Theater Mitu: how NYUAD’s resident company is building an ambitious digital archive

NYUAD's resident company, New York ensemble Theater Mitu, has embarked on an ambitious project to digitally archive nearly 20 years of work. We find out why.

A technical rehearsal of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet at NYUAD Arts Center. Christopher Pike / The National
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The lights go out and sporadic commentary and laughter pepper the screening of a documentary of Theater Mitu’s first learning programme in southern India in 2009. Younger and more wide-eyed versions of some members of the audience look back from the white screen and address themselves.

As the film rolls, microphones pick up a discussion that’s remarkably open and freewheeling as it dissects why New York University Abu Dhabi’s resident theatre company first took a cohort of students and performers to India, what they learned about classical performance traditions and practice, and why aspects of this particular trip either flew or flopped.

The point of reliving the experience, stomach-churning illness and all, is to add colour and context to what will one day be a digital archive, complete with sound clips, containing 19 years (and counting) of the theatre company’s work. It’s a unique and ambitious project, the company’s founding artistic director, Rubén Polendo tells me.

While “digital humanities”, which aims to create dynamic and interactive points of access for scholars, students and other audiences doing research online, is an increasingly populated field, he says, digital arts and theatre, in particular, is lagging behind: “In theatre practice, there is this myth that once you make a theatre piece and it closes, then it is over and it is gone. This is true in terms of the performance but the fact remains there are many valid traces of the work.

“The obvious ones are video, photography and so forth, but perhaps the most interesting ones that I think we don’t celebrate enough are all the traces from the process and how the piece was made.”

The fact that Theater Mitu’s work is as much about researching international theatre practice and bringing this research into its performances means “in many ways we are complicated enough that it makes for an interesting conversation in terms of process,” he says.

Polendo hopes that the Theater Mitu archive will not only help to make the process of theatre-making more transparent but also provide practical insights. And that by giving the archive a creative and multi-faceted digital interface, audiences will be able interact more meaningfully with the company online.

“[The archive] is not necessarily about making an assertion of a quality of work; it isn’t saying, ‘this is the best company in the world’. It’s actually the ability to take a snapshot at a theatre company where everybody’s been working consistently for this amount of time.

“That alone is a piece of information that is very interesting: how we survive; how things happening in the world affected our work; how moves affect the company; what happens when technology enters the picture; how does a company’s work change? That alone justifies looking at Theater Mitu as a kind of test sample.”

But what makes Theater Mitu an almost perfect test sample, also makes the archive project a Herculean task. From printed scripts and collaborators’ notebooks to hard drives to suitcases of masks and costumes, not a scrap of evidence of the company’s diverse work has been jettisoned.

“It’s very funny,” Polendo says, as if to convince me. “In 1997, we have a production and we have 50 photographs which is delightful. By the time we hit 2012, we have 3,000 photographs.”

Polendo blames his undergraduate training in biochemistry for writing into the DNA of the company that they must save everything; a practice that could be seen either as safeguarding or hoarding.

Opening box upon box, and file upon file of physical and digital material has already taken 11 weeks’ hard work, overseen by archiving consultant Rishika Mehrishi. Each item has to be appraised for inclusion in the archive and indexed for cataloguing at a future date.

A timeline listing Theater Mitu’s performances, research trips, artist intensives, readings and laboratories, runs along one side of the room. There are piles of DVDS, shelves of folders, plastic gloves, masks and hand-cleansing alcohol rub to prevent further deterioration of handwritten and printed material. There’s even a board with different coloured highlighters stuck to it and labelled, to make sure everyone in the room is working according to the same methodology.

The process is forensic, anything less will make the goal of digitising the archive, and tagging its contents to make it dynamic and searchable online, impossible.

This project has been unlike any other says Mehrishi, who is used to working with professional archivists on historic collections that are run according to rigid protocols. It’s been an interesting experience – “a guerilla archiving project” – she tells me with a smile.

The fact that company members will be tasked with appraising, archiving, tagging and cataloguing future material means that Mehrishi also had to deliver a degree-level, crash course in archiving.

“It’s a storytelling process,” she says. “... Materials are not going to be locked up but are actually raw materials for future projects.”

For Polendo, as a “middle-aged professor”, looking back at his 24-year-old self and his aspirations for setting up his own company, the process to date has been both an intellectual exercise and an emotional journey. “It’s been a great way to assess our work and ask, how far have we come?”

The answer is, quite a long way. Polendo well remembers his graduate professor telling him that his dream of having a permanent international theatre ensemble was an impossible one. Looking back over almost two decades of proving his teacher wrong, he is “moved” and a little bit in awe of the “wonderful, naïve arrogance of these young people” who founded Theater Mitu. He says: “Those kids were badass.”

Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.