Archive research

One of the aims of my project is to see whether stories that have a hidden, local, cultural significance, have a wider impact through performance. Diana Taylor believes that           ‘[p] erformances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory and a sense of identity…’ (Taylor 2004: 381). In order to create a ‘vital act of transfer’ I  have to access both the written archive of the Plymouth Hebrew congregation and gather alongside, living oral histories and memories that are so important to the creative mix of the dramaturgy. My first encounter with the archive was digital, via the website for the Plymouth and West Devon Records Office, this was easily accessible and by searching for the Plymouth synagogue I was presented with various options. It’s difficult to visualize whether certain documents will be necessary to view, as there is only a certain amount of information available on the page, along with a reference number. When in doubt take a note of the reference number I told myself. Once you are ready to proceed you can book yourself into the office for a morning, or a day, depending on the amount you will have to get through. I found this process relatively easy and I booked myself in and gave the office some reference numbers knowing that once there I could carry on accessing items I hadn’t previously asked for.

My experience, amongst the family tree researchers, was a very dry and unrewarding one. The hope that through all the newsletters, records of burials, letters of ownership, a nugget of something would shine through that would be the seed of a creative possibility, soon started to wane. Could it be that my ignorance of the culture was the one thing that was hindering my enjoyment of the process? If I were a member of the congregation looking for family members then my cultural references would be so much more in tune with my search. Was my lack of knowledge my downfall? I tried another tactic and went to the central library where, according to the Synagogue’s website, I would be able to access the Holcenberg collection- a trust, left by two sisters, for the buying of Jewish material for the library. I mistakenly believed it would be a collection of material relating to the synagogue here in Plymouth rather than generic books that have a Jewish theme or bias. Not only that, but there is no way of finding the books, no visual mark to show they are part of the collection and no list, logging book titles and authors. Thankfully the librarian knew of two separate items in the reference section. One, a leaflet style booklet that gave a brief history of the Jewish community in Plymouth; the second item, a large manila envelope that contained cuttings and other ephemera pertaining to the synagogue. This was a lot more enlightening; newspaper cuttings are always interesting especially if there is more of the page than just the article in question. Adverts for local shops or tradesmen can give such a picture into the period, the lay out of the advert, the typography and the clothes the people are wearing, can give an added layer to the complete research. This is not dissimilar to the research a dramaturg or actor themselves would do before rehearsals. Looking at the overall social and political times that a play is set in can create the larger world for the dramaturgy to develop.

Here, in this setting, it may subconsciously be steering me to a period that I would like to investigate. Having looked at the synagogue’s newsletter, and knowing that I can talk to some of the congregation, I was increasingly being led towards the decade of the sixties and early seventies. Then the congregation was in a healthy state and some of my contemporaries would be growing up, although, according to the synagogue newsletter the Digest magazine, in November 1964 it was noted that in over ten years the membership of the congregation had declined by 10%.

To be continued…


Taylor, Diane (2003) The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Durham & London: Duke University Press

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