The Irving Family: Lives Beyond Theatre

Over the past six months, a generous private donation has made possible the cataloguing of BTC30: The Irving Family papers. Donated in 2006, with a recent addition of papers kindly donated by the family of Sir Henry Irving’s grand-daughter, Lady Elizabeth Brunner, this collection spans four generations and 140 years of the legendary Irving family and documents their place in theatre history. Through the collection we gain an insight into the business of theatre, the minutiae of running a theatre, designing for theatre and film and researching theatre history. At the same time, we witness the transition of theatre from risqué demi-monde to cultural powerhouse, capable of catapulting its exponents to stardom with the right role and even the birth of film as a medium. We also get a glimpse of the people behind the celebrity and witness the breakdown of marriages, the grief over the early death of a son and the struggles of subsequent generations to reconcile themselves to the long shadows cast by their most famous forebear.

BTC30/2/1/17/16: Sir Henry Irving as Mephistopheles – drawing for a menu card for the Irving Banquet at the Edinburgh Pen and Pencil Club, 1 September 1887

The figure of Sir Henry Irving arguably marks the apogee of the rise of the great actor-manager, becoming the first actor to be knighted for his theatrical work.  His papers in the Irving Family Collection mainly deal with the minutiae of making theatre, comprising legal agreements over the rights and commissioning of pieces and Lord Chamberlain’s licenses for the performance of specific plays as well as theatre licenses and wines and spirit sale licenses (BTC30/2/2/1). And yet amongst these seemingly mundane papers there are glimpses into Victorian popular culture at its height. An agreement over the transfer of rights to the music for a production of Macbeth in 1888 (BTC30/2/1/31) directly connects three legends of Victorian popular culture. The composer for this production was Arthur Sullivan, most famous of course for his operatic collaborations with W.S. Gilbert, and the role of Lady Macbeth was played by Ellen Terry, Henry Irving’s leading lady from 1878 to 1902 and one of the most famous actresses of the age. So electrifying was her performance on the opening night, that John Singer Sargent allegedly left the theatre and immediately began work on a portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, which now hangs in the Tate (‘Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth‘, John Singer Sargent, 1889 | Tate). And so, this one agreement brings together composer, actress and artist, uniting the worlds of music, theatre and art in one single document.

The collection also reveals the darker side of Sir Henry’s acting celebrity. Although he reached, arguably, the height of Victorian society, Sir Henry’s decision to pursue an acting career caused an irretrievable breakdown in his marriage. Although we might consider that the conservative Victorians disapproved of divorce, BTC30/3/2/1 reveals the ways that the Irvings negotiated this disapproval, organising a formal separation which covered Florence Irving’s maintenance, the custody, schooling and visitation of their children and even Florence’s concern that Sir Henry’s friendship with another woman would, despite their separation, reflect on her.

BTC30/5/7/1 Henry Brodribb Irving and the cast of the Oxford University Dramatic Society in As You Like It

The collection reveals the long shadow that Sir Henry Irving cast, and the very different ways that his descendants chose to forge their own paths. Sir Henry’s elder son Henry Brodribb Irving began acting in student productions for the Oxford University Dramatic Society before beginning, despite his father’s reservations, his own acting career. Henry tried to forge a separate path from his famous father, although on a parallel track; founding his own acting troupe, which toured South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, before taking over the lease of the Savoy Theatre and following his father’s lead as actor manager. He also reprised some of his father’s productions, including The Lyons Mail and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (although he used a new dramatic adaptation by J. Comyns Carr, rather than the infamous Richard Mansfield version that his father had brought to the Lyceum in 1888).

BTC30/5/7/3 & 4: Henry Brodribb Irving as both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, c. 1910
BTC30/5/7/3 & 4: Henry Brodribb Irving as both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, c. 1910

His brother Laurence Sydney Irving, on the other hand, worked directly with their father, acting with Sir Henry Irving’s troupe for several years. However, Laurence forged his own path as a writer, with several of his plays performed by Sir Henry’s Lyceum troupe before he went on to found his own acting troupe, taking it on tour in the USA and Canda. It is unclear to what extent Laurence Sydney Irving would step out from his father’s shadow since both Laurence and his wife would perish in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland steamship, sunk as it left harbour in Canada, in June 1914 with the loss of up to 1000 lives, including that of the young Irvings.

BTC30/7/4/5: Laurence Sydney Irving in Typhoon, c. 1912-1914

The collection also reveals the rise of the celebrity actress. Perhaps learning from the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, both Henry Brodribb and Laurence Sydney Irving married fellow actors. In the case of Henry Brodribb Irving, his wife Dorothea had already begun to carve out her own theatrical career and her part of the collection reveals some of the difficulties faced by actresses in the era, the potential for them to reach meteoric success and even the difficulties of being too closely associated with one role. BTC30/6/3/2 are transcripts of letters exchanged between Dorothea Baird, her future husband and other members of her family describing the trials of life on tour, including the difficult line walked by actresses who wished to retain their so-called moral character. The letters also reveal Dorothea’s attempts to provide her own costumes as well as her enthusiasm for the new hobby of cycling. However, this enthusiasm had its downside when Herbert Beerbohm Tree had to provide Dorothea with specific makeup since her relentless cycling had made her altogether too healthy for her to be a convincing corpse in the final act of Trilby!

BTC30/6/5: Page from a press cutting album kept by Dorothea Baird recording her career

By the third generation, the Irving family’s theatrical talents had developed in other directions, although Henry Brodribb and Dorothea Irving’s daughter Dorothea Elizabeth  (Lady Elizabeth Brunner) had a brief acting career before turning her attention to charitable activities, becoming Chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutions, organising the building of the Women’s Institute training centre Denman College and founding the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign. Her brother, Laurence Henry Irving also kept the theatrical flame alive, albeit as a designer and theatre historian rather than as an actor himself.

After a wartime stint as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War (during which he was awarded the Croix du Guerre), Laurence Henry Irving enrolled at the Byam Shaw Art School and then the Royal Academy School, hoping to begin an art career, and in the 1920s he illustrated two books. A fortuitous introduction in 1926 set him on a theatrical path, and incidentally, led to the creation of one of children’s literature’s most enduring, and endearing, characters. In 1926, Laurence Irving was invited to design the sets for two numbers in the musical revue Vaudeville Vanities, and he struck up a friendship with the writer of one of the numbers, one A.A. Milne. As both men had young families of about the same age, Laurence Irving organised a trip for their children to London Zoo, the highlight of which was to be a feeding of Winnie, a Canadian Black bear, who had been brought to the UK as a regimental mascot for a Canadian regiment during the First World War, and who had remained in the care of London Zoo after the war. Milne’s young son Christopher, after some initial reservations, became fascinated by Winnie and this interaction inspired Milne to create his fictional bear, Winnie-the-Pooh.  But without Laurence Irving’s involvement with Vaudeville Vanities, Christopher Robin would never had met Winnie the bear, and thousands of children’s lives would have been immeasurably poorer!

BTC30/8/7/150: Letter from Christopher Milne 
BTC30/8/7/150:  Photograph from the unveiling of a statue to the bear Winnie, 21 October 1981

Laurence Henry Irving continued to be closely associated with the theatre, designing sets and costumes for numerous productions including Punchinello at the Globe, Becket (the play in which his grandfather made his last ever appearance on the night he died) and even Hamlet for the Old Vic. In 1929, silent film star Douglas Fairbanks invited Laurence Irving to California and he began a career as a film designer, designing for two Douglas Fairbanks films; The Taming of the Shrew and The Man in the Iron Mask.  Returning to Britain in the 1930s, Laurence Henry Irving continued to design for several British films, most notably Moonlight Sonata, starring Polish statesman turned concert pianist Jan Paderewski, and Gabriel Pascal’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  The latter allowed Laurence to finally call a halt to an acrimonious dispute with George Bernard Shaw which had begun two generations earlier with Shaw’s disparaging comments on Sir Henry Irving’s funeral.

BTC30/8/1/12 Photograph taken during filming of Moonlight Sonata with Laurence Irving’s sets, 1936
BTC30/8/1/15/2: Laurence Irving’s design for John Hastings Turner’s Punchinello at the Globe Theatre, 1929

The collection also reveals the deeper impacts Laurence Henry Irving had on the development of twentieth century theatre. In 1933, shortly before he returned to Hollywood to design Douglas Fairbanks’ film version of The Man in the Iron Mask, Laurence Irving had become involved in the Canterbury Festival of Music and Drama, which commissioned as its first annual play The Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, beginning what some consider the revival of religious drama, and Irving remained involved with the Canterbury Festival for decades. He was also a board member of RADA, continuing three generations of Irving involvement in the school; following on from Sir Henry Irving’s role as a trustee of the school and Henry Brodribb Irving’s donation to the school of a portion of the proceeds from his starring in an early film.

Laurence Henry Irving, and later his son John, also carved out their own place in the Irving family as historians and researchers. In 1959, Laurence Irving published “Sir Henry Irving; the Actor and his World”, a biography of his grandfather, following it up with “The Successors” in 1968, the first of a proposed trilogy of books covering a century of theatre history as seen through his own family history. John Irving, Laurence’s son, while continuing his own career in television and radio (and one of John’s letters to his father is particularly interesting for its descriptions of the preparations in his BBC department for the arrival of television) continued his father’s interest in their family history. In 2006, John oversaw the publication a section of his father’s autobiography dealing with his time in Hollywood as “Designing for the Movies”  (BTC30/10/1) and he was also an influential figure in the Irving Society, conducting research on and bringing together copies of many of the collections of Irving material held in overseas collections, including Harvard University, San Marino California and the papers of Stephen Coleridge, as well as conducting family research on the Brodribb family, into which Sir Henry Irving had been born, having changed his name from John Henry Irving Brodribb when he began his stage career.

As well as the professional lives of Irving family, the collection also allows us glimpses into the private lives of these celebrated theatrical figures. BTC30/2/1/53 is especially poignant. At first glance a routine programme for a regular touring performance of Henry Irving and his company in Becket and The Merchant of Venice, a closer examination of the date reveals that the last performance of The Merchant of Venice advertised, never took place as Sir Henry Irving died on the evening of 13 October 1905, after the evening performance of Becket, truly a farewell performance.

BTC30/2/1/53: Programme for a farewell performance of Becket and Merchant of Venice, 10-14 October 1905

Only a decade after Sir Henry Irving’s relatively early death, Florence Irving would lose both her sons within five years. Laurence Sydney Irving died in 1914 when the steamship Empress of Ireland on which he was travelling was sunk in harbour in Canada, inciting a flood of condolence correspondence to his mother and brother. Then in 1918, Henry Brodribb Irving died of a kidney disease at the age of only 49, leaving his mother, his wife and his two children. Celebrity is no defence against grief, and despite their legendary reputation, the Irving Family collection reveals both the public commiserations and the very private griefs.

: BTC30/5/5/4: Letter sent to Henry Brodribb Irving on behalf of King George V and Queen Mary sending their commiserations on the death of his brother Laurence Sydney Irving, 1914

These are just a very few of the many stories that have been revealed during the cataloguing of the Irving family papers and we are expecting a new addition to this collection that will hopefully reveal many more. Or you can search for some of these stories yourself. The Theatre collection is open to researchers from Tuesdays to Fridays and we welcome visitors and researchers alike. Or you can consult our online catalogue (Theatre Collection ( or our website ( for more details.

DV8’s archive now catalogued and available to view

Following his retirement, Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director of DV8 Physical Theatre, took the decision to donate the company’s archive to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. This blog post will give you an idea of who the company were, the contents of the archive, and the process by which we went about ensuring that this collection will be maintained safely and intelligibly for anyone who wishes to view it in the future.

DV8 Physical Theatre (London, United Kingdom) was officially founded in 1986 by Lloyd Newson (1986-2015), Michelle Richecoeur (1986-88) and Nigel Charnock (1986-1989, 1992). Newson led the company as choreographer and artistic director since its inception, apart from My Sex, Our Dance (1986), which was co-created and performed with Charnock.

Newson, Charnock and Richecoeur had become disillusioned with what they saw as the preoccupations of most contemporary dance, considering it disconnected from the real world. The term ‘Physical Theatre’ was chosen due to the looser restrictions that come with that description, allowing them to incorporate whatever they felt necessary to say what they wanted to say. This included, but was not limited to film, dance, circus skills and text. DV8’s work sought to take risks, aesthetically and physically, and, above all, tried to communicate ideas and feelings clearly and unpretentiously.

Since receiving the collection in the spring of 2022, the Theatre Collection have been working on preparing the records of DV8 for long-term preservation and access to the public. The collection includes material from all DV8’s stage and film productions, consisting of photographs, film, stage plans and technical information, programmes, press and other documentation.

Pictures of archival boxes with the names of DV8 productions written on them.

Archiving is a team effort.  As the collection is made up of physical and digital material, the work to process this collection has been undertaken by several of us here at the Theatre Collection including our Audiovisual and Photography Digitisation officers Nigel Bryant and Sarah Bustamante-Brauning, Archive Assistant Laura Dow, Digital Archive Assistant Sam Brenton, as well as myself as Project Archivist. The work has included safely storing physical items using specialist, inert archival packaging to enable the preservation of material over the long-term, creating accessible copies of digital files whilst ensuring that a set of digital preservation copies can be maintained, and creating catalogue records describing the items within the collection.  There are almost two thousand items listed on the online catalogue which are available to view at the Theatre Collection.

Notably, the collection includes full recordings of several stage productions including The Cost of Living, Enter Achilles, To Be Straight With You, Can We Talk About This? and JOHN, as well as copies of the films My Sex, Our Dance, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, Strange Fish, Enter Achilles and The Cost of Living.  All of these are available to watch at the Theatre Collection (Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to publish these online, but four of the films produced by DV8 can be viewed online, via Digital Theatre and some clips are also available to watch on DV8’s YouTube channel.

Photograph of three male performers revelling on a high street.

DV8/1/20/4/3, promotional photograph for Enter Achilles (2020) Copyright – Hugo Glendinning

The collection also contains documents and diagrams relating to design, such as lighting plans and stage designs for productions including Strange Fish and Enter Achilles, and items such as projector slides, used as part of DV8’s performance piece at the Tate Modern London, Living Costs.

The DV8 archive contains a wealth of material of interest to researchers, students, educators, and those generally interested in live art, dance and/or theatre. DV8 was a radically innovative company reflected in the critical recognition the company received during its lifetime and the recognition given to choreographer and Artistic Director Lloyd Newson, who was cited by the Critics Circle in 2013 as being one of the hundred most influential artists working in Britain during the last hundred years. In that same year, Newson was awarded an OBE for services to contemporary dance and prior to this received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Roehampton (2011). DV8 garnered over 50 national and international awards during its existence.

The collection is ready to view in our reading rooms, and a detailed catalogue of its contents can be viewed here (clicking on the underlined RefNo ‘DV8’ will begin to open up the directory, or ‘hierarchy’ of the archive catalogue)Please get in touch with us if you would like more information.

Artist-in-Residence Placement: Learning from Letters

It’s been nearly two months since my last blog post, and during my hiatus, my designated placement time with the Theatre Collection has been spent developing my research skills, as well as learning more about archiving and museum curatorial practices with Jill Sullivan (Assistant Keeper: User Services) and Athene Bain (Archives Assistant). These conversations have brought up some important context and theory behind archiving, as well as thought-provoking considerations about the preservation and access strategies of archives and museums. Furthermore, my gained understanding has supported my artistic process as I’ve begun to synthesise connections between particular archive items of interest, leading towards the creative conceptualisation and design of my performance.

My research has been guided by my exploration into the presentations of memory in theatre, either in the content of the play itself or discovered within the memories of the people who made and enjoyed theatre. I’ve paid particular attention to the visual materials such as photographs of actors, costume designs and set models, but I’ve unexpectedly been thoroughly engaged –and at several moments, entertained– by the written archives, more specifically letters.

I was helpfully directed to the Jessie & Annie Bourke Collection of correspondence (Reference: BTC80), five boxes of letters detailing the professional careers and later lives of Jessie, her sister Annie, and their cousin Eva Watson, actresses of the 1860s and 1870s. In this unique collection, I found a single telegraph addressed to Annie Bourke to be particularly intriguing. Characteristically short, I spent quite some time trying to decipher this cryptic message, and its greater meaning between the lines of the faintly penciled cursive.

An uncatalogued item in BTC80 Box 1: a telegraph addressed to Annie Bourke that reads ‘Don’t come, I have to go away’

My mind instantly wandered; I began to wonder whether this message was a simple warning that Annie would be met with disappointment at a previously agreed upon meeting spot? Or was this note emotionally charged, with unwritten but potentially weighty cause behind the sender’s impulse that they had no other option than ‘to go away’? Alongside the manifold number of long letters addressed to Annie – some even addressed to the name of the character she was playing on stage at the time – these letters allude to the intense adoration male audience members had for their favourite actors and the discomforting tension between declarations of admiration and harassment. Did Annie keep the reason for this telegraph in her memory? Did she remember the letters from her many admirers? Did she have favourites? Were there admirers whom she genuinely admired back, or whom she charmed for her own pleasure as the subject of adoration? Without her own responses, documented in the letters she did or did not send, we can never know. Moreover, I had found this moment of wonder to be incredibly formative for the devising process of my performance.

In addition to the sector knowledge and skills I have acquired, I have also learnt a hard lesson that any researcher must accept: unfortunately, it is impossible to see or research everything. Whilst I allowed myself time to explore tangential archive items, given the time constraints of the duration of my placement and my own time management between my final year units, I had to decide what leads I wanted to pursue and which I regrettably had to leave behind.

My direction of research has not been linear these last few months, but despite the twists and turns, the journey has been productive and, most notably of all, joyfully absorbing. Supported by Jill’s knowledgeable suggestions, I feel I have a solid foundation of research to begin to build the design conceptualisation of my performance, which I will share with you in my next post.


Firestarters project update: March 2023

In 2021, the Theatre Collection successfully applied for a Research Resources Award from the Wellcome Trust for the ‘Firestarters’ project to make available the archive of the arts organisation, Welfare State International (WSI). The project was developed in response to demand to explore WSI’s innovative methodologies from a broad spectrum of researchers and practitioners and the archive will provide evidence and inspiration for future research and practice.

Founded in 1968 by John Fox and Sue Gill, Roger Coleman and others, WSI was a loose association of freelance artists brought together by shared values and philosophy.  WSI evolved from radical travelling performers to become embedded community artists and celebrants, working to weave art more fully into the fabric of life.  Under the Welfare State umbrella, a remarkable group of engineers, musicians, sculptors, performers, poets and pyrotechnicians invented and developed site-specific theatre in landscape, lantern processions, spectacular fireshows, community carnivals and participatory festivals.  The scale of the archive means that the project will take over three years to complete.  A comprehensive archive catalogue will be published online, key material will be digitised for preservation and access, and conservation work will ensure the long-term survival of this important collection.

The ‘Firestarters’ project to catalogue and make accessible the archive of the arts organisation, Welfare State International (WSI) is now underway, so we thought we’d share a project update and highlight some of the work we’ve done so far.  This first part of the project has focussed on establishing physical and intellectual control of the collection as well as safeguarding the long-term viability of the AV material through conservation and digitisation.


As Project Archivist, I’ve undertaken background research and produced a full production list of more than 400 performances, events and projects for the period Welfare State International were operational to assist with the sorting process.  The first sort of 245 boxes has been completed and the second, more detailed, sort is underway with all performance-related material from the original accession now sorted by production. I assigned temporary reference numbers to all the AV material enabling digitisation to begin.

Metal film canister from WSI archive labelled with white tape that reads 'Ballad of Jimi Tunn' Welfare State Intl
Example of WSI film canister

AV digitisation

Since December 2022, Nigel Bryant, AV Digitisation Officer has digitised 146 magnetic and optical media items across 17 different formats including U-matic, VHS, Betacam, Hi8, Video 8, CD audio and DVD.  Both preservation archival quality copies and viewing copies have been produced. Digital copies of duplicate material have been identified and discarded and summary content descriptions of all digitised AV have been recorded.  Essential servicing of AV equipment also took place across several formats to ensure optimum quality of digital copies was maintained.

Video highlights have included a copy of the Barrow community film ‘King Real & The Hoodlums’ (1984) from 1” video tape, so very good quality.  The film was made for TV and involved 150 local people; script by Adrian Mitchell based on King Lear.  In addition to the film, there is also a recording of ‘King Real – making of’ feature from BBC Newsnight, which includes interviews with cast members from the local community.  This year is the 40th anniversary of the making of ‘King Real’, an occasion which has been marked by some of those involved in the film from WSI and the local community with a celebratory singalong in Barrow.

There are also recordings of other TV programmes featuring the work of WSI including the BBC2 programme Open Space with footage of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Belfast’ from a community residency in Belfast, June 1983, and the Thames TV programme Afternoon Plus featuring preparations for ‘Parliament in Flames’, interviews with WSI members, as well as audience reactions to the large-scale spectacle.  In addition to recordings of performances, there is extensive coverage of Ulverston Lantern Processions from the 1980s-1990s.

Footage of international projects includes rushes and an edit of a WSI performance ‘The Wasteland and the Wagtail’, a special commission for the 1st International Theatre Festival in Toga Village, Japan from July 1982, a complete set of high quality rushes from ‘False Creek: A Visual Symphony’ from World Expo ‘86, in Vancouver, Canada, footage of a performance of ‘The Dead Carpenter’ at Rotterdamse Kunststichting, The Netherlands in 1976, and rushes and edit of ‘Tempest on Snake Island’ for the Toronto Theatre Festival in May 1981.

Manual Film Inspections

In preparation for creating access copies for the cine film within the collection, Nigel and I have undertaken manual film inspections for all 152 16mm films, in addition to 7 Super 8mm films.  Before undertaking manual film inspections, I tested all the film for acetate film base degradation (vinegar syndrome), using A-D strips.  The small A-D strips are placed in the can and left for a specified amount of time depending on the storage conditions; the strips change colour to indicate the level of deterioration.

Manually inspecting each film is essential, so an assessment can be made about whether the film would be safe to run on a Steenbeck (flatbed film editing machine) to create access copies.  The inspection included identifying the film type and any edge codes to date the film, as well as measuring the film and core diameter to ensure appropriate storage.  A section of film was measured and compared to stock film to assess whether the storage conditions over the years had caused the film to stretch or shrink.

As the image below shows, the film was then manually wound onto a core, through a duration counter and viewer, so the film could be viewed, notes about the content recorded, and an estimated duration taken.  The film was also lightly cleaned during this process.  With manual film inspections, although possible to view the moving images, it is not possible to listen to any sound recordings, which makes the content more difficult to identify.

Man manually winding 16mm film from reel onto core
Nigel Bryant, AV Digitisation Officer manually winding film from a reel onto a core
16mm film passing through a duration counter and film viewer
16mm film viewer and counter

The majority of the films within the collection were stored on 2” cores or projection reels, so during the inspections all the films were wound onto the larger 3” cores for optimum storage.  Each film was assessed for physical damage including scratches, perforation damage, mould, dirt and oil, warpage and colour fading.  Splices were also inspected and repaired or reinforced where required.

Within the collection there are a few 8mm and 35mm films, which will be inspected once additional equipment can be sourced.  As can be the case with older formats, the equipment required to play or view them is often scarce and therefore can be expensive.

There’s been some great footage on the 16mm film, including some projects filmed for TV, one for the arts programme Aquarius with footage from a 3 week residency in Burnley in 1975 including the final show featuring a large procession and ice sculpture, a 1982 performance of ‘Doomsday Fair’ and an early performance from 1973 made in Rotterdam.

Still from 16mm film of man with black and white makeup wearing black google and red military style jacket
Still from 1972 WSI performance seen through 16mm film viewer

There is also some footage of a naming ceremony on Bodmin Moor from the early 1970s and the South West tour of ‘The Travels of Lancelot Quail’ from 1972, which was one month of processional theatre from Glastonbury through Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.  The footage includes the finale of the performance, as the group of performers climb aboard a boat on the beach at Marazion and head out to sea and board a submarine.  It’s been brilliant to see moving images of performances, having only seen a few photographic images whilst sorting the documentation.

We look forward to posting more project updates as we go!

Siân Williams, Project Archivist

Miniature Stage Lighting demonstration

In January 2023, Keith McLaren, the depositor of the Miniature Stage Lighting visited the Theatre Collection to show us how the Miniature Stage Lighting worked and to give an insight into how the equipment could be used.

The Miniature Stage Lighting was deposited in October 2022 and has been catalogued as BTC334 Miniature Stage Lighting. It is equipment designed and made by Robert Stanbury who taught stage lighting to theatre design students at the Wimbledon College of Art in the late 1950s until the mid-1960s. He also made equipment for people including the eminent lighting designers Michael Northen and Richard Pilbrow and companies such as the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. This particular equipment was ordered by Rae Hammond who was General Manager of the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham and is generally for use with 1:24 theatre design models although the equipment is larger for practical reasons. The lighting includes a control desk and several luminaires.

I worked with a colleague who took photographs of the individual parts and the process of setting them up for use. I took notes of the steps and advice, and I am creating a guide for future staff to use the equipment. We hope that our work will enable future generations to access and use the Miniature Stage Lighting in an informed way.

The process included building the stand, connecting the control desk to the mains, and connecting the luminaires to the control desk. Trial and error were needed such as to find out which lamp was connected to which dial on the control desk and the depositor gave us advice about common problems. Some of these included wires touching the body of the lamp and dirty contacts (the parts on the control desk used to assign a lamp to the left or right control dial).

I originally invited Keith to the session thinking that we would light a set model. However, he said he found this idea interesting because you don’t generally aim to light the set directly, apart from possibly motivating light (sunlight, moonlight etc.), rather relying on incidental “bounce light” from actor light. We ran out of time anyway!

The Theatre Collection also holds other items relating to lighting including collections such as BTC 155 Michael Northern Collection. Michael Northen (1921 – 2001) was the first credited Lighting Designer in the UK and his work on “The Mousetrap” can still be seen in the West End today. The JD Joe Davis Archive contains the archive of Lighting Designer Joe Davis (1912 – 1984). There is also a Mander & Mitchenson Collection reference box for lighting & sound. In addition, individual items such as lighting plots, plans and diagrams can be found within many of the other collections held at the Theatre Collection and there is a lighting section in the Theatre Collection library.

If you have archives relating to lighting (or any other aspect of professional British theatre or live art) that you would be interested in donating, please have a look at our ‘finding a home for your records’ page. You may also be interested in finding out more about caring for your records.

If you are interested in finding out more about theatre lighting, then please have a look at our catalogue and read more about visiting us.

Keith turning a dial on the lighting control desk
Keith with the Miniature Stage Lighting. Copyright: University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Artist-in-Residence Placement: Introduction

Hello, my name is Violet, and I’m a third year student in the Theatre and Performance Department here at Bristol. One of the final year units is ‘Professional Development in Theatre and Performance’, for which students work in partnership with a professional or community organisation to develop their professional skills on a specific project. I chose to work with the Theatre Collection, as an Artist-in-Residence, to create a performance piece based on archives and archival research.

As a third-year Theatre & English student, I’ve been lucky enough to take several units that utilised the archives and knowledge of the Theatre Collections staff. During my degree course, I have looked into the set design for productions of Chekhov’s The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard in ‘Performance Histories’, statoscopes in ‘Immersive and Site-Specific Theatre’ and even a clown costume, believed to be worn by Harry Payne, in ‘Clowning through History’. I was mesmerised by the physical fragments from the past, and the exciting process of research-informed investigation into the greater context of the item and its relation to theatre. These items preserved the liveness and creativity of performance, which is inextricably linked to the theatre makers and the projects they were produced for. This sparked my interest in contacting the Theatre Collection to ask if I could have my placement with the team to learn about archiving, freelancing as an artist and exploring what creative and performative ideas could be inspired by materials in the Collection.

My own interest in theatre is rooted in design. I have experimented with designing set, costume, prop and makeup in theatre units, student productions and my own performance as a drag artist. Most of my previous work revolves around creating dynamic and intriguing performance spaces, experimenting with the bounds of absurdity and authenticity in costume and makeup artistry, and exploring the tension between exaggerated scale and practicality in props.

Photographer: Yamuna Shukla
Photographer: Charley Williams
Photo by Moonshine Photographer

Before I pursue a postgraduate degree in performance design, I’m taking time to explore various avenues of artistry. As my interest was piqued by my previous encounters with the Collection’s archival materials, so I was intrigued to develop my own artistic practice, informed by researching designers and live art practitioners.

During the first month of my placement, I have taken my time to grasp the historical and contemporary works of live art, such as the work of Ian Smith, Nan Hoover and Crystal Theatre of the Saint. By investigating their creative process, promotional material, and recordings of their performances – with the support of the Theatre Collection team – I have built a foundation of archive research skills to begin my own process of producing a live art performance in early May. Please do look out for updates, as I will be posting regular blogs to show what archive items and artist influences have inspired me, the progression of my creative process and reflections on my placement with the Theatre Collection.

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.