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