Six things you didn’t know about the Society for Theatre Research (and its archive)

The V&A Department of Theatre and Performance recently acquired the 70-year archive of the Society for Theatre Research, full of correspondence, minutes, reports, manuscripts, posters, press cuttings and other ephemera – revealing histories of the campaign for university Drama departments, the abolishment of theatre censorship, and the protection of our British theatrical heritage.

Assistant curator, Harriet Reed, shares some highlights from the archive and six things you might not know about the STR:

Exhibition poster for Guildhall Art Gallery, 1964, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

Exhibition poster for Guildhall Art Gallery, 1964, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

  1. The Society for Theatre Research (STR) was the first society in Britain championing scholarly research into theatre

The STR was founded in 1948, holding its first meeting at the Old Vic Theatre on the 15th June. It emerged at a time of post-Second World War investment in British culture, during which:

  • Theatre Notebook, the STR’s founding research journal was first published (1945)
  • The Arts Council for Great Britain came into being (1946);
  • The first British university drama department was formed at the University of Bristol (1946)
  • London County Council approved a site on the South Bank for a National Theatre (1948)

Its core aims were to educate the public in the knowledge and appreciation of British theatre, and to conduct and encourage research into its history, techniques, practices and participants.

First edition of Theatre Notebook, 1945, V&A Theatre & Performance Library

First edition of Theatre Notebook, 1945, V&A Theatre & Performance Library

  1. Its members included Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh

Membership of the STR is open to not just academics, but practitioners, students and theatregoers. In its early years it drummed up support from a who’s who of British theatre greats, including Terence Rattigan, Donald Sinden, Margaret Rutherford, John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans.

3.Receipt for membership for Lord and Lady Olivier, 1958, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

Receipt for membership for Lord and Lady Olivier, 1958, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

  1. It lobbied for a national repository for published playscripts at the British Library

The STR was involved in the creation of the Theatres Act of 1968, which abolished theatre censorship. As part of the legislation, the STR campaigned for an order to keep a national collection of published playscripts at the British Library. This order is still upheld by the British Library Manuscript Collections.

4.‘G. Deposit of Scripts’, the Memorandum for the Theatres Act 1968, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

‘G. Deposit of Scripts’, the Memorandum for the Theatres Act 1968, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

  1. It launched several modern-day organisations

The Society for Theatre Research has birthed several cooperative organisations over its tenure, including the International Federation for Theatre Research which was founded during the STR’s 1955 international conference. Britain’s current body for the protection of theatres was also a product of the STR. A sub-committee on theatre preservation led to the formation of the Theatres Advisory Council in 1962, which in turn evolved into the Theatres Trust.

5.Programme for the International Conference on Theatre History 1955, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

Programme for the International Conference on Theatre History 1955, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

  1. Its prize winners include Judi Dench and Alan Rickman

The Society for Theatre Research Poel Event began in 1952 to mark the centenary of the birth of William Poel, actor-manager and Shakespearean scholar. Its purpose was to give professional guidance and bestow prizes on drama school students for outstanding performances of early modern theatre. The event has now evolved into a workshop for professional actors.

Over the past 60 years the STR has awarded Poel prizes to several distinguished actors at early points in their careers, including Sian Phillips (March 1957), Judi Dench (May 1957), Henry Goodman (September 1971), Alan Rickman (May 1974), David Bamber (March 1979) and Ray Fearon (May 1991). It has also hosted several esteemed judges:

6.Letter from Anthony Hopkins regarding the Poel Event, 1985, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

Letter from Anthony Hopkins regarding the Poel Event, 1985, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

    1. It helped campaign for a national theatre museum

    Our patron saint and departmental founder Gabrielle Enthoven (of whom you can read more in a previous blog here) was also the first president of the STR. The uniform championing of a national theatre collection by Enthoven, society co-founder Ifan Kyrle Fletcher and its subsequent committees led to the forming of the British Theatre Museum Association in 1955. After several decades, a dedicated Theatre Museum run by the V&A opened in Covent Garden in 1987. The satellite museum closed in 2007 and in 2009 the Victoria and Albert Museum, London celebrated the opening of permanent Theatre and Performance galleries in South Kensington.

V&A invitation

Invitation to Eileen Cottis to the opening of the V&A Theatre & Performance Galleries, 2009, Society for Theatre Research archive [THM/472]

You can read more about the Society for Theatre Research here, and become a member here.

We are in the process of cataloguing the STR archive (reference: THM/472) which will soon be available to search on ArchivesHub.

One thought on “Six things you didn’t know about the Society for Theatre Research (and its archive)

Eileen Cottis:

Very well put together. I have some more stuff for you soon – Francesca is coming over to look at it next Saturday. Have I sent you mu list of the Research awards we have given? It has some interesting subjects. How an award for studying ‘disabled circus aerialists in Canada’ got on the list is not clear, and one had better not ask.

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