the fullest sense of the word, rather than in a tokenistic way as projects for young people often are.  I’m incredibly excited to get started on implementing all the changes discussed above and have the resource ready for general use next month.  We’ve been overwhelmed by the demand for a practical careers focused resource from local schools, especially with work experience season coming up.

Making a Scene Act IV: App Development, Design and Delivery by Amy Spreadbury, Project Manager, Zubr Curio

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

‘Making a Scene’ is my ideal project. It draws together the three stages of my own career (if you’ll pardon the pun): theatre, collections and digital interpretation. It’s also been a wonderful opportunity to collaborate again with the Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr. We first worked together on the Window to the Past app and since then I’ve left Bristol Old Vic’s engagement team to work for Zubr, so this project has been something of a reunion despite a few role changes!

With an established partnership from the get-go, developing the ‘Making a Scene’ app has been a real opportunity to flex our creative muscles and design a playful and hands-on AR experience. We knew we wanted to make an app which retained and celebrated the physicality of collections despite being delivered through AR technology, and after two years of isolated, online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic it was also important to us to create an experience that encouraged teamwork and discussion.

In September 2021 we hosted a concept meeting for the project team at Zubr’s Studio to test some of Zubr’s past projects and discuss our initial ideas for the app. We wanted it to be fun but age-appropriate. Aimed at 16-25 year olds interested in offstage careers, the content couldn’t be too gamified or simplistic. With this in mind, we agreed to design an AR ‘pop-up book’ that users could scan with an iPad to cause 3D models of objects from the Theatre Collection to appear above the page. Users could then select different models and combine them to create sets for selected scenes from our chosen production: Babes in the Wood, 2000.

Following the concept meeting, our Graphic Designer Miriam used recent lighting plans and CAD drawings supplied by Bristol Old Vic to inform the branding and set the stage for the app. The lilac, blue, yellow and black colour palette references backstage elements like gaffa tape, the glow of a sound desk, and the soft velvet of blackout cloths, whilst the app logo is a modern take on the classic theatre mask motif.

After confirming the branding, Miriam created mock ups for the experience which showed Theatre Collection and Bristol Old Vic staff what we were aiming to achieve. Next she designed the user interface for the app, working with our developers to ensure users could intuitively navigate the app. Miriam then used photoshop to cut out over 80 digitised 2D designs from the Bristol Old Vic archive at the Theatre Collection so they could be included as chooseable assets in the app.

                                                                                                            

Our Creative Director Chris advised Theatre Collection Photography and Digitisation Officer Sarah on how best to capture the model box pieces, exploring photogrammetry techniques and suggesting different settings and post-production software. Sarah then sent us the 3D models she captured, and our 3D modeller Joe prepared them for inclusion in the app. This involved reducing polycounts, removing green screen tinges, fixing holes, smoothing and scaling, adding lost details back in, making texture adjustments, and general clean up.

Whilst we waited for the 3D models, our developer Jake began building the app interface and screens based on the mock ups and UI designs Miriam had made. He incorporated text and instructions I’d written to inform users about the experience, and built different functions including a spotlight effect which highlights the asset users have selected; a budget tracker so users can see what each asset would cost and how much they’ve spent; different special effects; a carousel that shows different backdrops; and put all 2D assets onto vertical planes so they could be positioned in 3D space. Once the 3D models were ready, Jake added them into the app and began testing.  Here’s a film of the app in its early stages, shot in the office carpark!

 

The app lets you choose characters, backdrops, set pieces, and props, see them in miniature, then scale them up to lifesize so you can walk around inside and among them. We then added special effects and lighting to really bring the AR content to life, and give you a taste of being a theatre technician.

Meanwhile Miriam was designing the layout for the book which contained further digitised archival material, instructions, and the tracking images which allow the app to interact with the book. She designed the tracking images in the same style as the app branding, transforming relevant designs and plans into colourful, high contrast images that an iPad camera could pick up.

As a project manager, my role has involved content decisions about the app structure and features, maintaining momentum on the project, informing Theatre Collection and Bristol Old Vic staff on progress, and lots of testing!

‘Making a Scene’ has been a true team effort and we’re really pleased with how the project has been developing.  The app is being tested in demo workshops and being able to support the Theatre Collection and Bristol Old Vic staff at these and see people using the app is proving a very rewarding, and an effective way of working out what still needs tweaking.

The final result will be a playful experience rooted in real-life decision making and delivered through genuine archival material realised in AR. It’s a very unique use of augmented reality, but we’ve already had several commercial companies interested in something similar for exhibition, TV/film sets or festival builds. Despite (or perhaps because of?) its panto-theme, ‘Making a Scene’ is on its way to becoming an ideal tool for those wanting to dip a toe into the world of backstage theatre careers.

Making a Scene, Act III – by Harriet Wilson, Heritage Participation Producer, Bristol Old Vic

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

Alongside creating an augmented reality resource for users to creatively re-imagine Babes in the Wood, we have been creating a physical book which allows for an in-depth exploration of the backstage documents created during the original run.  

The original Babes in the Wood prompt script functions as an archive of the entire show from start to finish and our Making A Scene book is essentially a replica of it, into which we’ve woven a lot of additional content from the wider production archive.  We’ve made some judicious edits (no one really wants to sit and read through a hundred show reports, hilarious as they often are) but the experience of leafing through the book is as close to going into the Theatre Collection and looking through the entire archive as we could make it. 

Key pages of the prompt script had already been digitised as part of a previous heritage partnership project between Bristol Old Vic and the Theatre Collection.  So rather than having to start from scratch, Athene and I simply had to compile and curate what we already had and find additional documents to fill in any gaps where we came across them.  This was done in close collaboration with Sarah at the Theatre Collection and the team at Zubr, so we could make sure we had corresponding and contextual documents for each asset that had been 3D scanned for use in the augmented reality app. 

Set design by Colin Winslow, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/2

Keeping our target audience of 16-25yrs olds in mind, we were also guided by the GCSE and A Level drama curricula.  The backstage roles mentioned most frequently in the GCSE curriculum are: set designer; costume designer; lighting designer; sound designer and stage manager.  We therefore decided to focus the content for the book around these roles.  Rather than keeping the prompt script in its original, slightly haphazard, order we created a separate chapter for each role and divided the documents between them.  Within each chapter the documents are laid out in chronological order so readers can trace the entire production journey from start to finish.  The curriculum mentions that students should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the activities each creative professional undertakes on a day-to-day basis, so we made sure to include shopping lists, meeting minutes and handwritten first drafts of hanging plots, alongside the more obviously ‘big ticket attractions’ like costume designs or stage plans.

Rehearsal notes, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/1

 

Fly plot, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/1

We also wrote an introduction to each chapter with background information about each role and what it involves.

It was while putting this content together that the benefits of choosing a production within living memory became clear to us.  Over the course of the project we have had amazing conversations with several members of the original creative team.  These conversations formed the basis of our chapter introductions and added further insight into what each backstage role really involves.  Sue Mayes, who designed the costumes for Babes in the Wood, spoke to us about the importance of allowing performers to have input into their own costumes and the issues this can sometimes cause.  For example, pantomime dame Chris Harris insisted on only wearing Dr Marten boots, which were well above Sue’s budget.  And Amanda Adams, who was a member of the stage management team, demonstrated exactly why they are known as the glue which holds a production together by revealing that she went onstage at the last minute when the actress playing Fairy Tweep fell ill!

Costume design by Sue Mayes, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/5

Theatre is a live art form.  What happens on stage will never happen again.  But we hope that based on our work everyone using Making A Scene will get a sense of what it takes to bring a production like Babes in the Wood to life.

The finished book will be accessible on several levels.  You will be able to sit and pore over it for hours, absorbing every intricate detail of a prop design or anecdote in a show report.  It is also a resource young people can actively engage with by creating their own designs in augmented reality using the models Sarah has digitised and the app Zubr are creating.  Amy from Zubr will be talking more about the process of creating the app in the next project blog.

Making a Scene, Act II – Creating the 3D digital models by Sarah Bustamante-Brauning, Photography and Digitisation officer, Theatre Collection

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

 

MODEL/84/001

The digitisation for the project started with me photographing the prompt script and some of the set designs for Babes in the Wood, including the beautifully drawn and painted backdrops and scenery.  Using these photographs, some pre-existing digital content relating to the production and snapshots of additional archive items, Harriet from Bristol Old Vic then organised these image files into the different acts and scenes, and, with Amy from Zubr, began to make the decisions about which of the models might be useful to capture in 3D for the Making A Scene app.

Setting up model box image with backdrops, scenery and model pieces

With the models brought back from the stores, I worked with another member of the Theatre Collection staff to carefully unpack the ones that had been selected for the project. It was great to see these wonderfully constructed models and the way they had been built with sturdy bases so they could stand, as well as the detail on them.

The next task was to start using photogrammetry to capture digital 3D versions of the models.  From a series of photographs of the models, photogrammetry works by finding important features on the individual images which are then located on the other images.  The software also identifies the camera positioning, which is used to make the 3D model surface.  From our initial research and discussions, and first experiments using Agisoft – the photogrammetry software we have been using to create the 3D digital object from a sequence of photographs – we identified the work would need to go through the following stages:

1.  Capture images of the model using a camera and a green screen

   2.  Organise these images ready to be used by the software and create digital ‘masks’ to mark the model out from the background, which avoids having to manually mask a large number of images

 

3. Complete the different stages in the software workflow, aligning the photographs to enable the ‘mesh’ required to create the object in 3D, before adding texture and colour

4.  Visually check the model now constructed in 3D and make any adjustments so its ready to be exported for specific outputs

Screen grab of MODEL/84/[14]

At first there were some issues to work through, but after some trial and error the first model was created where its now available to view in Sketchfab. It was exciting to see a digital version of the model I had been working with in the studio, with the ability to move it around on the screen so easily, being able to zoom into details and view it from different angles. This was so different to working with the original model which is very fragile as part of the stall panel is loose and extreme care needs to be taken when handling it. There were some issues that needed improving to make sure the digital version kept as much of the original model qualities as we could muster, but I was pretty pleased with the results.

As the project progressed and different models were captured different techniques were tested to see if the results of the 3D digital assets could be improved and match the originals more closely. One of the areas that was investigated was how to create the masks. Initially the models were photographed against the green screen but this left a slight green tint on the lighter parts of the digitised models. Later in the project a different method was tested to create the masks which allowed the model to be photographed against a white background. MODEL/84/[ 11] in Sketchfab was captured using this second masking approach. This reduced the green tint that can be seen on some of the models with lighter tones that would otherwise need to be manually removed from the model texture file in Photoshop.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Zubr begin to use these 3D models within the ‘app’.  At the Theatre Collection we’re going to digitally preserve them so that they will be available to be used again after the project has finished.

Working with Students and Visualising the Past

The Theatre Collection perspective – Dr Jill Sullivan, Assistant Keeper: User Services

As with many cultural and educational organisations, the lockdowns and restrictions during the pandemic meant that the Theatre Collection team had to adjust the ways in which we interact with our users, especially students and researchers. Ideas about online access before Covid were suddenly becoming not only more urgent but also possible due to available funding and the support of the University’s IT Department and Digital Education Office. So it was, that in 2021 the Theatre Collection was able to announce its ‘virtual reading room’. Using a range of visualisers, team members were able to hold meetings online with researchers who were unable or chose not to visit at that time. The visualisers act as real time cameras and a small portable one was particularly effective, linked to a laptop for online meetings where we could show requested items to the researcher. One aspect of these meetings that was particularly useful was the ability to discuss materials with the researcher, identifying documents or pages of particular interest – for scans to be later provided, or for additional searches and follow up email conversations to take place.

In addition to running visualiser meetings ourselves, we also arranged for academic staff to work with the visualiser during teaching sessions, the students joining remotely to see selected materials from the Collection. While responses were nearly always positive and it was seen as a significant progression from simply presenting images on a PowerPoint (although that too had its place), there was an element of ‘trialling’ in this new way of working, and every example of using the visualisers added to our experience and ability to develop and hopefully improve the delivery of remote archive research for our users.

The Theatre Collection supports a range of units across the Faculty of Arts, in particular the Theatre Department, where archives from collections such as the Bristol Old Vic Company Archive are integral to units such as ‘Performing the Archive’ and ‘Performance Contexts’ and we always look forward to welcoming students into the reading room, introducing them to the incredible collections that we hold, and supporting them in their individual research and archival discoveries when working towards their assignments. In the academic year 2021-22 the physical experience of working with archives has been resumed – to the delight of staff and students alike, but there remain instances where the size of a class and the requirements of ventilation and social distancing necessarily caused us to have to rethink how we might run a session that maintains safety in a Covid-aware world while still enabling not just access to the collections, but a worthwhile learning experience.

During the early stages of TB1, Dr Kat Hipkiss and I met to discuss the second year Theatre unit ‘Performance Histories’ and how best we could run it, given the larger size of the seminar groups. The students had spent their first year 2020-21 looking at digitised images in a formal online session or, in the brief periods out of lockdown, visiting individually when able. The cohort were therefore only too ready to actually see the ‘real’ rather than virtual archive items and Kat and I wanted to encourage and enable this as safely as possible. We devised a solution, whereby the students formed study groups to select and request archive items relevant for particular plays and productions. Then during the seminars, with me on hand in the reading room and Kat in the remote seminar room with the remainder of the groups, two representatives from each group came to the Theatre Collection reading room to view the items in half hour slots. The students were shown how to operate the visualiser and they then used it to show and discuss the selected items with the rest of their group. The students (whether those operating the visualiser and working with the actual items or those who had been in the seminar room) were then able to book into the reading room at a later date to explore these or additional items for themselves. This would then enable all the students to have the opportunity of researching the archival materials.

As the half hour bookings progressed and the different pairs of students arrived to join Teams, work the visualiser and share the materials online, it quickly became apparent that this was proving to be really successful. Rather than the session being led by a member of staff, the students were being handed the responsibility of selecting items and effectively running the sessions, responding to and working collaboratively with their peers in the remote seminar room. Beyond liaising with students beforehand when items were originally being requested, and explaining how to work the visualiser, I actually had minimal input, although remaining nearby in case of problems or questions. In the seminar room, Kat was similarly able to answer or encourage questions. However, the students were clearly enjoying being in control of the process and the excitement of discovery and the enthusiasm for exploring items with guidance from their peers rather than staff, was palpable. Using a visualiser enables an ‘over the shoulder’ visual experience for the remote user and the students were quick to find and use features of the visualisers such as the zoom and rotate functions to pick out details and raise questions.

These sessions gave us an incredibly valuable insight into the way we might continue to work when needing to engage to some degree with remote learning. Combining research of the ‘real’ archive items with a student led process enabled it to be seen as not just another online learning tool, but an active and, importantly, collaborative process in which students took ownership of the learning experience.

 

 

Front and reverse of an advertising card for the melodrama ‘Why Woman Sins’ (MM/2/TH/SU/ML/1). Using the visualiser, students found that the apple created a 3D perspective.

 

The Tutor’s perspective – Dr Kat Hipkiss, Theatre Department

When I became the lecturer and seminar leader for the second year Theatre Studies unit ‘Performance Histories’, I asked each student to tell me their favourite thing they had studied so far and then what they were looking forward to most. A large proportion of them said they were most looking forward to the Theatre Collection sessions. There was something in their eagerness to get into the room, to physically interact with the archive and relish the materiality of items, that felt prompted by the digitisation of the world over the past few years. However, there were still Covid concerns to consider, and we needed to be aware of how best to balance these with the students’ enthusiasm for the material archive. It also emphasised to me how much I wanted to ensure that students had ownership over the process as much as possible, looking at the items they wanted to look at, in groups they themselves had formed based on their own research interests.

In order to ensure student and staff safety in the Theatre Collection, Dr Jill Sullivan (Assistant Keeper) and I devised a plan of having two representatives of each presentation group in the Theatre Collection whilst the rest were in the seminar room with me. Each group would have 30 minutes, and through a Teams meeting, would look at and discuss the items that had been requested. We hoped that this would enable that balance between keeping everyone safe, whilst also providing access to the material and giving students’ ownership of their research.

This approach required set up and preparation before the students went into the Theatre Collection. Students were shown how to use the Theatre Collection online catalogue to search for and request items, though what they requested was left open for each group. Jill also virtually attended the whole cohort lecture on the week of the Theatre Collection visits to demonstrate how to use the visualiser over a Teams meeting, so that when students went to their sessions, they knew how to operate it.

Importantly, there was also a theoretical setting up of the Theatre Collection sessions, as throughout the unit students had been asked to critically think about constructions of history and the role of the archive, including (on the week of the TC sessions) reading Rebecca Schneider’s ‘Performance Remains Again’ (2012). This preparation meant that, although students may not have known what they were looking for, they were more aware of how to look for it and how to think about it critically.

When it came time for the in-class 30 minute Theatre Collection visits, it became clear that students were prepared to take ownership over their session and the visualiser technology. The students in the seminar room with me would guide those in the Theatre Collection, asking questions about the items in order to narrow focus and draw attention to certain parts (such as ‘what does it say on the back?’; ‘can you zoom in on that part?’; ‘is there anything else like that one?’). Often those in the Theatre Collection would get excited about particular items and build a sense of anticipation for those in the seminar room. It was particularly apparent how comfortable the students were with the visualiser itself, utilising functions such as the zoom or rotate to get the most out of the material, sometimes affording what felt like a privileged view for those in the seminar room. Yes, they were not there with the item, but they were getting a zoomed in picture projected onto the wall of the classroom. Often students would move right up to this projected image and interrogate the small details that now were the same size as them.

After the in-class sessions had finished, it was clear how much the technology had impacted how the groups worked. Those in the Theatre Collection quickly became effective in communicating what they had in front of them and what was coming up next. In most cases there were two students in the Theatre Collection, and they worked together with one operating the visualiser and the other prepping the appropriate materials for what would be looked at next. Because of this, the visualiser became the place where the most interesting, detailed, and relevant documents were presented by those in the Theatre Collection to those in the seminar room. The fact there had to be the visualier meant that there was an active filtering of material in order to use the 30 minute slot most efficiently. This enabled students to be a lot more specific in what they were looking at (even if when started they did not know what they were going to be looking for or what their argument was going to be). It meant they had to hone in on something they found interesting and interrogate it as a group, forming arguments as they went, as opposed to all looking at different items and forming individual arguments about them. The use of the visualiser necessitated communication and group focus, and meant that by the end of the 30 minutes, each group had a short list of items they were going to consider further and the basis of a critical argument.

All groups used items from the Theatre Collection in their final presentations for the unit, and each also used their work and conversations from the remote visualiser sessions in their central arguments. From my perspective as a teacher on the unit, the visuliser sessions were highly successful. Not only did the visualiser allow students to use the archive in a Covid safe way, but the technology itself created both constraints and opportunities that helped shape the students’ experience of the Theatre Collection.

Making A Scene, Act 1 – Harriet Wilson, Heritage Participation Producer, Bristol Old Vic

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

Model box designed by Colin Winslow, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). MODEL/84

At Bristol Old Vic, I share an office with our stage management team. When we were discussing what Making A Scene should look like, I began to notice that at their end of the office the answer to almost any question about a particular production was “check in the book”. 

The book they were referring to was the prompt script. It contains all the information necessary to stage a production: the script marked up with blocking and cues; a scenic design plan; costume design sketches; lists of props; and lighting, sound, and special effects cues. 

Prompt script, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/1

A good prompt script is a record of the work and skill of the creative and backstage teams, which is exactly what we wanted Making A Scene to be. Our stage management team had unknowingly given us the perfect frame to build our resource around (they have been thanked with biscuits since). All we had to do was find some exciting content to put in it. 

The Bristol Old Vic Company archive at the Theatre Collection has nearly 1,000 (or equivalent) boxes of material, so we certainly had plenty of options. Because of the incredible breadth of material at our disposal, we originally considered making a mash-up prompt script which showcased several iconic Bristol Old Vic productions. 

However, the more time we spent researching, the more it became clear that it was a much stronger idea to focus on a single production. I wanted everyone using Making A Scene to have the same experience I had in the reading room of seeing a production come to life before my eyes. To see a sketch transform into a model box (a scaled-down 3D model of what the designer thinks the set should look like) and into a finished piece of set, and so on. 

Making a final decision as to which production this would be was probably the most exciting and the most frustrating part of the research process. Archives are spaces of gaps and silences and every production we considered seemed to be missing something. A production with a beautiful model box and a detailed lighting plan didn’t have costume sketches or technical details. A production with detailed stage plans and rehearsal notes had no set designs or model box. Our search went on and on. 

After a lot of looking, we managed to find two strong options. Henry V from 1964 and Babes in the Wood from 2000. The final decision came down to the richness of the material to hand and the emotional resonance of the production. Babes in the Wood was the final pantomime staged at Bristol Old Vic and we all felt that choosing a pantomime would inject a sense of fun to the project development as well as the end product. 

Production photograph by Bob Willingham, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000).  BOV/3/2/732/6/3

The prompt script for Babes in the Wood also documents every minute stage of the production process. You get a sense not just of what every backstage role involves, but the day-to-day reality of doing it. Beautiful set design sketches sit side by side with notes scrawled on scraps of paper asking someone to give them a ring when they get back from lunch.

Model box designed by Colin Winslow, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). MODEL/84

The prompt script is also accompanied by a phenomenally detailed model box with multiple cloths, wings, trucks, and props which we knew could form the perfect basis for a truly immersive augmented reality experience. Sarah, the digitisation officer at the Theatre Collection, and Zubr had the same head over heels reaction to the possibility of 3D scanning and augmenting each individual piece that I had to the possibility of reproducing the prompt script. Sarah will be blogging about her process to create 3D digital models later on.

Such was the richness of the material that by the time we began to put the final resource together I think everyone involved felt like they had seen Babes in the Wood. My hope is that everyone using the resource feels the same!

‘Records at Risk’ – what does that mean?

We are currently undertaking a project to find and support significant theatre & live art records placed at risk due to COVID-19.  We are looking to help individuals and organisations that have been affected by the pandemic and need help with caring for their archives.  If you are concerned about your records or know of any records that are at risk, please have a look at our Records at Risk page and get in touch with Siân Williams, Project Archivist: sian.a.williams@bristol.ac.uk

As highlighted in my previous blog post, the Records at Risk project has an important advocacy role to raise awareness of records and archives and the research value of industry professionals’ records.  We want to reach those currently working in the theatre industry and get professionals thinking about their records now.  We recently held an online seminar in collaboration with the ABTT about Caring for your Records. You can watch a recording of the seminar here:

But to really ensure the project has a wide reach, we need to be clear what we are talking about when we use the phrase ‘Records at Risk’.

What are records?

Records are documents created or accumulated in the course of your day-to-day activities.  The records we generate in daily life or business can take any form, including paper documents, photographs, sound and video recordings and digital files.

Records are created by individuals and organisations, both public and private.  And records are active, meaning they are in current use and are needed to carry on activities, from train tickets and pay slips to rent agreements and music playlists.

In your professional life, records are the material that you create and accumulate in order to do your job.  For example, a theatre designer’s records could include original designs, fabric swatches, research papers and photographs, technical drawings and plans, correspondence and production photographs, in addition to personal administrative records such as financial papers and contracts.

When no longer in active use, these records can be selected for long-term preservation as an archival collection, providing a window to the past for future generations.

What can cause records to be put at risk?

Records can be placed at risk due to a myriad of factors.  For example, records can often be at risk of loss when companies go into administration or liquidation.  During such a challenging time, the company’s records are not the priority and insolvency practitioners may not have an awareness of the historical value of the company’s archive.  The Crisis Management Team for Business Archives make great efforts to ensure these business records at risk of loss are preserved for the future.

If funding streams are cut off, this can cause performance venues or companies to close very quickly and at incredibly short notice.  Physical spaces might change hands or be sold and the organisational records can be thrown away during this handover. In the case of the greenroom archive in Manchester, we had to act quickly when funding streams changed and the performance space had to close at short notice in 2011. greenroom started as a peripatetic organisation in 1983, eventually establishing a permanent venue under two railway arches in 1987, becoming Manchester’s centre for new, experimental and contemporary performance.  This archive is now held in the Live Art Archives of the Theatre Collection and captures the administrative and performance history of the company.

Particularly under threat are the records of peripatetic performance companies who may not have a permanent physical space to store their records. If records are kept at home by individual members of the company they can be lost over time with changes in personnel.

Records might also be at risk of physical damage or loss due to environmental factors, such as flooding or fire or due to inappropriate storage conditions.  We’ve put together this short video with a basic overview of how to look after your records, which should keep them in good shape and slow deterioration:

Audio and audiovisual material on obsolete formats is also at risk.  Film or magnetic media, such as VHS, Betamax and U-matic tapes need to be prioritised for digitisation due to degradation and the limited life of the original tapes or reels.  Similarly, material saved on optical media, such as CD-R and DVD-R, should be transferred to a more stable storage media as soon as possible as they also degrade very quickly.  Once the material has been saved onto more stable storage media or digitised, the digital files need to be managed so they can be accessed in the future.  We’ve put together this short video to help those starting to manage their personal digital files:

By Sian Williams, Project Archivist

If you would like more information about finding a home for your records and advice on caring for your own records, please have a look at our updated ‘Caring for your theatre and live art records’ pages: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/caring-for-your-theatre–live-art-records/

 

Theatre & Live Art Records at Risk due to COVID-19

We are currently undertaking a project to find and support significant theatre & live art records placed at risk due to COVID-19.  We are looking to help individuals and organisations that have been affected by the pandemic and need help with caring for their archives.  If you are concerned about your records or know of any records that are at risk, please have a look at our Records at Risk page and get in touch with Siân Williams, Project Archivist: sian.a.williams@bristol.ac.uk

With the Theatre and Live Art Records at Risk project well underway, our Project Archivist, Sian Williams reflects on the project so far and the conversations we’ve had with funding bodies, organisations within the theatre sector and other collecting institutions.

The theatre sector has been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.  The effects of the pandemic continue to be felt and are still not fully realised, but it is clear that this period will have a lasting impact on the industry.

The Cultural Recovery Fund and furlough scheme have only recently come to an end, and there continue to be uncertainties over future additional financial support.  As well as ongoing restrictions, there are other issues to contend with, including audience confidence, reduced performances, whether group bookings will be revived, insurance costs and cover for COVID disruption, and what audiences want to see during and following these challenging times.  There are many factors that will affect recovery and whether or not the theatre industry can and even should be returning to pre-pandemic models.

During the pandemic, there were conversations within the industry about how the theatre sector was going to recover and ‘build back better’.  The voice of the freelance workforce was more loudly heard with the formation of Freelancers Make Theatre Work and their subsequent Big Freelancer Report highlighting the ‘inequities deep rooted throughout the industry’.  The desperate situation many freelancers found themselves in during the pandemic shone a spotlight not only on the immediate need for financial assistance, but the need to confront and remedy the core problems faced by the freelancer workforce that were growing long before the pandemic.  As the Big Freelancer Report states, ‘for freelancers in the performing arts, COVID-19 has acted as a force multiplier on an employment system that was already under strain… The theatre workforce do not want to return to an already broken system, therefore the income crisis need to be addressed’ (2021, p.129).  With the ESRC-funded Freelancers in the Dark research project soon to be published, which investigated the social, cultural, and economic consequences of COVID19 on independent arts workers across the UK, it can hopefully help to inform plans to support the sector as it rebuilds.

It seems that the pandemic was not exclusively the reason, but an accelerating factor forcing some theatres to permanently close and some professionals to leave the industry.  The financial impact of the pandemic meant theatres that were already facing financial insecurity closed or transferred ownership.  But the pandemic also offered the opportunity – or forced people – to re-evaluate their situations.  People reconsidered the hours they worked, their working conditions and their worth.

Over 70% of the theatre workforce are freelancers, and many were unable to claim financial assistance from emergency funding or financial schemes during the pandemic.  It is not known how many people have already left the industry due to financial insecurity or if they plan to return.  The film and TV industry was able to restart production much sooner than the theatre industry, offering some freelancers the opportunity to return to work.  But what impact will this have long-term?  Now theatres have reopened, there are reports of a ‘hiring crisis’, with productions unable to fill vacancies.  A recent article highlighted that it is roles requiring skills transferable to other industries which are proving difficult to fill.

Many of the problems that were once backstage and less apparent to audiences have now been revealed and brought to the foreground.  For the Theatre Collection, this project has highlighted how important it is for us, as a collecting institution of theatre and live art material, to understand the theatre industry in the present, so that we can better prepare for sustainable collecting in the future and try to prevent the loss of vulnerable collections that are vital to the cultural history of Britain.  As a collecting institution that has seen an increase in donations of archival material since the start of the pandemic, we must plan for potential donations, but also raise awareness of the Theatre Collection and other collecting institutions within the industry, so we can provide support and advice to those currently looking after their own records.

If you would like more information about finding a home for your records and advice on caring for your own records, please have a look at our updated ‘Caring for your theatre and live art records’ pages: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/caring-for-your-theatre–live-art-records/

 

My Time with Kevin Elyot by Lucy Bell

The Kevin Elyot Award was established in 2016 as an annual award of £3,000 given to support a writer-in-residence at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. It is given in memory of Kevin Elyot (1951-2014) – an alumnus of the University of Bristol Drama Department – and the influence he has had on writing and the Arts. The award has been generously funded by an endowment given to the University by members of Kevin’s family.

The current winner of the Kevin Elyot award is Lucy Bell, a Devon-based playwright who writes funny, unflinching plays about British society, and the often-epic dilemmas of caring. Further information is available here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/news/2020/kevin-elyot-award-2020.html

 

I was delighted to start my residency at Bristol University Theatre Archive this autumn, as part of the Kevin Elyot Award. When Jo Elsworth rang to say I had won the award by unanimous decision of the panel, it was the highpoint of a troubling lockdown summer. In fact I was convinced she was ringing to either reject or interview me. I kept politely asking her to postpone the interview whilst she kept trying to explain that no interview was required. We got there in the end.

The idea I pitched was to do with the timeless time-sensitivity of women’s lives; how societal norms impose a ticking clock on women, the threat of “withering on the stem” (whether we want those norms or not). Ask yourself, would the US countenance a female president who was 78? They wouldn’t countenance a female president full stop. Many of us women feel explosively, joyfully released from those fertility-linked pressures at menopause, finally free to be the people we want to be, only to find our actual available time is decimated by the people we are now responsible for.

This is perhaps becoming less true, but it was certainly true for my generation, my mother’s generation and my grandmother’s generation. Kevin Elyot had a very different kind of life, but it seems this ticking clock was heard by him too. His characters are often gay men running after permanence in their relationships, constantly aware that the appeal of monogamy will soon reach its sell by date. And of course there is the lit fuse of HIV waiting in the wings. In his West End hit, My Night With Reg, a character dies between each scene.

              ERIC. Got a light?

              JOHN (giving him a light). I didn’t think you smoked.

              ERIC. I don’t, but everyone I know who doesn’t is dead.

Although Elyot doesn’t have the profile his ready wit deserves, his writing seems especially relevant in a year where we’ve all been forced to engage with mortality.

Leafing through Kevin Elyot’s archive has been an encounter with time in other ways too. On my first visit, I was struck by the sensation that this other writer, who I’d never met, who might not like me one bit if he’d ever met me, was extending a supportive hand, a hug even, across time.

Everyone knows that rejections are a constant and bruising part of being a writer. It was weirdly reassuring to read through bundles of letters rejecting the plays of such a successful and prolific playwright. A couple of times I laughed out loud at stock phrases I’d been sent myself. (At least 2020 has made gatekeepers choose their words more carefully!) In his print interviews I could hear his voice questioning why writing remains a compulsion, despite its many pitfalls, protesting against his works being siloed as a “gay plays” for gay theatres and festivals.

His plays are tangibly about love, loss, and the pursuit of the sublime. They also happen to include, rather than exclude, gay perspectives. I thought about how things are now, how the pressure to trade on characteristics has got stronger and how that can feel frustrating when you want to express your personal, rather than tribal, experience of life, and be allowed to speak to universal themes.

It was thrilling to feel time contract, as I found mutual points of contact across the decades. Peggy Ramsay was Kevin Elyot’s first agent, and her charitable trust has supported me, in my particular circumstances, to find time to write.

Elyot entered the George Devine Prize. The judges on his rejection letter included John Burgess who was a director at The Royal Court, where Elyot’s last play, Forty Winks, was staged. John’s the person who taught me to write plays through his free-to-access writing group at Nuffield Theatre, he separately supported the director I happen to be working with right now. It reassured me to think that, while our theatre buildings are imperiled, wonderful individuals like John and Peggy Ramsay are a flexing, unbreakable spine through the decades, touching so many creative lives.

Lastly, time is a key driver of Kevin Elyot’s play structures. Often time is looping backwards and forwards. You are pulled forward by the desire to see the scene that came before or in between. The character’s brains are looping backwards to a moment in adolescence when they experienced unadulterated love. I am hoping to tap into Elyot’s manipulation of time in the piece I write, as it relates to three generations of women marked by the same accident. I hope I can learn from Elyot to make it equally hard to put down.

There are, of course, some ways in which Elyot’s work seems of its time and not ours. There are casual references to incest and sex with minors which would never arise as throwaway dialogue today. His characters, men in their twenties, thirties and forties, rarely check their privilege in terms of the amount of time and freedom they have to do what they like.

As a mother and carer, I initially found this slightly alienating. Then I realized it was symptomatic of something profoundly unfair, and possibly the reason his characters look backwards instead of forwards. Elyot died in 2014, the year that gay marriage became possible. In his heyday, gay couples with children were an anomaly. I’ll never know what Elyot wanted or needed from his personal life, but Coming Clean, My Night with Reg, and Forty Winks read as tragedies about characters in search of an anchor. This makes Elyot’s timing seem very hard indeed.