Intangible Heritage & Oral History


The majority of the images on this page, showing Barry Kay working at various locations, are frames from a TV documentary about his career. Commissioned by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR-TV), Köln, Germany, the cinematographers and producers, Eila Hershon and Roberto Guerra, followed Kay around the world to film the sequences. They were shot during the years 1980 and 1981.

Capturing intangible heritage of the performing arts

A view from the perspective of a stage and costume designer


The objective of this essay is to outline how a theatre design archive charts intangible heritage and oral history related to the work of a designer, and how it transforms them into enduring records before they are lost forever. It addresses criteria of recording, specifies resources available, and describes means by which to meet the challenge of documenting the intangible and the ephemeral. In conclusion, the critical issue of falling into the trap of distorting or falsifying history by recording unverifiable evidence, hearsay and assumptions as proven facts stands in contrast to preserving the truth. A selection of examples, appended on the following page, demonstrates the scope an archive of this standing covers.

Since the definition of ‘intangible heritage’ encompasses such an immense spectrum of cultural expression within the realm of the performing arts alone, the following exploration shall be confined to how the Barry Kay Archive traces instances of its origin in interrelated tasks and events that were part of the working sphere of the late theatre designer, Barry Kay.

Criteria of recording

In our work on the increasingly expanding online publication of the Barry Kay Archive, housing Kay’s artistic estate, we are continuously confronted with meeting the challenge of transmuting intangible heritage – the ephemeral point of departure, the basis and essence of designing – into enduring records documenting its diverse influences on production designs and their progression.

Constantly aware of the requirement to remain proactive in pointedly enlivening our web publication beyond the mere inanimate recording of visual matter, we intend to relay what precedes and lies behind final designs and their presentation on stage. Invariably, the observer is neither going to realize nor ever to see any of the complex and lively processes of creation. Unless recorded in some way and made publicly accessible, they are undoubtedly destined to fall into oblivion.

Recordings of this nature cover a wide field and can be compiled from miscellaneous resources. For a designer, the major source consists of his archived graphic material describing first attempts of arriving at an idea or, as the case may be, its abandonment in favour of another approach, and the subsequent gradual progression of designing. There are all sorts of preparatory tasks and events taking place in the design process that provide insight into intangible heritage as antecedents to the development of realistically stageable design concepts. Another aspect influencing a designer’s tasks consists of taking into account any technical stage-related restrictions or obstacles that must be surmounted before an idea advances too far, only to be scrapped again.

Just as important is the charting of indicatory and decisive communications and interactions between the designer and, respectively, the director and the choreographer. The same applies to collaborations with theatre workshops. Once a in while, interchanges as these result in mutually inclusive influences on each other’s work that sometimes effect midstream changes. They in turn can significantly affect an entire production by determining its artistic direction completely different to what was initially envisaged. Thus, the route of progression of the various creative stages, leading to a final design and the eventual mounting of a stage production, are equally affected.

Clearly, without prudent and diligent recording of these criteria, intangible heritage would pass unnoticed to all but those involved. It undoubtedly is the awareness of such behind-the-scene happenings, of the varying individual aspects of anterior components, supported by their documentation, that most likely encourages general public appreciation of the complete dynamic Gesamtbild, the total picture, of designing for the performing arts.

Vital resources available to the Archive

The Archive’s foremost asset to illuminate intangible heritage comprises Barry Kay’s vast number of intuitive scribbles, sketches and preliminary drawings, including projected as well as relinquished designs illustrating his search for ideal solutions, and those that were shelved on account of aforementioned midstream changes. In themselves, they all bear witness to the design process, depicting its usually unseen mosaic of composite elements – closely connected parts undergoing several stages of sifting, selecting, transforming and amalgamating – before a final design takes shape.

We are quite fortunate to also be in possession of records testifying events involved in the design process. They prove to be exceptionally valuable when interlacing our online display with relevant enlightening background substance. Occasional diary entries and other personal notes by Kay allow us to reconstruct certain tasks and design procedures. Equally so, we can draw on a rich source of information provided by greatly revealing correspondence – some of it concerning design concepts, ideas and technical feasibility discussions, and others addressing requirements, complaints and disputes. We retain evidence of research, some of it immensely substantial, of the manufacture of artifacts and of occasional travel that Kay undertook to be inspired by specific geographic locations, indigenous habitats, garbs and utensils. There are a few photographic records, though not nearly enough, and lastly also some audiovisual material containing direct speech recordings, enabling us to demonstrate what lies behind the hard facts of final designs and their implementation on stage.

Oral history is another resource we can tap to map intangible heritage. It consists of knowledge and personal anecdotes directly consigned by Barry Kay himself to the Archive’s future Curator, as well as of annals and memorized data and incidents by the latter. Owing to his presence and assistance at various stages of Kay’s involvement in designing and overseeing the realization of his ideas at his studio, at workshops and, on a number of occasions, on stage too, he became a prime witness to intangible heritage unfolding, being the only one alive who is cognizant of a substantial array of these firsthand experiences.

Before oral history dissipates into thin air, it should of course be chronicled as long as individuals who possess this sort of unique knowledge are still around. Therein lies a challenge which to exploit to its fullest we are, admittedly, at a loss to meet. For an archive such as ours, privately funded and maintained solely in spare time, documenting the facts all at once would require a full-time engagement which to us constitutes an uncompensated and thus ill-affordable occupation. As regrettable as it may be, the only option left to us is therefore to implement accounts of oral history, step by step, as we continue to expand our online publication.

Why documenting valid proof is crucial

For millennia, indigenous peoples around the world have traditionally passed down oral history as an essential ingredient of intangible heritage. While the lore keeps their tribal rites, rituals and folk memory alive, the downside is the lack of provable evidence. Immortalizing oral tradition generation after generation without proof, unavoidably results – not unlike the ‘whispering game’ children play – in nothing less than the formation of legends. As these are enshrined as truth, the individual is left to unquestioningly believe them, which in the context of upholding tribal cultural heritage may not be of serious consequence.

But if we wish our records to be dependable without incurring adverse consequences, believing will never suffice. Records must be verifiable to prevent the distribution and circulation of incorrect actualities. Since the advent of writing, our advanced civilization is infinitely better equipped than a tribal society to efficiently preserve the intangible. Yet, the task of recording oral history within the performing arts – a challenge to responsibility – does not always escape the creation of myths either. Alas, the want of reliable sources of sound information tends to encourage annotation of approximations, if not inventions sometimes, in lieu of authenticity. Hence it is indispensable and only prudent that we provide genuine descriptions and not expect others, for whichever reason, to accept the contrary in good faith.

With regard to tracing intangible heritage, Barry Kay’s non-graphic material we hold at the Archive seems to indicate that stage designers generally neither attribute specific concern nor significant importance to consciously or calculatedly collect accounts of events and accrued preparatory activities to chart the ephemeral progression of designing. Apart from perhaps incidental notes and necessary communications in writing, which unwittingly represent part of such records, there are no signs of consideration having been given to capture such criteria to the benefit of posterity. Obviously, compiling instances of intangible heritage appears to be of little or no relevance to a designer who is focussing on getting the next job done to keep himself alive.

To a certain extent, circumstances as these pose a dilemma to biographers and chroniclers, particularly in the case of a deceased artist from whom no further data can be retrieved except those he left behind. Due to the shortage or the non-existence of pertinent information, they do not have much, many a time nothing at all, on which to rely in transforming intangible heritage into manifestly substantiated facts.

All the same, a designer’s incomplete, untraceable or altogether missing references to intangible heritage do not justify precluding their existence. The absence of documented proof, however, easily lends itself to proclaiming their existence in ways that do not accord with the facts. This we encountered with some professionals who wrote about Barry Kay and his designs. For the sake of filling gaps, articles and biographical notes have been partially written under incorrect and sometimes false precepts. On the one hand, they are based on mere speculations of events, on assumptions or unsubstantiated particulars, and on the other, on the lack of diligence, cursory research, or embroidered interpretations of fantasies derived from nowhere. Statements of this kind, purportedly founded upon correct references to intangible heritage, are in fact incorrect.

Apart from investigating authentic sources for general recording purposes, the key to avoid fictional documentation is of course to consult immediate contemporary witnesses of oral history. While this is of central concern, it does accentuate the aforenoted criterion, namely that bearers of oral history knowledge must be alive to relay eyewitness accounts of events as they really happened.

Conclusion and implementation

Considering that captured and preserved intangible heritage embodies lasting significance and value, for which reason it must correspond with the truth, we treat such knowledge strictly in accordance with academic standards. Doubts about any specifics should always be confessed. To safeguard against stating unverifiable facts adopted from external sources, it is wise, even essential, to cite the provenance of data, or not to mention such information at all. It is an author’s responsibility.

Because we are committed to accuracy, we distance ourselves from any publication whatsoever displaying a disturbing indifference to authenticity. Since our credibility rests on the quality of the information we provide, we are intent on remaining veracious in what we state. Not only that, but respect for Barry Kay, his artistic pursuit, as well as for all of those who are seriously interested in the métier of theatre design, demands precision of references. Distorting or falsifying history, whether intentional or not, is something we, as the authoritative patron institution representing Barry Kay’s artistic heritage, are at great pains to avoid, especially so, as it is evidently common practice to copy and thus perpetuate inaccuracies and mistakes ad infinitum.

In juxtaposing Barry Kay’s multitude of captivating drawings of both costume and sets designs with records of intangible heritage and accounts of firsthand knowledge of oral history, we are reconstructing in innovative ways the lively process of creation. The logging and preservation of the complexity of design progressions for the performing arts is our means of revealing to what extent intangible heritage can be transformed into enduring chronicles. This, then, may compensate for the ephemeral nature of stage presentations of designs and of theatre performances altogether.

Michael Werner

The Barry Kay Archive presented this essay along with the documentation of examples on the following page as a paper at the 27th SIBMAS International Theatre Congress in Glasgow, August 2008.