Performing Arts: WAPAVA Builds a Performing Arts Archive

by Editorial

Capturing the history of Washington’s performing arts scene as it unfolds, WAPAVA is a small organization building a huge legacy.

By Julie LaPorte

Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library. Photo by Julie LaPorte.

Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Photo by Julie LaPorte.

Jim Taylor decided at age 50 to give up his work as an urban planner to dedicate his time and energy to the local theatre scene. In 1993 he founded Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA), one of only two organizations in the country with permission from Actors’ Equity to record and archive digital copies of professional performing arts productions. Although Taylor passed away in 2005, WAPAVA remains committed to his vision of building a Washington performing arts archive as an educational and artistic resource.

“WAPAVA records professional Washington theatre productions,” said Stephen Jarrett, President of the Board. “We record productions at large theatres as well as small and emerging companies. We try to make the archives reflect a cross-section of Washington professional theatre and not just record shows from established venues.”

Working with an advisory board made up of actors, passionate theatre-goers and academics, WAPAVA’s executive board creates a list of shows to record each season based on merit and interest. Each single camera, one-take recording of a production requires the videographer to make three trips – the first to become familiar with the show, the second to rehearse through the lens and the third to shoot the performance.

Jarrett describes the organization as “an anonymous, backstage organization. Against the odds, we are still around and growing.” The economic recession has, of course, hit everyone; but small organizations like WAPAVA that rely in part on donations from local theatre patrons, have had to be resourceful in finding funding. A recent grant from the National Endowment for the Arts is allowing them to record 24 additional productions at small and emerging venues that otherwise couldn’t afford the cost of production.

“The greatest value of the archive may be scholarly,” Jarrett said. “Jim started shooting shows in 1993, and we just shot show number 585. If we remain on track, in ten years we should have more than 1,000 videos of Washington professional shows – an archive of non-New York professional productions. That’s 25 years showing the changes in productions, changes in personnel, changes in approach.

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It could be of great interest to scholars. And not just people interested in Washington theatre. Washington becomes a stand-in for any other theatre city outside of New York.”

The main archive, renamed the James J. Taylor Collection, is housed at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland. There are also copies of every DVD at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown. The DVDs cannot be checked out, so visitors watch them on large screen televisions with headphones, and the picture and sound quality are quite good.

“There are a lot of people who sincerely believe that the ephemeral nature of theatre is one of the best things about it,” said Jarrett. “And the fact of the matter is that a recording will never have the entertainment value of the theatre piece itself. It takes a fair amount of sophistication to watch a videotape of a play and to have an idea of what the play was.

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It’s something for informed people. But we at WAPAVA think it’s of extraordinary value to have a record, a moving photograph of productions long gone. In ten years, do you want to take the word of critics or do you want to look at the show itself and come to your own conclusions of what the show is worth?”

For more information about the organization and to find out how to view the collection, visit WAPAVA.

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