By SUSAN MANUS
A landmark theater collection from the 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) has completed the long journey from paper-based archives to a place in cyberspace.
Although this Music Division collection is of great cultural import in its own right, it has also served as the basis for research and development in multifaceted digital archiving at the Library. This work was a joint project between IBM and the Library's Information Technology Services.
The production of this site involved several unique digitizing methods, all coordinated through the Library's National Digital Library (NDL) Program and the Music, Information Technology Services and Conservation divisions.
The Federal Theatre Project was part of the vast U.S. government emergency relief program in the mid-'30s, called the Works Progress Administration. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), along with the Federal Music Project, the Federal Art Project and Federal Writers' Project, provided employment to many otherwise out-of-work artistic professionals from 1935 until 1939. (A report on the Federal Theatre Project collection ran in the Feb. 6, 1995, issue of the LC Information Bulletin.)
The "New Deal Stage" site features three productions chosen to emphasize the breadth and quality of material in the FTP collection; two of these involve Orson Welles, Macbeth (by Shakespeare; this production being one of several FTP versions of this play) and The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (by Christopher Marlowe): another, Power (by Arthur Arent), represents the Living Newspaper genre.
The 21-year-old Welles collaborated in 1936 with producer John Houseman to direct a "voodoo" style version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, which was set in Haiti and featured an all-black cast. The response to this alternative version of Shakespeare's play was apparently overwhelmingly favorable. As stated in Free, Adult and Uncensored, "The spectacle brought the Broadway patrons and critics to Harlem in droves. After a seven-month New York run, the play went on a nationwide tour."
In the Civilization magazine article "The Play That Electrified Harlem," Wendy Smith wrote, "For all its individual brilliance, the voodoo Macbeth was fairly representative of American theater in the 1930s, a decade whose passionate political debates and general sense of a world gone dangerously awry -- whether you identified the danger as coming from fascist Germany, communist Russia or the capitalist West -- seemed to find their most fulfilling artistic expression in drama." (This article is also featured on the "New Deal Stage" Web site.)
Another prominent FTP play featured on this Web site is Dr. Faustus, with information listed for eight different productions. The best known of these is the 1937 New York production with the same powerhouse combination of director Orson Welles (also featured in the title role) and John Houseman as producer. Welles's Faustus was made all the more spectacular by the artistry of lighting director Abe Feder. This can be seen in the featured photo images for the online collection, which vividly portray the drama of this highly successful production.
Speaking of this production, Hallie Flanagan, director of the FTP, says in her book Arena, "Going into the Maxine Elliot [Theater] during rehearsals was like going into the pit of hell: total darkness punctuated by stabs of light, trapdoors opening and closing ... explosions, properties disappearing in a clap of thunder; and onstage Orson, muttering the mighty lines and interspersing them with fierce adjurations to the invisible but omnipresent Feder."
Arent's Power, true to the Living Newspaper style, aimed to inform as well as entertain the audience, in this case on the subject of the public ownership of utility companies. According to the Music Division's Walter Zvonchenko, "these were not plays in the conventional sense, they were more like episodes. As there was usually no closure to these stories, they could conceivably go on forever."
The "New Deal Stage" Web site features extensive production information on the three featured plays and includes listings of individual productions by city. From this overall listing, information on a specific production can be accessed, which includes location of the theater, lists of cast and production crew and of the online images for that production. These images may include playbills, musical scores, photos of the performances and posters.
Testbed for Three Technical Efforts
The online collection is the result of three interwoven technical efforts: a special demonstration of high-resolution pictorial imaging, a demonstration of imaging approaches for manuscript documents and the creation of an electronic finding aid.
The first of these three efforts took the form of a partnership with IBM, which furnished hardware and software to digitize the most challenging types of pictorial materials: color costume sketches complete with fabric swatches, damaged photographic negatives, large posters and bound volumes. IBM specialists worked with the Library to develop approaches for resolving the technical and intellectual issues that invariably arise in a complex digitizing project.
Library staff members produced more than 2,000 digital images from the three featured productions using IBM's prototype high-resolution scanning system. This scanner is an overhead digital camera as opposed to a more typical tabletop version, and has been used to create digital images of rare materials at other major cultural institutions around the world, such as the treasured manuscripts at the Vatican Library and for large photographs of the European art in the collections at Washington's National Gallery of Art.
The partnership with IBM served a dual institutional purpose. IBM's Image Application Group was able to fully study image processing in an archival environment and to continue to evaluate its equipment. At the same time, the Library was able to test advanced scanning technology to create digital images of the highest quality while fostering in-house expertise in this area.
One feature of the effort entailed imaging many of the deteriorating photo negatives in the FTP collection. The digital camera succeeded in making excellent images of these negatives that were often warped or buckled, serving the goals of both preservation and access.
The second technical effort for the "New Deal Stage" site produced images of a wide variety of manuscript documents in the Federal Theatre Project archives. The examples in the current online presentation include playscripts from two additional productions featured in the collection, Sheridan's The Rivals and Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. This was accomplished through another testbed project, the Manuscript Digitization Demonstration Project, which was co-sponsored at the Library by the Preservation Office and the NDL Program. A consultant, Picture Elements Inc., was hired to scan the original documents using a tabletop scanner and sophisticated software. The goals of this project were to determine what would serve as "preservation quality" as well as "access quality" images for typical manuscript documents, as well as to study speed of digital conversion.
In the future, more playscripts from this part of the project will be added to the online collection. This study to define image specifications will serve as a prototype for future manuscript collections at the Library.
To view these documents online, there are two types of "image navigation" in place: for playscripts and playbills, a digital "page-turning" unit is provided so the user can page through a document as if it were a book. For pictorial images, the user can utilize lists of titles and small "thumbnail" images that can then be "clicked" onto for larger full-screen images.
The third technical effort was actually the first to reach the public: the collection register, or finding aid, which, at more than 300 printed pages, is the largest finding aid on the Library's Web site and includes the entire FTP collection, not just the online materials. This was accomplished through the collaborative efforts of the NDL Program and the Music Division, and involved a months-long markup process using Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), the method for encoding content-rich documents for the Web. Due to its size, there were some preparation issues unique to this document; for instance, marking up the very large segments of text involved a combination of WordPerfect, an ASCII editor and special SGML editing software, Author/Editor.
This SGML version of the finding aid permits researchers to perform detailed searches within each document and therefore to quickly pinpoint subjects of interest. Information in finding aids is categorized -- not unlike the Yellow Pages of a telephone directory -- and the SGML coding enables a researcher to browse through the document and see how the components of the collection fit together. Specifically, the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) was used as the SGML implementation for the Federal Theatre Project finding aid, as it has been for all of the Library's online finding aids.
Additional background information on this project and the technical issues involved can be found on the "New Deal Stage" Web site under the heading "Digitizing the Collection."
The combined efforts of many staff members made it possible to produce this online study of a unique period in U.S. history. The Library staff participants included David Arbury, Debra Fulmore, Susan Manus, Jon Newsom and Walter Zvonchenko (Music Division); Denis Armbruster, Jane Mandelbaum and Dave Woodward (Information Technology Services); Morgan Cundiff (Music Team Leader/NDL Program); Carl Fleischhauer, Andrea Greenwood and Glenn Ricci (NDL Program); and Anne Seibert (Conservation).
Noting the site's potential educational impact, Music Division Chief Jon Newsom said, "It will introduce many people to a rich period in American history that is virtually undocumented anywhere else."