Preserving the dancer and the dance
INNOVATION PROFILE NUIGTHE ABBEY Theatre and NUI Galway have come together to digitise the Abbey Archive for future generations. It is hoped that the digitisation project will unlock a new era of theatre scholarship and will shed new light on the history of Irish theatre and Irish life.
Entitled A Digital Journey through Irish Theatre History, the project involves the digitisation of almost two million Abbey posters, prints, programmes, costume designs, stage sets, prompt sheets, books of account, boar minutes and so on.
When the complete collection goes online in about three years’ time, it will “undoubtedly be the biggest digital theatre archive in the world”, says Dr Patrick Lonergan, director of drama programmes at NUI Galway.
The importance of this project, both in terms of the preservation of the Abbey archive and for the future cultural life of Ireland, cannot be overstated. No other cultural institution is as inextricably bound with Ireland’s birth and evolution as an independent nation, and for the past 108 years the theatre has been seen by many as the measure of the country’s artistic pulse.
The Abbey’s establishment in 1904 was based on an ethos of using art to overcome the many divisions that existed in Irish society, and it has remained committed to that value ever since, often seeking to reveal important truths about our nation at times when it was unpopular to do so.
Its ability to provoke debate was evident from the beginning, most famously in the riots that greeted the premiere production of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and in the controversy that greeted the premiere of Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 1926.
Indeed, that latter event was a key moment for the development of the new State, becoming a crucial test of the nation’s attitudes towards freedom of speech.
The preservation of the archive for historical reasons alone would be worthwhile, but its artistic contribution too is vitally important and not just within Ireland. The Abbey has gone on to have a worldwide impact with its plays appearing on Broadway, at the Edinburgh International Festival, in London’s West End, and throughout Europe. Today, almost every major academic textbook about theatre features a section on the Abbey and its significance.
The most important aspect of the project is that it will preserve the Abbey’s collection for future generations. Much of the collection is in a very fragile state due to age or as a result of damage caused when the original theatre was burned down in 1951. The digitisation project will protect that material, allowing it to be used by researchers.