Curtain recall: Shakespeare & Company dusting off memories, upgrading archives

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LENOX — The story of the establishment, growing pains and proud triumphs of Shakespeare & Company is a page turner for certain. It's filled with grand visions, ghost stories, twilight and sword fights.

The only problem with putting all the details and perspectives of the company's history together is that, right now, the pages are all out of order. They're also documented on dated and aging materials like newspaper clippings, in notebooks and on VHS and cassette tapes.

But over the past year, a team of voracious, vivacious and vigorous volunteers — several with seasoned backgrounds in history, library science and museum studies — have swooped in to scoop up the task of piecing the company's foundation story back together and paving a path for the future by preserving more room for new stories to be told. The effort is formally known as the Oral History and Archives Project.

"It is an ever-expanding, multi-part project and we are just on the cusp of getting underway properly," said Shakespeare & Volunteer Company Gardening Team Leader Sarah Lytle. She's co-chairing with Shakespeare & Volunteer Co. President Sandy Bourgeois, a core team of 15 volunteers (down from an initial 22) to ultimately create and open to the public a vast digital archive and online database for anyone interested to explore.

Since June, the group members have divvied up tasks in poring over the contents of storage bin and boxes and corroborating the accounts with interviews with company staff, actors, costumers, groundskeepers and technical staff. Slowly but surely, they are connecting the dots and preserving the paper trail of the nearly 40 years of Shakespeare & Co. history.

Lytle said the interview and archiving process has been "familial and very personal" for all involved. "It's a fascinating bit of social anthropology. The people associated with the company have very deep, emotional ties to this place."

She and Bourgeois, along with volunteers Kristen Lochrie, Gail Kotler, and Leadership Team organizers Selina Morris recently came together to talk about their experiences in organizing the materials, learning how to digitize files for archives and learning how to ask the right questions to bring out the best stories about the company's highs and lows over the years.

Lochrie said company founder and artistic director, Tina Packer, after giving her blessing to the project, has been insistent that the archives remain transparent. "She said, 'I want to see the good and to bad and to see what was great ... to tell the whole story,'" Lochrie noted.

Lochrie has been an exceptional asset to the group, recently relocating to the Berkshires from Virginia. She is a trained archivist who has worked on digitizing the papers of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison George Washington and the like for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and its Documents Compass and Thomas Jefferson Foundation programs.

Both Kotler and Morris are retired librarians who joined the cause, knowing their expertise. They helped devise 12 categories of archiving information, ranging from "Vision, Method and Mission" to "Production," "Education," and "Actors." They tried putting Tina Packer into the latter category, but there was just too much information. So, she gets her own file.

They've already had their first active researcher, Bella Merlin, who played Nerissa in this summer's "The Merchant of Venice." Merlin teaches at the University of California, Riverside. Such interest motivates them to steam ahead even more.

The Shakespeare volunteers have also formed a partnership with Norton Owen, director of preservation for Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, which has a prolific on-site library and archives facility that is reflected and accessible through the dance company's website.

It will be some time before the Shakespeare Oral History and Archives Project gets that far. They're still finding materials scattered in the basements, garages and dusty filing cabinets on campus and in the homes of Shakespeare & Co. members, past and present.

Owen's proved to be an invaluable mentor, and has also instructed the group to develop and implement their project in manageable increments. The group's first major goal is to unveil the beginning of a proper Oral History Archive with recordings and transcriptions as a gift to the company on its 40th anniversary, just over a year away.

The group has mustered a budget, through some funds from the company and two unsolicited matching donations from the Volunteers' Leadership Team, for a total of $1,200. It's been enough to outfit a laptop with an external hard drive and extra memory cards, and to create a mobile archiving studio using a new digital recorder and headphones, and Dragon speech recognition and voice transcription software. Set-up support and training was volunteered by company technicians and the Information Technology Department.

Though days, months and likely years of hard work is still in store, the volunteers said the stories they've uncovered so far have affirmed their interest and commitment to the project.

Bourgeois said, "The mysteries of Tina Packers papers alone" could be worthy of a miniseries or multi-part play. She also described how, from 1978 to 2000, when Shakespeare & Co. was located a mile down the road at The Mount, the historic home of Edith Wharton, the company worked together much like a commune. There, the roles of painter and roofer were taken as seriously as Othello and Desdemona.

Lytle came across an account of how a psychic medium was allegedly once brought in to settle a dispute with then co-directors Packer and Kristin Linklater, to decide whether Shakespeare had developed his texts on his own or with collaborators.

"I think it's interesting to see what's changed over the years," said Kotler.

"I became fascinated with the grounds issues," she said. "The original founders and casts were like the original tree huggers ... when tress had to be cut down, it became a great debate among them."

Morris spent the summer interviewing a range of people, from company members who had been there for a range of 30 years to six months. "I have come away with such a respect for the actors ... especially in learning about the relationships amongst the early founders."

Morris, who started at the company as a volunteer usher said she's grown thoroughly impressed with the volunteers too.

"The personal knowledge the volunteers have extended for the benefit of this company is amazing," she said.


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