Archive Live: The Collected Works

In winter and spring 2016, The Museum of Performance + Design collaborated with the San Francisco theater collective The Collected Works to develop and perform a new site-responsive dramatic performance based on texts, images, recordings and more from our archive. The project brought together artists devoted to creating theatrical performances in non-traditional environments and a rare collection representing the rich history of the San Francisco performing arts. The collaboration presented an innovative response to bringing an archive to life while redefining the boundaries of theater-making and dramaturgy. 


During the first phase of the project, five artists from Collected Works explored the content of the archive and researched its collections. Each artist, guided by a self-assigned intention or question, studied texts from journals, correspondences, rare books, programs, unpublished manuscripts as well as sound and voice recordings and images. A selection of the material discovered by the artists was incorporated into a 10-hour live performance that utilized voice, projection, embodiment and space to give three-dimensional form to the material. The research/development and rehearsal period spanned five months, from January 2016 through May 2016. There were two consecutive 5hr-long public performances on June 18 and June 19, 2016.


The durational, site-responsive performances happened on two separate days and developed in five parts over five continuous hours each day with the five artists performing together at all times. Each artist was responsible for setting the lense a particular hour. When combined, the five lenses formed a script/or performance score. This score was performed live and in order on the first night and in reversed order on the second night. It wove five main narratives invoking histories, relationships, and places from the past. It also united the actors’ own performance, their interaction with each other, and with the audience. The performers brought these historical narratives to life and made them resonate with us in the present through humoristic, scientific, and dramatic approaches.


Some of the archival material used in the performance included the oral histories of Ruth Beckford (1995), Tom Ruud (1994), Remi Charlip (2000), Yurri Cachero, letters from Carrie Ackerman (1905) and Marcel Marceau (1960, 62, 80), a D. Robbins & Co ad (undated), vinyl recordings of Cole Porter (1934) and The Music Man (date unknown), The Story of Blackstone (date unknown), The Magic Man by Stephen Schwartz (1974), Othophony, or Vocal Culture by William Russell Ed. (1882). One performer/physician responded literally to the title Archive Live and collected specimens from the archive for culture then shared the results with the audience. She also cultivated bread yeast onsite within the environment of the archive.


The performance immersed the audience in an environment charged with history and gave them an extended and novel experience of words, sounds and images from the archive as re-invented and brought to life through the actors’ carefully directed speech, movement and site-specific block out. The performance revealed many of the poetics, politics and in some case absurdities found in the archive. One audience member echoed this feeling in an emailed sent to The Collected Works after the Saturday performance: “David and I were so pleased to join you for your performance of Archive Live on Saturday night.  You involved us in the feelings and lives of so many real people who reached out to us over years, decades, cultures and lifestyles. […] One of the feelings I kept having after I left the performance, and on into the next couple of days [was] a sense of having experienced a kind of history which is about the real lives of real people, their hopes, loves, disappointments, angers, all the things we want to feel from penned plays and often just don't” (Jade Jabrowsky, email June 21, 2016)


This project was funded in part by the Zellerbach Family Foundation and W & F Hewlett Foundation