City University

13-14 Sept. 1985

Databases tor the Theatre

This one and a half day conferencette had been ingeniously timed to squeeze into a weekend separating the annual gatherings of two ot the three major international bodies to do with theatre research, namely SIBMAS (Societe Internationale des bibliotheques et Musees des arts du Spectacle); which was last week, and FIRI (Federation Internationale de recherches Theatrals) , which is next week. Consequently it attracted a rather more distinguished and cosmopolitan patronage than its subject matter miqht have lead one to expect. There were about a hundred delegates, mostly British or American, though with a sizeable number of German, French, and Scandinavians as well. More exotic presences included a lady from the Australian Arts Council, a Pole and a genuine Russian from Moscow. Most of those present appeared to be fairly senior staff from theatre museums, libraries or archives, having only a smattering of knowledge about computing, with a few notable exceptions.

Proceedings were held at Gresham College, which seems to be the nom de guerre of City University's Dept. of Arts Policy, this institution (almost literally) hangs out on the 12th floor of Frobisher Crescent, in the Barbican. 1 have never seen this monument to the power of money before, and was therefore quite impressed (if perplexed) by it.

The first day began after lunch with three demonstrations, the first, live from Munich, was of TANDEM, the current market leader in theatre databases. This is an EEC funded project, currently indexing all dramatic works performed in Germany since 1960, some 13,000 documents, as well as bibliographic data, this holds information about productions (the roles, performers, costume designs, instruments used, stage sets etc.). It uses STAIRS, and runs on an IBM 370 beionginq to the German Ministry of Agriculture. The demonstration was moderately impressive, if you've never seen a demonstration of STAIRS before. The second demonstration was live from City University New York, where a very similar U.S. project is going on, using this time SPIRES. The demonstration was dauntingly tutorial in nature, and again, impressive only if you've never seen an information retrieval system, circa 1965, in action. The database was about 6 Mb, of which rather more than half is taken up by index file. The third demonstration was live from the Barbican Booking Office and consisted of (a) a nice straightforward ticket-manaqement package for computerised box offices (it's called BOCS and runs on a PDP-11) and (b) a rather natty booking system tor use by both theatrical agents in search of gigs and theatre managers in search of acts, which runs on Prestel.

Suitably refreshed by this brush with reality, we then went back up in the lift to Gresham College for a swift Reception (wine, olives, peanuts). This proved to be remarkably convivial considering I hadn't met any of the people present before (except for Joe Donohue who claimed to remember me from Dartmouth nine years ago and stole one of my jokes for his speech the next day); perhaps theatre historians are friendlier than database specialists.

The second day consisted of three sessions, one on "International" (i.e. non-British) theatrical databases, one on the home-grown variety, and the third on whether the twain could ever meet.

Session one was inaugurated by a panel of distinquished Presidents and such like, making some fairly anodyne remarks about the virtues of international co-operation. Ian Herbert, orqaniser of the conference, also spoke, bringing to our attention the production of Cyrano de Berqerac to be screened by C4TV tomorrow, (though quite why I know not) and explaining that the purpose of theatrical databases was to pass on to future generations the theatrical experience.

Speakers were limited to ten minutes each: a good idea . Joe Donohue gave yet another update on the state of the London Stage Databank at the University of Massachaussets. This, currently using INFOL2 on the CDC Cyber, is now being moved to a Corona (IBM PC clone), attached to something called an Omega Bernouli Box -a sort of 20 Mb jukebox of floppies- and running Revelation. Donohue confidently averred that this would be compatible with everything else because it used ASCII. Susan Madrell from the Sydney based Arts Documentation Service of the Australia Council described a large collection of Australian press cuttings (about 57 k clippings) covering anything vaguely artistic and Australian since 1966. This is indexed by proper name, and a subject index is to be added from next year. They too have a PC, and use Wordstar and dBase II. It is planned to "download" the data to something called Ozzynet (spelling?). Didier Augustin from Metz described through an interpreter the Mirabel System, an online database of available play scripts, accessible via Transpac, the French answer to Prestel. Any French language play script (almost) can be archived at Metz, and its details (cast, plot, resources, category...) entered in the database. Of about 2500 plays currently held, 84% are unpublished. Augustin was very alarmist about becoming over-reliant on i.t.; perhaps the recent temporary collapse of Transpac due to overloading was at the back of his mind.

After coffee, the two major existing databases which had been demonstrated on the previous day got further exposure. Irving Brown (City University of New York) provided some background to the Theatre Research Data Center (TRDC) and its newly-published International Bibliography of the Theatre (IBT). TRDC had painstakingly established a taxonomy of theatrical terms and designed a Data Entry Sheet; data capture was by a team of about sixty voluntary unpaid field bibliographers or by co-operation with "other international projects" (i.e. TANDEM). IBT is computer typeset directly from the database, (but not as nicely as the Greek Lexicon), will appear annually and contains what its promoters clearly regard as a mind-boggling 1300 entries this year. Heinrich Huesmann (Munich) gave some more information about the political structure of TANDEM: it is EEC funded and is looking for national bodies with which to co-operate, co-operation consisting of the national body depositing its records with TANDEM and in return getting the right to use the database, this idea is clearly far too Teutonic and sensible over to work.

Over lunch I was button holed by an egg-shaped bookseller who had been sold a Gould running Oracle and was wondering what to do with it; this went on so lonq that I barely had time to qet my overheads in order before the afternoon session began. A succession of lady librarians described their varyingly interestinq cataloguing systems. Sarah Woodcock (Theatre Museum, London) was using, or planning to use, TANDEM for their very miscellaneous collection; she also used the Museum Documentation Association's forms, the Betjemanesque Jane Hatford Dunn (British Theatre Association) was also in transition to TANDEM. They have vast numbers of sets of plays for loan indexed to varyi ngly successful degree. I gave my standard soft sell for the Shakespeare database at top speed, which appeared to provoke stunned amazement. Judith Chapman (Resource Dance Centre at Surrey) use INFO on the Surrey Prime to index bibliographies of dance material. Gillian Hartnoll (British Film Institute) outlined plans to integrate several existing databases (the British National Film and Video Catalogue, the index to Sight and Sound, the Monthly Film Bulletin etc.) using Oracle on a cluster of four micro-VAXes. This sounded v. impressive.

The final session on integration, standards, how and why was a general free for all which had the occasional high spot, notably a statement from the editor of a Russian theatre magazine requesting articles on computerisation and a few terse comments from Professor Carlos Tindemans, vice president of the International Association of Theatre Critics who, introduced as a leading theatre semiologist, stated that he was in fact a semiotician and then sat down. Ian Herbert proposed a form of words giving himself a mandate to investigate the feasibility ot setting up a British Theatre Database which was passed on the nod and the proceedings broke up in good humour.