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THEMUSEUM Family Experience: Discovering the Stratford Festival Archives

Posted on: August 11, 2015 by THEMUSEUM

This is part of an ongoing series for THEMUSEUM’s Summer of Discovery exhibition. From now until Labour Day come discover the worlds of magic and fantasy, space, science, interactive art and more! Previously: Transcending the Physical Boundaries of TheaterDiscovering PlutoDiscovering the Moon and Discovering Ellipsis

This summer THEMUSEUM has been exploring the worlds of fantasy and magic through the Summer of Discovery exhibition: Stratford’s Discovering Fantasy. This exhibition showcases a number of costumes and props, on loan from the Stratford Festival Archives, which have been used in productions of The TempestA Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Into the Woods. Liza Giffen, the Archives Director for the Stratford Festival Archives, answered a few questions about the costumes, as well as the impressive archival collection in Stratford, Ontario.

When were the Stratford Festival Archives opened, and since then, how many items have been accumulated within the collection?

The Stratford Festival Archives was formally founded in 1967 but material had been accumulated since the start of the Festival. Currently, there are tens of thousands of individual pieces in the collection, from costumes to letters, videos to props, making it the largest single theatre archive in North American and one of the largest theatre archives in the world.

Are there any specific techniques or practices used to preserve the items within the archives?

Each type of item needs a specific method of preserving it, depending on the material it is made of. So, costumes are kept enclosed in large acid free boxes, bulked out with acid free tissue so that they do not lose their shape; photographs are kept in PH neutral folders designed for their care while papers are kept in more acid free folders in smaller acid free boxes. Everything is kept in controlled environmental conditions so that they don’t decay quickly: they are kept in cool conditions, out of the light with the right relative humidity: environments in which the air is too dry or too damp either dry things out and leave them brittle, or leave things subject to mould growth.  

Are the archives open to the public? Or, how often/where are costumes and props displayed for viewing?

The Archives are open to the public Monday- Friday, 9am-5pm all years round apart from public holidays and the Christmas break. Our on-site Archive display is open as part of our archive tours, which are held Thursdays and Fridays at 10:45am, from June 18th until October 9th. You can also see costumes at THEMUSEUM (of course) and costumes and design sketches from King Lear and Pericles at the Stratford Perth Museum until the end of this year’s season.

How were the costumes and props picked/curated for THEMUSEUM’s exhibition this summer?

The costumes were chosen to compliment the “Discovery” theme of the Stratford Festival 2015 season: namely, discovering fantasy, and showing how theatre of magic and the magic of theatre allow us to better understand the world we live in. We then decided that the plays that would best illuminate this theme were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Into the Woods. We went on to choose pieces from various productions over the years, pieces that said most about each play and displayed its themes best in physical form, i.e the parallels between magic and nature in the Dream shown in the leaves and jewels of the fairies outfits or the organic looking robes of Titania and Oberon as well as  the power of the forces of nature controlled by Prospero in the form of the dazzling goddesses of the marriage masque performed for his daughter Miranda and her fiancé Ferdinand.

The costumes and props on display at THEMUSEUM this summer are shown as transcending the physical boundaries of the theater, and telling their own unique stories that blend fantasy and magic. How do you think, or see, the costumes as transcendent representations of the theatre?

In a very real way, the costumes are embodiments of performance. They are magical pieces that encapsulate the overall vision of our writers and directors and which can only be created through a combination of the extraordinary skills of our designers and craftspeople and phenomenal amounts of hard work. Worn by Maggie Smith, Martha Henry, William Hutt and the like, they link us to the most ephemeral of things, the fleeting moment performances, acting as permanent echoes we can experience today.    

What is your favourite item that the archives hold?

It changes daily: right now, it’s a small piece of paper that has been crumpled up and been smoothed out, probably having been taken out of a garbage can at the end of a meeting. In fact, it’s notes written to by Tyrone Guthrie, the director who helped set up the Stratford Festival, giving the reasons why the Festival should happen and carefully giving the pros and cons. The last three words on the page are, to me, the most important – they simply state, “act of faith”. It was that, that leap, which permitted the Stratford Festival to be founded in 1953 and that act of faith that we all – actors, directors, staff and audiences – still take together every day.

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