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.



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:

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:–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:

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:–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:


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.

Dream Designers: Staging Fantasy. Creating an exhibition in lockdown

Each year the Theatre Collection co-leads a MA unit for the History of Art Department. ‘Curating the Collection’ is an Independent Study Unit, for which students work as a team to research and curate an exhibition based on the Theatre Collection holdings. To start the process, there may be an overarching theme, a new acquisition to showcase, or an event to tie in with (for example Shakespeare 400 in 2016 or the Old Vic Bicentenary in 2018). But within these themes, the students are free to explore the collections, interpret and devise their own exhibition. The unit teaches them a range of curatorial skills, from original research to mounting and framing, writing display texts and organising publicity and a private viewing. The unit provides essential experience for those students wishing to pursue a career in museums and galleries.

For the 2020 exhibition,we wanted to showcase twentieth-century set and costume designers, and an introductory session with the students looked at a range of items that included art college notebooks as well as finished designs for major productions. The students became really engaged with the idea of the creative genesis of a designer and how they developed their ideas. In particular, the work of Julia Trevelyan Oman, Ralph Adron and Yolanda Sonnabend.

The students were especially interested in the idea of translating fantasy and fairy tale into workable sets and costumes, looking at examples of design from ballet and children’s theatre.

The students formed a strong collaborative team at their first session and were exploring all kinds of possibilities for their exhibition. This year we had planned for the exhibition to be staged in the Theatre Collection reading room and library. Past exhibitions there had worked well, with items framed and hung on the walls of these rooms. The MA students however had additional ideas for installations, to recreate a designer’s desk and utilise the surrounding bookshelves.

‘Looking through Yolanda Sonnabend’s uncatalogued archive was an interesting process and inspired a lot of different ideas within our group. We admired all the work she put into each design and the various forms of inspiration taken to make them. Her studio was a big part of her identity as everyone who talked about her always mentioned it, and so it became important for us to exhibit it in some form.’  (Adriana, MA student)

We were all very excited by the potential of these ideas. This was in February.

Due to the rapidly developing situation around COVID-19, the University took the decision to close on Wednesday 18 March and move the remainder of the teaching term online. We put out a call to the History of Art students who arrived on Tuesday 17th and undertook a herculean amount of image scanning and last-minute research in our library. Enough material was gathered but we had to make the decision and break it to the students that the eventual exhibition would be virtual and not in a physical space. There would be no private view but potentially an even wider online audience for their work. Plans had to be changed or even discarded, but the ideas continued to flow, with regular classes and group discussions online.

‘Once we agreed that our exhibition would be moved online  we began to reconsider the shortlist and the objects we originally intended on displaying. We asked ourselves the questions, how does a digitised version of an object affect its interpretation? We realised that, unfortunately, many of the large set design drawings by David Walker that we’d been considering, would not translate due to their size and we decided to leave these out of the exhibition entirely. We had also planned to stage a desk installation as a way to recreate the studio space of Yolanda Sonnabend, to show the chaotic yet productive environment in which she worked. We adapted this idea to a digital platform by presenting objects that showcased Sonnabend’s design inspirations and her design process by displaying personal artefacts and early draft work for various productions.’  (Rebecca, MA student)

As museums and galleries across the world found ways to attract new audiences through online exhibitions, our students were learning new skills that would be very relevant in the ‘new normal’ of planning and staging exhibitions. And it enabled them to think about their audiences and how people can access and understand an exhibition without a physical gallery framework.

‘All of the designers made the most of constraints. The move to an online exhibition has resulted in sharper text and clearly articulated curatorial positions, as there was less space for writing and the items included were reduced. However, this sharpness comes at the expense of physically attending the exhibition. It is not just the scale of individual works that becomes less clear in an online world; it is also the scale of the designers’ archives as a reflection of their talents that becomes less obvious too.’  (Ewan, MA student)

The exhibition Dream Designers: Staging Fantasy celebrates the work of the chosen designers by focusing on their work processes and influences. The first section in particular focuses on children’s theatre and the Ralph Adron designs for Unicorn Theatre’s Lizzie Dripping and the Witch and The Blue Monster. The second section of the exhibition looks at how all three designers approached the ballet of The Nutcracker.

‘Co-curating this exhibition has left me with a deep respect for theatre design. Researching the careers of our chosen designers has made me realise that theatre design is more than realising an aesthetic vision; theatre designers are charged with creating magic.’  (Annie, MA student)

With a final flourish of inventiveness, the students got in touch with Ralph Adron and, through email conversations with him, were able to learn more about his ideas and the challenges that designing for the stage can raise. The exhibition therefore also includes explanatory quotes that add yet another dimension to the works.

‘We were incredibly fortunate that Ralph Adron, one of the designers upon whose work we had created the exhibition was available to answer our questions. Ralph (we quickly became on first name terms in email) reminisced not only about the productions of his we had focused on, Lizzie Dripping and The Witch, The Blue Monster and The Nutcracker but also the processes, working practices and experience of working as a stage designer in his heyday. The insights provided were invaluable in contextualising the decisions made in respect of staging, costume and set designs and the inspirations behind the creative process of a designer.

Some of the correspondence reminded Ralph of elements that he had designed but not remembered or thought about for over 40 years. I was glad that he could see that we were interested in his works and he was also interested in our ideas, themes and inspirations for the exhibition. A wonderful source of enriching information for our exhibition but also a warm and generous person who is still providing delight through his artistry and creativity.’   Lyndon (MA student)

‘One of my favourite design tasks was arranging Ralph Adron’s mice on the title page, as though they were hanging [the title] up themselves! The theme of the exhibition was all about bringing fantasy alive, further, it brought an element of fun to welcome the online visitors into viewing the rest of the curated collection.’   Alicia (MA student)

The exhibition can be seen here and celebrates not just the creativity of the three designers but also the hard work and dynamic adaptability of the MA students. It’s been a privilege to work with them and we wish them every success in their careers.

Disordering the Archive: A Journey Down the Rabbit Hole

Thomas Manson and George Meredith are playwrights with a particular interest in history and the archive. In 2019 they undertook a residency at the Theatre Collection to explore questions surrounding adaptation and the creative potential of the archive, which culminated in two creative writing workshops. This second blog charts their response to findings in the Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive.

The Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive is one of the most detailed and extensive in the Theatre Collection. Julia – a celebrated theatre, opera, ballet and television designer – kept everything from her art college days onwards. And everything means everything. There are over two and half thousand entries in her online catalogue. The reference numbers which categorise her materials span JTO/1 through to JTO/429. There are boxes full of letters and notes and hurried scribblings. Vast stage plans and intricate sketches. Papier mâché birds delicately wrapped in tissue paper. All the scrappy detritus of a creative life, bound and boxed and labelled in the brimming store rooms of the Collection.

For not only did Julia keep everything, but she also ordered it all properly, and took steps to preserve the incredible wealth of materials she accumulated over the course of her career. As a result, this sprawling collection offers not only a fascinating insight into Julia’s life and work, but also into the act of archive-making itself.

There is a palpable tension in all archives – but particularly this one – between order and disorder. Archives are places of organisation and careful curation, and yet the materials they contain are so often the remains of disordered and unpredictable lives. Take the snippet of autobiographical writing, written quickly in pencil on the back of an art exhibition flyer, that describes a young Julia discovering her passion for creation:


The fascination with gardens grew. From creating imaginative palaces & gardens on the floor from children’s boxes of wooden building bricks, using mirrors for lakes & candlesticks for columns. Magic cities grew and fell as the floor was (JTO/237).


The note ends abruptly, mid-sentence. Julia was disturbed perhaps, or distracted or pulled away by the urgency of some other work. The thought is left unfinished and the paper is left to one side, most likely among the countless other papers in what Sir Roy Strong described as the ‘orderly confusion’ (JTO/112) of Julia’s studio, and this momentary centre of Julia’s creative attention becomes a trace, a relic to be codified and brought into a system of logic unbefitting of such disordered thoughts.

What are we to make of this now in the hush of the Theatre Collection’s reading room? What relation is there between this unfinished thought from some distracted afternoon and the systems of order that define its existence now? And how might a writer exploit this tension? What is the creative potential of introducing, or perhaps it would be better to say re-introducing, disorder to the archive?

Down the Rabbit Hole

We were considering these questions as we came across Julia’s work on Jonathan Miller’s 1966 television adaptation of Alice in Wonderland – a project that crackles with the tension between order and disorder.

As a designer, Julia was renowned for her tyrannous eye for detail and quite obsessive sense of historical accuracy. Her style harks back to the 19th century, with its cluttered, complex, realistic sets. The intricacy and social realism of her designs are actually remarkable given that she was working at a time when most designers of the period were turning towards minimalism in their work. Julia’s work on Alice is no exception. The collection is full of her intricate designs and exacting instructions. There are detailed plans, sections, elevations and drawings. Nothing escapes her eye for detail, and her research and reports cover everything from the placement of the furniture to the patterns on the curtains. Even the flies that will buzz around the Mad Hatter’s tea party are subject to strict controls:


They will live for about a week. Must be kept cool and in the shade. They should be fed on a pasty mixture of sugar and water. We cannot replace them if they are lost. Please return the container. (JTO/6/2).


Such stringent attention to detail seems strangely at odds with the anarchic world it is in aid of. Carroll’s wonderland is a dream landscape, where objects morph and change and disobey the rules of the world as we know them. Invisible cats float in mid-air and babies turn into pigs. Time stops and the Mad Hatter is trapped in an indefinite tea time, while the scones spoil around him. Julia’s geometrical certainties seem unlikely bedfellows with such a topsy turvy unreality.


Location shot from Alice in Wonderland (1966). Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive, JTO/6/5. University of Bristol Theatre Collection.


And yet, in another sense, this cocktail of order and disorder is a perfect reflection of Carroll’s vision. Wonderland is not a world of abject chaos. Order exists, it is simply a displaced form of order that answers to an abstract logic. Eating and drinking in Wonderland has an unexpected effect on one’s size, but Alice soon learns the system and uses it to negotiate her new surroundings. Similarly, the Caucus Race appears to have no rules at all but the creatures participating in it seem to understand the logic, and so Alice plays along:


Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could (p.27).


The apparent disorder of Carroll’s Wonderland is in fact a satire of the arbitrary systems of order that define adult life in the real world – systems that we blindly inherit and accept without question. For Carroll, these real-world systems are just as arbitrary and bizarre as any to be found in Wonderland.

It struck us that there was a lesson here for approaching archives. Archives are ordered by systems that seem natural and yet are entirely artificial. There is nothing inevitable about the organising principles of archives, and one might just as easily categorise materials by shape or colour. Perhaps by introducing new systems of order and, like Alice, working within the logic of those systems, we can disrupt the dynamics of the archive and find new meanings and creative possibilities.

But what systems? And how can we apply them to our writing?

CURIOUSER and Curiouser

Traversing this precarious boundary between order and disorder, some refuge can be found with the French author Georges Perec and the OuLiPo movement he joined in the 1960s – around the same time that Julia and Miller were making Alice. The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was founded in 1960 by writers and mathematicians experimenting with constraints and seeking different systems of logic for their writing.

Not to be confused with the earlier Surrealist movement, the OuLiPo rejected chance and exalted the imposition of rules. For example, some wrote ‘snowball’ poetry in which each word had to be one letter longer than the last; others forbade the use of letters with ascenders or descenders which hung below or above the line – such as ‘d’ or ‘g’ or ‘y’. These constraints, far from being restrictive, were catalysts for creativity. As Alison James writes: “…the OuLiPo is intrigued by such apparent points of convergence between order and disorder, law and its absence, chance and necessity.” (p.131). Indeed, one of OuLiPo’s founding members Raymond Queneau viewed writing without rules as a form of slavery.

The Oulipo Ambigram. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons. Basile Morin / CC BY-SA.


Unsurprisingly, the OuLiPo were great admirers of Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is full of instances where language and images are disordered and reordered, forming a sort of textual fabric that is open to manipulation and mutation, as if it were a lump of play-dough. Take for example the Mouse’s “long sad tale”, the words of which take the shape of a mouse’s tail on the page. Similarly, the Doormouse’s story about three sisters who drew only things beginning with ‘M’ could be something straight out of the OuLiPo playbook. No wonder the movement described Carroll as an ‘anticipatory plagiarist’ who had been cribbing their techniques long before they had even thought of them!

Carroll’s playful use of linguistic rules and constraints is a great example of the humorous potential of the OuLiPo approach. However, these techniques can also be used for far more profound ends than Carroll’s Victorian nonsense. A famous novel by Perec epitomises how the slippages between order and disorder can prove fertile creative ground to explore even the most serious of themes. La Disparition (literally meaning ‘The Disappearance’) takes the form of a lipogram, prohibiting the use of the letter ‘e’, the most prominent letter in the French language. It is important to note that Perec’s mother died in the Holocaust and his father died fighting in the Second World War. In light of this, Warren Motte points out that “Perec cannot say the words père, mère, parents, famille in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec.” As in Alice, language acquires a material characteristic here, as if it were a fabric to be torn. The destruction of the Holocaust is visited on the materiality of the written word, and the voids at the heart of the family and the self are forcefully evoked through their imposed absence on the page.

The materiality of the written word takes us back to the material archive; a collection of objects arranged by its own system of logic, by order and disorder, with its own gaps, holes and tears. Perhaps if we follow the lead of the OuLiPo, we can challenge its systems and create new orders of our own.

Magic cities

Coming full circle then, we were interested in how we might apply some of these thoughts when directly interacting with archive materials. At the culmination of our residency at the Theatre Collection, we hosted a writing workshop where we explored a number of OuLiPo techniques, one of which is known as larding. Beginning with two sentences (sentences 1 and 3), the writer composes a middle sentence (sentence 2). The writer then adds two more sentences, one between sentences 1 and 2 and another between sentences 2 and 3. The writer continues to lard the sentences until the two sentences have become a paragraph, and that paragraph a page.

This exercise takes the original material and imbues it with renewed meaning; a palimpsestic layering which reanimates the once ossified artefact, ramifying and seeking new connections. We can use this technique, to quote art critic Hal Foster, to turn archival “‘excavation sites’ into ‘construction sites’”, and build new connections from forgotten material (p.60).

For our own larding exercise, we returned to Julia’s archive:


The fascination with gardens grew.

From creating imaginative palaces & gardens on the floor from children’s boxes of wooden building bricks, using mirrors for lakes & candlesticks for columns.

Magic cities grew and fell as the floor was


Using this fragment as a starting point, we built on top of it, adding more and more between the lines until Julia’s unfinished thought became a new and complete piece of writing. And in so doing, we liberated it from the pacifying systems of the archive and re-injected the creative impetus that first prompted it on that distracted afternoon of decades before.

After our workshop, we returned to a small exhibit we had fashioned from Julia’s archive. We placed the items carefully back in their boxes. Sketch books. Photographs. Newspaper clippings. JTO/1 through to JTO/429. Reference numbers and crisp white folders. A trick of the eye, disguising the gaps and chaos and strange syncretism of a life lived somewhere in between order and disorder. Like Alice, and like the OuLiPo after her, we sought to navigate this in between. That fertile, hybrid space where objects look different and magic cities are built.

Works cited

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. 1865. Oxford World Classics, 2009.
Foster, Hal. Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency. Verso Books, 2015.
James, Alison. Constraining Chance: Georges Perec and the Oulipo. Northwestern University Press, 2009.
Motte, Warren. “Reading Georges Perec.” CONTEXT, vol. 11,

Items from the archive

‘Magic cities’ from a handwritten note recording the development of Julia’s passion for gardens. Catalogue reference JTO/237.
‘Orderly disorder’ from ‘Spotlight’ article by Roy Strong about Julia, Vogue, February 1971. Catalogue reference JTO/112.
Note about flies from prop list and notes for the 1966 BBC production of Alice in Wonderland. Catalogue reference JTO/6/2.


A Guide for Students to Our Online Catalogue, Digitised Images and Other Resources

Jill Sullivan, Assistant Keeper: User Services has written a guide to the Theatre Collection resources available to students online.

The Theatre Collection is one of the world’s largest collections of British theatre history and live art. It includes over 140 named collections and archives, comprising artworks, audio-visual material, costumes, designs, set models, playbills, prompt scripts, production notes and programmes.

The size of the Collection can be daunting and due to the current COVID-19 situation you can’t visit us, but here is a brief guide to help you access some of the holdings remotely, as well as some recommended sites to help with your research.

Start with our web pages

Madam Malibran as the title character in the opera The Maid of Artois (1836). Tinsel print. MM184.

Then use our guides listed under Explore to find out more about the different collections:



This section is useful for browsing biographical information and finding out more about what each collection holds. It’s organized by theme: Academics, Actors, Collectors, Designers, Directors, Organisations, Writers, and Photographers, as well as ‘Off-stage’ which covers a range of theatre creatives such as producers, managers, critics, agents, and wardrobe staff.

TOP TIP: If a person had many strings to their bow, we’ve listed them by each (for example, Joyce Grenfell was an actor, but also a writer, so she can be found under both headings).


Live Art is notoriously difficult to categorise.  The Live Art Development Agency suggests thinking of live art as a strategy, rather than a category – their ‘What is Live Art?’ web pages are a good place to start.  Within the Live Art Archives you can find items relating to performance, art, dance, music, experimental and alternative theatre, poetry, and much more, including a lot of audio-visual documentation.  Catalogue records for many of these items are available on the Theatre Collection’s online catalogue, so if you know what you are looking for you can head straight there, but if not a list of individual collections within the Live Art Archives with short, introductory descriptions is also available.


The library catalogue has a link to the main University of Bristol library catalogue and to a list of our journal holdings. At the moment you won’t be able to access the books at the Theatre Collection, but the University library site will have information and links to electronic books and articles, databases and – NEW – free access to many additional online resources at There are also some excellent newspaper archive websites that I’ll talk about later.


The Art UK site contains digitised images of all our oil paintings, which are available to download and use. It’s also a really good site for exploring other UK art collections.

Once you’ve explored these main pages or if you already have a good idea of what you’re looking for, you’ll want to search our online catalogue.



On the Theatre Collection home page, click on ‘Search the Collections’ (left hand side).

On the next page you’ll see a menu on the left-hand side. There’s information ‘About’ the catalogue (and uncatalogued items) and a section on ‘How do I search the catalogue’ which explains the different options.

Mr T. P. Cooke as Captain Aubri in the melodrama The Forest of Bondy, or The Dog of Montargis (early C19th). Tinsel print. MM185.

You can do a basic search in the top bar button, but you’ll probably find the ‘Advanced Search’ and ‘Search by Production’ options the most useful.

TOP TIPS: don’t be too general. If you put Shakespeare in as a search term, be prepared for a long day! Similarly, putting in a theme or concept won’t find results – the catalogue needs facts. Think instead about whether you need to look for a particular play or a character, theatre or actor, or whether you need productions by a particular company for example.

But you might also want to widen the search, in which case you’ll need to do some lateral thinking – for example if you’re searching for an actor, try also searching for the theatre companies they worked for and other people they worked with.

And check spellings as well. Unlike an internet search engine, the online catalogue won’t find versions of words and spellings.

And remember, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, email us if you need help at



We have lots of digitised images available, although at the moment these are not available to download from our site. If you are a student, then you can email us to request any of these for use in your assignments or projects. Over the following weeks we’ll be working to make more of our images available to view online.



To give you an idea of our holdings, here’s a list of some sample collections:

Bristol Old Vic Archive

We hold the archive of the Bristol Old Vic Company from its beginnings in 1946. It includes photographs, programmes, prompt books, production notes and posters. We also have related archives of people who have worked at the BOV, such as the designer John Elvery, and materials relating to the theatre before 1946, ranging from eighteenth century handbills to the in-depth research notes on the history of the theatre created by historian Kathleen Barker.

Handbill for the Theatre Royal, Bristol (1797). BOV/PB/374.
Poster for Hamlet (1958) starring Peter O’Toole. BOV/PB/Box298/2.

Have a look at the BOV Heritage pages to see lots of our digitized images and stories from the theatre’s history. And yes, there was a real elephant on stage in the 1820s!


All our BOV and related holdings are now catalogued and we have many more digitised images for use.


Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree Business Archive

One of the last great actor-managers of Victorian and Edwardian theatre, this archive contains extensive materials relating to Beerbohm Tree’s management of the Haymarket and Her Majesty’s Theatre. It includes prompt books, photographs, designs, scores, production notes, diaries, financial records and press cuttings books.

Portrait photograph of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree c.1906. HBT/PH/1/6.


Henry VIII at His Majesty’s Theatre, 1910. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Cardinal Wolsey, Arthur Bourchier as Henry VIII and Violet Vanbrugh as Queen Katherine. HBT/PH/1/7.

The Mander and Mitchenson Collection

Founded by two actor-directors, Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, this vast collection represents a passion for theatre and a lifetime of collecting. It took 37 lorry trips from London to Bristol to transport all the items so that gives you a good idea of just how big the collection is! It comprises artworks, costumes, ceramics, objects (ranging from ‘Shakespeare’ tea tins to Sarah Bernhardt’s make up cape, from oil paintings of Kemble and Siddons to ventriloquist dummies!), and nearly 1400 reference boxes containing archive materials on all major UK venues, actors (including ‘Early Actors’ – c.1770-1850), music hall and variety artistes, musicians, designers, directors, writers and dancers, opera and ballet companies, pantomime, melodrama and circuses. These files contain a variety of photographs, programmes, press reviews and cuttings, published scores, playbills and ephemera.

Wager between Mr Bedford and Mr Williams for two gallons of claret, countersigned by David Garrick. mid-C18th. MM/2/PE/EA/19.

We are in the process of cataloguing the reference files but very little is catalogued to item level. However, we do have some lists yet to be added and there are some digitised images so do get in touch if you can’t find what you need on the catalogue and we can check these for you.

Playbills and Programmes

Playbills and handbills (the precursor of the modern theatre programme and flier) are a mine of information. Unlike the C20th posters, playbills had much more text on them, detailing cast and crew but also scenes and plot synopses. Plus the types of performance, the way they were advertised and the ticket prices and changing names for parts of the auditorium offer a glimpse of the types of audiences that went to the theatre in the past. The Theatre Collection has nearly 300,000 programmes dating from the late C19th to the C21st. Again, these offer fascinating glimpses of social history in the advertisements, and modern programmes often contain detailed articles on the production and histories of the theatre, company and plays.

Playbill for production of The Battle of Waterloo, Royal Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge, May 1825. M&M Collection, uncatalogued.


Playbill for variety show at the Shakespeare Theatre of Varieties, Liverpool, c.1950s. M&M Collection, uncatalogued.

Interested in modern audiences? Read Dr Kirsty Sedgman’s ‘Lightning Talk’ at the 2019 Theatre and Touring Symposium at


Design Collections

The Theatre Collection contains named archives of specific designers, such as Julia Trevelyan Oman, Oliver Messel (Personal Archive), Alan Tagg, David Walker, Yolanda Sonnabend, John Elvery and Ralph Adron. We also have a generic design collection, which comprises hundreds of set and costume designs, representing over 100 years of incredible creativity. To search for these, you can use the ‘Production’ search option, or the ‘Advanced Search’ option if you know the designer’s name.

Costume design for Priscilla the Goose, in Mother Goose, by John Elvery. Bristol Old Vic, 1985.

Julia Trevelyan Oman Archive

Julia Trevelyan Oman CBE (1930-2003) was one of the most celebrated theatre, television, ballet and opera designers of the second half of the C20th. She was noted for her attention to historical detail in productions such as Brief Lives (1967, Hampstead Theatre Club and later productions), La Boheme (Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 1974) and Enigma Variations (Royal Ballet, Covent Garden,1968). Her personal archive covers her entire career and includes her original designs with research files, technical drawings and plans, research photographs, production photographs, correspondence and fabric swatches.

Colour range for ladies costume dress fabrics, La Boheme, Royal Opera House, 1973. JTO/25/51/53.
Costume concept for ‘Mimi’, La Boheme, Royal Opera House, 1974. JTO/25/50/15.

Oliver Messel Archive

Oliver Messel was one of the most famous designers of the first half of the C20th, as well as being one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the inter-war period. His archive reflects, among other things, his professional achievements as well as his friendships, his architectural designs undertaken when living in Barbados and his wartime work for the Camouflage Unit. His first professional commissions were to design masks for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Zephyr et Flore and for one of C.B. Cochran’s Revues. Among his stage and screen credits were the costume designs for the films The Scarlet Pimpernel, Romeo and Juliet, Caesar and Cleopatra and the set design for Suddenly Last Summer (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), as well as the 1946 production of the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. More information and links to the Messel catalogue are here.

Have a look at our Exploring the Oliver Messel Archive pages, which include an illustrated biography, an opportunity to explore our 2018-19 exhibition Wake Up and Dream (including the audio installation The Caviar Outlook) and a link to watch I Went to a Marvellous Party a performance and installation by Tom Marshman, inspired by the Oliver Messel Archive.


Interested in photography? Take a look at the John Vickers Archive

John Vickers Archive

Vickers trained with the eminent theatre photographer Angus McBean and in turn influenced the work of Mario Testino, his assistant in the 1970s. This comprehensive archive documents Vickers’ career throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Included in the collection are glass plate negatives, prints, framed items, correspondence and ephemera. The Vickers Archive is now catalogued and many of his photographs have been digitised – they are especially strong for productions at the Old Vic (London) in this period as well as portrait photographs of many of the most famous actors of the period.

Vivien Leigh. by John Vickers, c.1946. JV/1/1/478.

Live Art Archives:

Performance Magazine Archive

Performance Magazine was the key UK Live Art/Performance magazine from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s and provides a fantastic record of live art activity that took place during this period.  The Theatre Collection holds a complete set of the original copies, but the Live Art Development Agency scanned and made available online all 66 issues recently and we’ve included links to these pdfs from our online catalogue so there is no need to wait until we re-open to view these!

Franko B Archive

Franko B, photograph by Hugo Glendenning.

Thanks to a very generous grant from Wellcome, over the past two years we’ve been busy cataloguing the collection of this extraordinary contemporary visual artist.  With over 2,800 detailed catalogue records covering all aspects of Franko B’s practice – performance, ceramics, curating, music, teaching – there is a wealth of material here available for research. Whilst you’ll have to wait until we re-open to access the items physically, there is plenty of documentation available on Franko B’s own website.

Our two wonderful project writers-in-residence, Mary Paterson and Maddy Costa, kept a blog as they reflected on the archival processes we encountered through the project, and you can read their series of blog posts here.


If you’re using materials from our collections, please make sure that you cite University of Bristol Theatre Collection. For University of Bristol students, if you’re using the Harvard system you should cite an archive item like this:

Author, Initials., Year. Title of document. [type of medium] Collection, Document number. Geographical Town/Place: Name of Library/Archive/Repository. For example:

Brown, P.S., 1915. An address to the Farmer. [manuscript] Holdbury Collection. 600. London: Holdbury Library.

An in-text reference for the above example would read: (Brown, 1915)

(Source: These guidelines are also available via the UoB Library site here


Remember: we may not be on site but we are available to answer questions about our holdings, or if you need research advice or want to find out more about the Theatre Collection, just get in touch with us at and we will do our best to help you.




University of Bristol Library Recommended databases and online newspaper archives

TOP TIPS: You can use word search in this database, but if you’re searching a name, try hyphenating it (e.g. John-Smith) to make the search more specific. Also, if you are searching the theatrical trade journal, The Era, just input Era (not The Era).

The British Newspaper Archive is also a really good resource, with a bigger range of newspapers and twentieth century coverage. It’s a subscription-based resource but with reasonable short-term charges. Visit




APAC. The association of Performing Arts Collections

All major theatre archives – including the Theatre Collection – are members of this: You can use it as a portal to access information about other collections and their holdings – see

Bristol Archives

Explore their online catalogue for more information on the theatres and venues of Bristol at

Bristol Old Vic Heritage Project And take a look at the fabulous Limbic Cinema film made for the 250th anniversary of the theatre in May 2016 at

National Resource Centre for Dance at the University of Surrey

Including the British Black Dance Archives and the Choreographic Archive of Siobhan Davies Dance. Visit

National Theatre Digital Archive

The archive covers the movement to found the National Theatre and the period from the start of the company in 1963 right up to the present day.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections

SIBMAS (International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts)

Similar to APAC, the Members Directory (international) is at

The Live Art Development Agency Study Room and Online Resources

Here you will find library catalogues of LADA’s extensive study room materials, together with a fantastic array of study guides, screenings, audio content, online video channels and project websites, all relating to live art. Available from

University of Kent Special Collections

Including the British Cartoon Archive, the Dion Boucicault Collection, the Charles Dickens Theatre Collection, David Drummond Pantomime Collection and others. See the A-Z listing of all their collections at

University of Sussex Special Collections

A range of archives including theatre and performance literature at

Victoria and Albert Museum Collections online, the V&A Theatre and Performance Archives and the National Video Archive of Performance

All at

Remember if you need advice, or want to find out more, just email us at and we will try and help.