If you have some form of interest in theatre, whether you’re actively involved in making it or a spectator, then it is likely you’ve often wished to see a past production you missed for some reason. Now imagine for a moment there were a place one could visit where they have recordings of past National Theatre productions, their respective programmes, production notes and the entire prompt script for productions spanning decades. What if this place were open to anyone by appointment? It exists. It’s the National Theatre Archive.

Located next door to the Old Vic theatre by Waterloo station in London sits the National Theatre Studio, a building which houses a tiny archive, a veritable mine of past production knowledge. You arrange your appointment by way of a form on their website. All you need supply is your area of interest and which productions you’d like to have a look at. You’ll be given a choice of times which you then confirm. When you arrive you tell reception you’re there to visit the archive, you sign in and get taken to the second floor. The room you are shown to is an L shape. There are large iMacs on several desks in a row alongside the window and a huge table. You’re then shown which desk you will be using; it will have large grey cardboard folders for each production you’ve asked to look at that contain all manner of notes. You’re then left to watch, if possible, the production on the computer and make whatever notes you require. Of course you’re not allowed to take any photographs and photocopying has to be done on site, costing 20p per page.

When I last visited I spent a day there. Arriving early in the morning I started my day by looking at Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Frankenstein. There were three large folders of production notes, set designs and even director’s notes leading up to the opening night. The amount of detail preserved is fantastic, from costume measurements to how they managed who would play who if certain cast members were ill. I was then able to watch both versions of the production, the lead actors playing Dr. Frankenstein and the creature in tandem, making it easy to take notes on the differences and similarities. Being able to mark the subtleties in their performances was of particular interest to me both as an actor and director, and would have been extremely difficult without the archive.

I then spent the rest of the day watching portions of Nicholas Hytner’s Hamlet, Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and her Children and Katie Mitchell’s …some trace of her. The information included with …some trace of her was amazing: storyboards, screen shots and the original text. Of course productions that had a NT Live! screening have better quality recordings, though the 2009 recording of Mother Courage was from a camera at the back of the auditorium, and everything could be seen and heard perfectly well. Also available are recordings of most NT Platform events.  A space where you can immerse yourself in a past production to absorb additional knowledge is invaluable to any theatre practitioner and I urge you to go.

Photo by Flickr user Dimitry B under a Creative Commons licence.