Ashley Williams, project librarian at ECU's Joyner Library, displays some of the materials being catalogued from hundreds of outdoor theaters for an online inventory. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

ECU project catalogues items from hundreds of outdoor theaters

Jan. 22, 2015

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

East Carolina University archivists are in the middle of a yearlong project to catalogue everything from film reels to financial statements from more than 600 outdoor theaters across the nation.

ECU’s Special Collections Division at Joyner Library is processing the records of the Institute of Outdoor Theatre with a $56,290 grant from the National Archives and Records Administration. The funds were matched by ECU, Joyner Library and the Institute to provide a total of $119,500 for the project, said Dr. Michael C. Hardy, director of the Institute of Outdoor Theatre, which is located at ECU.

A comprehensive online finding aid is being created to provide worldwide access to the inventory of the collection which includes photographs, video and audio recordings, publicity materials, audience surveys, blueprints, research and other items from hundreds of outdoor theaters dating to the 1920s.

“The materials will provide unparalleled insights into the challenges and successes experienced by outdoor theatres and the communities in which they operate,” said Janice S. Lewis, interim dean of Joyner Library.

Ashley Williams, project librarian, created a blog, “Bringing the Outdoors ‘Indoors,’ ” which provides regular online updates about the archivists’ work:

Williams has gotten positive feedback, including help in identifying some previously unknown materials.

Dale Sauter
“You get to see something new every day, there’s just so much information,” Williams said. “It definitely makes me want to go to some of these plays. It’s really a genre I never knew much about.”

The archivists have been tackling the massive project alphabetically by state one box at a time, one person starting with A and another with Z, working toward the middle of the alphabet.

“North Carolina is still to come,” Williams said, but photos and materials from the state’s outdoor productions including the well-known “Unto these Hills” and “The Lost Colony” will be a part of the online archives.

Two graduate assistants, Kate Clothier and Jeff O’Neill, have joined the project this semester. To protect the items, each wear nitrile gloves when working with audiovisual materials. For photos, the archivists make sure their hands are clean and pick up photos by their edges, Williams said.

The inventory so far indicates there was a boom of sorts for outdoor theater around America’s bicentennial. Many productions are related to history, such as the founding of a state or annual event, or an important historical figure. “If not history, the other major theme is passion plays - anything related to Christ’s birth, life or death,” Williams said.

One of those, Texas-based “The Promise,” was performed in Russia in 1992 and hailed as the first Christian production since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Another taken abroad was “My Old Kentucky,” a drama about Stephen Foster, known as “the father of American music.” It was performed in Japan in 1986 and a large poster shows the main sponsor was KFC.

The archival materials provide a “unique view of a distinct movement in American theater history,” Hardy said.

The archives will be a great resource for producers, directors, set designers, regional and local historians, folklorists, performing arts history majors, tourism history, Shakespeare and Renaissance festivals and anyone interested in the origin of outdoor drama, said Dale Sauter, the grant’s principal investigator and manuscript curator at Joyner Library.

The Institute of Outdoor Theatre, founded in 1963, was created to support outdoor theaters with technical assistance, documentation of best practices and management and feasibility studies. To learn more, visit


 An historical poster featuring outdoor dramas of North Carolina is among the materials being inventoried at Joyner Library.