Theatres are proud to display photos of past productions. They capture a fleeting moment, in what is an ephemeral medium, and convey a sense of history and continuity. But wall space limits what can be physically displayed. This is where the virtual space of the internet comes into its own.
The idea of a Little Theatre digital archive emerged at a conference, in 2015. But what would it consist of? Our theatre was established over ninety years ago, but the theatre had no centralised collection of memorabilia, and we didn’t know how many photographs of old plays had survived in private hands.
The first attempts to obtain material for the archive, were somewhat piecemeal: visiting libraries, looking online, raising the subject at meetings, and collecting from individuals. Pennine Heritage, at the Birchcliffe Centre, had a collection of Little Theatre photos donated by Lloyd Greenwood, a past member of the theatre, which provided a good starting point.
Further impetus to the project came when we organised a Reunion at the theatre in May 2016, resulting in a good turn-out of past members of the theatre, whose involvement stretched back 70 years. Frank Woolrych and Ann Kilbey, from Pennine Heritage, also attended, and brought with them a projector, to show Lloyd Greenwood’s photos, and a scanner to copy photos brought in on the day.
By now, we were beginning to collect a significant number of photos, programmes, etc. It needed someone to volunteer to process the material, so the author started to work a regular weekly shift at the Birchcliffe Centre, making use of their facilities, expertise, and generosity. There were hundreds, and eventually thousands of photos and documents to scan and photoshop.
The images are scanned at high resolution, and stored in the Pennine Horizons database. They are then converted to a smaller file size so they can be used on the website. Information about the images is appended, electronically, in the form of metadata.
The early photos were often without attribution, or misattributed, so a lot of painstaking detective work had to be undertaken. A second Reunion in June 2017, produced a large quantity of new material, and major contributions continue to come in. Most of the riddles have now been solved, as new donations answer outstanding questions about photos collected previously.
We have been able to showcase the archive, on our new website, set up in April 2016. In June 2017, the Timeline was launched (hblt.co.uk/timeline), in response to the growing quantity of material in the Archive.
The Timeline runs from 1924, when the theatre began, and lists every play produced, in each year since. If the play title is highlighted, there is an active link (to photos, a programme, or poster).
The work to populate the Timeline is ongoing. We hope to post the bulk of the images we have already found, in the next 3-6 months. The archive will not be exhaustive, however. There is less material for some periods: the early years, and the seventies and early eighties, are a bit lacking; but we hope to fill in the gaps over time.
In 2024, we will celebrate a century of performing plays in our local community, and we see the archive as an important record of this vital ongoing activity.