From esteemed Library Archivist Mary Brown:
New Research Resources from Marymount Manhattan College’s Archives
Marymount Manhattan College’s archives is digitizing William B. Harris’s performing-arts reviews, a gateway into his private collection of theatre memorabilia and into the downtown scene before gentrification.
“Billy” Harris was a freelance dance and theatre critic active from the 1970s until his unexpected death in July 2000. He saw much that was happening in the performing arts world in the last quarter of the last century and he saved much of it: newspaper clippings of other people’s reviews, the advertising that came his way, programs, and even some scripts. At the time of his death he had over five thousand files, arranged by playwright. A friend of Billy’s steered the family to depositing the collection at Marymount Manhattan College. Later, another friend deposited her collection of Harris’s reviews.
Currently, theatre students are the Harris Papers’ most frequent users. One of them was excited to spot a former MMC adjunct theatre professor and the author of a popular book on improv, Dan Diggles, in an early role.
More seriously, students use the Harris Papers to research performances. When the Nobel Prize Committee announced Austrian playwright Peter Handke had won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, students went looking for performances of his plays. It turns out that Harris saw an early English-language performance, of Handke’s Self-Accusation, in 1978, and saved the program, a mimeograph that may now exist nowhere else in the world.
Harris’s review and the mimeograph open up a world beyond that one night at the theatre. The documents indicate the Brooklyn Bridge Threatre Company produced the play. The Brooklyn Bridge Threatre Company has no Internet presence. Its history will have to be mined out of sources such as these. The venue for the performance was Saint Clement’s, which, the program indicates, is on Manhattan. It turns out Saint Clement’s does have an Internet presence (http://www.stclementsnyc.org/), and from its website we can pick up further clues. It is the third-oldest off-Broadway venue in New York. It is also an Episcopal Church in the theatre district. The way is now open for choose-your-own-adventure research. How long has St. Clement’s been an off-Broadway venue, and how did that develop? What’s the relationship between the Episcopal Church—or the Christian religion—and theatre?
The archives is working toward putting together a research project of its own. All of Harris’s reviews note where he saw the performance. The first steps in research was to map those addresses on a modern map and to go see them as they are now. Consulting the Harris Papers indicates what Billy Harris saw when he was there. Other sources help fill in the narrative of how the building of the past became the one of the present. MMC’s library has a good collection of books on New York City, its ProQuest provides access to back issues of The New York Times, its Nexis Uni database provides access to back issues of other papers, and the New York City Department of Buildings and Department of Finance have much data on individual buildings. This process uncovered many intriguing individual stories, such as how the creators of Hedwig and the Angry Inch chose a nearly vacant hotel as a suitably grubby venue for their production. The building had started as a charity, a low-cost hospice for sailors; the decline of the shipping industry reduced the numbers of sailors needing such service. Hedwig raised interest in the building, and led to new owners and a new life as the boutique Jane Hotel.
Building by building, a story develops. In the 1970s cash-strapped performing artists and owners who could find nothing else to do with their buildings cut deals. Performers took spaces within buildings rather than whole buildings. They rented by the weekend rather than by the month or year. They made do with poorly maintained property. Their performances introduced the audience to a neighborhood where they might invest, open a business, or live. Today, emerging performing artists find themselves priced out of as former performance spaces become apartments, shops, and more established cultural attractions.
The archives is creating a unique Google map that will identify the places where William Harris saw a performance. Walkers will be able to open the map on their own devices, and can plot their own routes for getting from one to another. They can open documents that describe Harris’s experience in the theatre at that venue, and then how the venue has changed to the present day.
The digital copies of Harris’s reviews may very well spark other kinds of research. To get started researching William Harris’s reviews, go to https://www.mmm.edu/live/files/97-harrisguideaddendumpdf, the finding aid for the part of his collection that contains the reviews. There, you can scroll or use Control + F to search for particular dates, playwrights, plays, and venue names. You can email the archivist, Mary Brown, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and she can email a review back to you. Still not digitized, though, is Harris’s massive file of clippings, programs, advertisements, and theatre memorabilia. Again email Mary to set up an appointment, and get yourself some unique primary sources for your research.
Thanks to Mary Brown for this info and ongoing project! Thanks for reading, keep being kind, have a safe Halloween weekend.