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(Interview with Jack Wolcott, continued)
JRW: Before this research had run its course, students, faculty and staff had completed the three-dimensional model of the Chestnut Street Theatre building. We had also produced a laser disk on which had been recorded several hundred examples of men's and women's clothing from the period from the Textile Collection; theatrical costumes which closely resembled the examples from the Henry Gallery Textile Collection; images of nearly one hundred pairs of shoes from the period; more than 75 examples of women's shawls from the period, supported by a richly interactive tutorial on shawl weaving and production; images of all the primary evidence relating to the theatre and its environs.
And eight short "scenes" in which actors, wearing historically accurate clothing, performed in period settings. These eight scenes were the product of a video technology called chroma-key, in which actors can be electronically "inserted" into a background. Our backgrounds were an early 19th century British toy theatre, for which we had more than a dozen beautifully colored settings. These short performances enabled students to understand what it meant to wear 19th century clothing, how it restricted movement and how it could be used by an actor for effect.
People often ask why we didn't develop all of this research into a marketable package. It would be too easy to observe that much of the material was privately owned, and the owners -- especially the museums - were reluctant to have their artifacts reduced to electronic images. The true answer lies in the metaphor of passage through a landscape. Explorers are not exploiters: Lewis and Clark traversed the North American landscape; John Jacob Astor exploited it.
L.C.: So you abandoned The Philadelphia Project?
JRW: After four years, The Philadelphia Project outlived its usefulness as a teaching tool and, quite frankly, those of us who had worked on it from the beginning were becoming bored.
L.C.: What had you learned from it?
JRW: I think the most important lesson learned was that hypertext could be used to link the research efforts of many scholars into a coherent study. During the third year of The Philadelphia Project we had scholars contributing research in architecture and the building trades, clothing, the theatre as a socio-economic institution in post-Colonial North America, demographics and cartography. Working alone, or in small groups, these researchers were not guided by the outline of a grand scheme. Their only stricture was that they must carry on research which related to the period of the Chestnut Street Theatre, 1794 to 1820, when the theatre burned to the ground.
Much of the fourth year of the project was taken up with discovering internal textual and graphical links. Often, new text had to be created to support the links. A good example of this can be seen in what happened when we introduced the study of shawls and shawl-making into the study.
Shawls were an important socio-economic signifier. To wear a handmade Kashmir shawl was to signify great wealth; to wear a factory made shawl bespoke less affluence. The demographics of theatre seating depended upon wealth, social status and race. Hypertext threads developed in The Philadelphia Project that linked the drawings of the theatre to the demographic and cultural information. You could click the computer mouse on a portion of the theatre - the top gallery, for example - and find yourself linked to an essay that itself contained links to shawls, an essay on freed slaves living in Philadelphia, an essay on prostitution and drunkenness, and to maps of the city.
L.C.: How did The Philadelphia Project lead you to The 19th Century London Stage?
JRW: Well, in the course of working on The Philadelphia Project, we were criticized for not having included dramatic literature - plays - in our exploration. Plays were important, but like Lewis and Clark, we were exploring river systems, not mountain ranges. We saw the importance of plays every day, but opted not to include them in our study.
Then in 1994, Elizabeth Fugate, head of the School of Drama Library, brought to our attention a virtually untouched collection of 19th century British dramatic texts. These had been purchased by the library over a period of more than forty years, the earliest published in 1810, the most recent in 1885. There were more than 1800 texts in the collection.
A new landscape lay before us. But how to traverse it? To start, I drew on my undergraduate and graduate students again. I was teaching a ten week long class dealing with theatrical scenery, machinery and performance. I explained to the 30 students in the class, and to my doctoral students as well, that these texts were unexplored. Many did not appear in current theatrical bibliographies. Would each student agree to fill out a bibliographical survey of 50 plays, I asked, and write detailed annotations of the five plays they found most interesting. Everyone agreed enthusiastically and, to my delight, had completed the project by the seventh week of the class.
The University provided funds which enabled me to hire two students to create a computer database of the plays. In addition to the obvious database fields such as "Title" and "Author," there were fields such as "Place of Performance," "Location in which the play takes place," "Topic of the play" and "Cast List." This information was available from the student bibliographic sheets. It took nearly a year to create and check the database, a collaboration between students and the library staff.
What I have been describing is mechanics, of course, but necessary nevertheless. The database gave us a mechanism with which to classify and group the texts. Working in pairs, the doctoral students began examining texts grouped by topics that appeared to be central to many of the plays: "Domestic Life"; "Life in the City of London Theatre"; "Money, Commerce and Labor"; and the theatrical life of William Thomas Moncrieff, a popular playwright whose work appeared in many of the 19th century playhouses.
Rather than use the hypertext program we had used for The Philadelphia Project, we decided to work with HTML on an intranet website, literally a website that only operated within my laboratory. Once the material was ready to be shared with other scholars, we would port it to the WWW. All of the research source files were made available to each of the scholars working on the project. Every Monday, each team entered all of its findings from the preceding week, and linked this new data to pertinent parts of the other files. Consequently, the website was continually a "work in progress." At any time, one might recognize the need for an internal, or perhaps an external link and add it to the ever-growing structure. And everyone's research, in a sense, "belonged" to everyone else.