ENHANCING “POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT”:
Special Collections Help History Come Alive for Theatre Students
Beth Kattelman, Curator of Theatre
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute
This past Spring Semester (2013) I collaborated with Dr. Jen Schlueter of The Ohio State University Department of Theatre to integrate primary resources from the Lawrence and Lee’s Theatre Research Institute (TRI) into the class “Vice, Status, Play: American Culture and the Popular Entertainment, 1820-1920.” The class examines key aspects of American popular performance and includes discussions of melodrama, minstrelsy, vaudeville, burlesque, Wild West shows, freak shows, and tent shows, among others. The TRI’s holdings are particularly rich in these areas, so I worked with Dr. Schlueter to target materials that would allow students to see archival documents supporting the subject they were covering each week. The class met twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, and for most of the term the Friday session was held in the Special Collections Reading Room. This allowed students to examine primary sources and to discover how these archival documents and ephemera from the period can unlock information that cannot always be gleaned from secondary sources. The students spent Fridays pouring over vintage programs, photos, broadsides, handbills, etc., pointing out things of particular interest to them and sharing observations with each other.
They were particularly interested in the advertisements that could be found in the playbills, as these gave an additional window into the cultural context surrounding the performances of the period.
During the semester the students perused 19 entire boxes of materials and 36 additional items from various TRI collections including The Charles H. McCaghy Collection of Exotic Dance from Burlesque to Clubs, The Fred D. Pfening III Collection, The Curtiss Show Print Collection, The Richard E. Teichert Collection, The Armbruster Scenic Studio Collection, The Harmount Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company Collection and The Joel E. Rubin Collection.
The class not only fostered knowledge about the way in which primary sources can unlock new discoveries, but also gave students a comfort level in using special collections to support their own research. Several of the students used TRI collections throughout the semester, and one based her final project on TRI’s extensive holdings related to Elsie Janis, a Columbus-based actress who became an international star in the early 1900s.
Images from student presentation on Elsie Janis
At the end of the semester we distributed a questionnaire to the students to gather their responses to the class and to see whether they found the incorporation of TRI materials useful and effective for enhancing their learning. Filling out the questionnaire was voluntary and all responses were anonymous. From the fourteen students enrolled in the class, we received twelve completed questionnaires. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and included such comments as:
“Without a doubt, the primary source materials were a very significant help. Hearing about a famous celebrity isn’t the same as seeing brochures, picture and advertisements. It really brings a character to life.”
“The chance to come and interact with materials from the time period we had just learned about was a fascinating way to engage the history.”
“I thought the TRI helped bring the readings to life. I would take another class that implemented this technique.”
“People are so weird. Seeing the non-sequiturs of history pop up – i.e. “Jocko” the $50,000 crow! – is just absolutely delightful
This class was supported by a Course Enhancement Grant; these are grants given by the University Libraries to foster collaboration between librarians and departmental faculty members. To date, Course Enhancement Grants have been used to support a wide variety of projects, class structures and formats. Dr. Schlueter and I found the format we used for this class particularly fruitful and we plan to use it again the next time the class is offered. We are also looking into the possibility of using this as a model for incorporating TRI collections into other theatre history classes. Structuring the class this way certainly enhanced engagement with the material and opened up possibilities for interactive learning among the students. Dr. Schlueter and I consider this class a success and are happy to have been able to introduce our students to this type of research and to open their eyes to the unique items that can be found among the wealth of resources available to them here at The Ohio State University Libraries.