STAGE is set

(August 20, 1998 Gazette)
By Tracy Barnes

In 1992, Dr. Denyse Lynde, a drama specialist with the English department of Memorial University, and Gail Weir, performing arts archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, submitted a proposal to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada with a mandate to preserve the social and cultural heritage of the province through a collection of its performing arts material. Obtaining this grant of $15,000 for a three-year period, Dr. Lynde and Ms. Weir launched STAGE (the SSHRCC Theatre Archives Grant Enterprise), subsequently granting the wish of immortality to the history of the performing arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The original aim of the STAGE project, specifically designed to document the oral, written and visual history of the performing arts in Newfoundland and Labrador, was to hire university students for the summer months and have them travel throughout the province, interviewing people who were involved in both professional and/or amateur theatre.

Unfortunately, this first SSHRCC grant was not large enough to cover travel costs, accommodations and wages for the intended student travellers, and interviews were able to be conducted only in St. John's and Corner Brook.

Such a problem only roused the enthusiasm of Dr. Lynde and Ms. Weir, increasing their determination to gather theatrical anecdotes and materials from all across the province. So, in the next three years, as Ms. Weir took various self-funded trips around the province and part-time student workers continued to interview and acquire materials (programs, scripts, production notes, scrapbooks, set designs, etc.), the performing arts collection gradually grew. And as 30 student workers were employed over 60 semesters, approximately 19 linear feet of archival materials were collected and added to the Centre of Newfoundland Studies archives.

This year, the fourth year of the STAGE project, Dr. Lynde and Ms. Weir have finally been able to realize their original plan for STAGE. During the summer months, with the aid of a new SSHRCC grant, valued at $17,500, four university students, hired specifically for the STAGE project, have dispatched themselves to their home communities of Branch, Renews, Grand Bank and St. Brides. Each of them, armed with a standard set of questions, hope to conduct interviews with local people who have been involved with any and all aspects of the performing arts: school and church concerts, variety shows, high school dramas and locally written plays.

"Some people think that their programs and their scrapbooks are valuable only to themselves, but we know that's not true," says Dr. Lynde. "People are being alerted to the fact that the Archives are really there and that their papers are worth very much."

As each interview is conducted, the students will then transcribe their recorded information and return it to the university to be edited by Dick Buehler, a professor with Memorial University's English department.

"Because the students are young, sometimes they don't recognize the names of plays or people," said Ms. Weir, "so Dick edits the interviews, making sure that the names of plays and people are spelled correctly."

After passing through such detailed editorial procedures, all transcribed interviews and their corresponding materials will be placed within the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, easily accessible to visiting patrons. "Students have come and spoken to us," says Dr. Lynde, "saying how exciting it is to hear what their grandfather did, or what their uncle did, and the great stories that they told. It allows these anecdotes to be given to the community."

With the continuation of such a worthwhile project as STAGE, the performing arts collection has steadily increased in its value to researchers and to those who wish to re-stage productions. Said Ms. Weir, "Whether or not we'll ever finish, theoretically it could go on forever, I think we'll end up with a really good resource, one that will be beneficial to everyone (both researchers and performers)."

So with SSHRCC funding bulging in one hand and a loaded tape recorder held tightly in the other, all is to be fondly remembered and expertly preserved at the Centre of Newfoundland Studies archives. From the amusing anecdotes of an outport parish priest, to the bawdy humor of Christmas jannies, to the carefully rumpled programs of a retired high school drama teacher, the performing arts heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador will be rich fodder for many future reminiscence. For, in the words of Gail Weir, "It's not right or wrong, it's how you remember it."