Over the past month the American Shakespeare Center offices have been turned upside-down, cleaned, and re-organized. In late May the education department tackled the archive, cataloging folder upon folder of pamphlets, programs, letters, pictures, and DVDs, all of which were neatly filed away in boxes to be moved to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Three weeks later Tou operations Manager, Darlene Schenk and I cleaned out an old filing cabinet containing tour information dating back to 1990.
During these two explorations of ASC history I came across many strange and wondrous things. Here are a few of my favorites.
1) Key rings
In the 1993 Midsummer Night’s Dream folder were three key rings. While there were no keys, each had a neon fob labeled “The Grey Ghost,” or, as one of the key chains proclaimed, “Grey Nissan Truck.” After asking around I discovered that “The Grey Ghost” was the nickname for the touring van back then.
Three of the drivers (actors in that year’s troupe) apparently decided to preserve their key rings for posterity. There were many things in the archive that made me ask “why did we keep this?” – including several scrawled-upon post-it notes and innumerable pieces of scrap paper. However, the key rings were by far the strangest. In an archive made composed mostly of paper, they really stand out.
2) Photos from yesteryears
Dr. Cohen, Jim Warren, John Harrell, Dr. Menzer… most people connected with the American Shakespeare Center know their names. I thought I knew their faces until my colleagues had to point them out to me in the many photos and DVDs we archived. For example, Mr. Harrell was once known as “John Chidester Harrell.” He also had long, curly, blonde hair. He is pictured in a 1992 article strumming away at his guitar, hair pulled into a ponytail, before a performance of Merchant of Venice.
Another favorite photo is of Jim Warren. He is in the background, giving a note to an actor. The photograph would not be remarkable if not for the fact that his hand is raised to scratch his nose, a habitual movement that survives to this day.
Not really. I found touring contracts. Early on, they are one page and very straightforward: what show, when, where, how much it will cost. Over the years the contracts grew and grew, going from one page to nine pages, and the performance fees increased exponentially. Building the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater may have had something to do with it, as it increased the company’s prestige and name recognition.
4) Thank-you notes
These were by far my favorite things to catalog. Lucky for me, there were (and are) hordes of them. The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express left in its wake happy teachers, ecstatic parents, and many a budding Shakes-nerd. One San Fransisco family rented the Emma Thompson Much Ado About Nothing after seeing the SSE’s production in 1994. The children were interested in “anything with Shakespeare,” but found the movie “much less enjoyable” than the SSE.
5) Letters from a Correctional Facility
Did you know that in 1994 the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express performed Taming of the Shrew for a prison? Dr. Thomas Berger of St. Lawrence University, a long time friend of the company, arranged for the SSE to perform for the inmates of the Riverview Correctional Facility in New York. According to Superintendent Barkley, Taming was reviewed in the inmate newspaper; unfortunately no copy of the review survives in our archive. The superintendent’s letters thank the SSE for their time and patience when dealing with the facility’s requirements. Apparently several props had to be changed, and the programs could not be given out because the SSE’s address was on the cover. “All in all,” writes Barkley, “the evening went smoothly and the audience enjoyed the production.”