The Future of Theatre

Look back to look forward

By Dr Katheryn Johnson

Theatre is about the moment, the live event, the THIS NIGHT ONLY spectacle. But over time those moments add up to make a history that is personal and unique to each theatre. The Northcott’s identity is about its stylish, hip opening in 1968, and its decades of community and youth productions, as well as what’s showing tonight and tomorrow. This is why the theatre archive is so important – from photos to press clippings to posters and scribbled notes – this is where the theatre’s life story is found.

Front of House, Opening Night, 2 November 1967, Copyright N Toyne
A photo of the Northcott's mural by Dave Bain

I started working as a curator with the Northcott archive, which is preserved by the University of Exeter, in Spring 2021. In collaboration with Palma Studio and mural artist Dave Bain, we transformed the Northcott foyer with a large wall mural that celebrates the community behind the theatre – from stage hands to audience members, to fairy godmothers. More archive material features in the 3 minute light and sound show that brings the mural to life every evening. Together with a commissioning circle of community members and heritage manager Sophie McCormack, I am now shortlisting two artists who will continue the exciting work of bringing theatre stories from the archive and community to light in 2022.

Delving into the archive in this way, you find gaps and troubles as well as treasures. Sometimes what’s not there is as telling as what is. The theatre is not a museum, but how and what it collects and archives will shape its future as well as define its past.


Panel Event and Q&A

This December, the archive’s commissioning circle of local community representatives hosted an event asking “What would we like the theatre archive to contain in 50 years’ time?” to imagine and plan for what comes next. They were joined by curator Katheryn Johnson, archivist Caroline Walter and theatre curator Keith Lodwick. Together they discussed questions such as why theatre archives matter, what has been collected since the theatre opened, and how might this change in the future?

You can re-watch the event now.

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