Royal Court theatre launches digital archive of every play performed there

The Royal Court has launched a free digital archive of every play performed at the London theatre since 1956 as a resource for writers, directors and members of the public.

Almost 2,000 plays by more than 1,000 writers are accessible on the theatre’s Living Archive, along with lists of their casts and directors.

Vicky Featherstone, the Royal Court’s artistic director, said: “Theatre is so ephemeral, so experiential, and that’s one of the most incredible things about it. That’s why we are addicted to live [events] and why I never fear it will go away.

“But the Royal Court today stands on the shoulders of giants. The knowledge of earlier writers and the plays that have gone before feeds into the craft of today’s writers.”

George Devine, the co-founder and first artistic director of the English Stage Company, which became the Royal Court, wanted a writers’ theatre and pledged to discover “hard-hitting uncompromising writers”.

He placed an advert in the Stage in January 1956 calling for scripts and received more than 700 submissions. Among them was Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, a play expressing the frustration of young people in the 1950s that had been rejected by Laurence Olivier, Terence Rattigan and Binkie Beaumont.

It became the first play to be performed at the Royal Court, to empty houses and mostly negative reviews.

Other writers that have been nurtured by the Royal Court over nearly seven decades include Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Wole Soyinka, David Edgar, Mary O’Malley, Hanif Kureishi, Sarah Kane, Jez Butterworth and Mark Ravenhill.

The theatre actively encourages new writers. It considers more than 2,000 unsolicited scripts each year, hosts writers’ groups and develops relationships with writers around the world.

The Royal Court’s physical archive is held by the V&A, but Featherstone has wanted to create an easily accessible digital archive of works performed at the theatre since she became artistic director 10 years ago.

“Writers often ask about earlier plays at the Royal Court. Now anyone will be able to access all of them with the click of a button,” she said.

“The Royal Court has always been about writers, and it’s clear that new generations of writers are influenced by the writers of the past. Their works shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Initially, about 100 of the 2,000 plays are accompanied by a synopsis and are searchable. Seven, one for each decade of the Royal Court’s existence, are enhanced with extra content such as interviews and reviews. There is space for users of the archive to contribute, for example by offering a programme to be digitised.

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“It is open, accessible, exciting and will challenge traditional notions of archives,” said Sula Douglas-Folkes, the lead researcher and project coordinator.

The archive was “designed to inspire writers, theatre enthusiasts and creatives to engage with our past and in doing so to ignite the creation of new and meaningful work”. It would “preserve and celebrate our unique theatrical legacy,” she said.

Initial funding for the archive has come from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Royal Court plans to raise more funds from donations and sponsorship to develop the resource.

Featherstone is stepping down as the theatre’s artistic director at the end of this year. “I’m really sad to go because this place is absolutely addictive. There’s always been something new and challenging over the past 10 years, it has never become like a hamster wheel.

“But it’s about giving the next generation and the next conversation an opportunity. And the archive is an amazing last thing to do.”


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