January 20, 2021 at 12:51 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
WAPAVA offers living archive of local theater
Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive, gay news, Washington Blade
Drew Cortese as corrupt King Richard in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ (2014), one of almost 1,000 recordings in the WAPAVA archive. (Photo by Jeff Malet) 

While a book or movie has a way of hanging around, theater doesn’t. When a production ends, it’s done. 

Fortunately, there’s a way of meeting or revisiting a play or musical that doesn’t involve illegal recording or the risk of getting booted out mid-performance. Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive (WAPAVA) offers the opportunity to view almost 1,000 recordings of local productions. Its archives are a living record of something that might otherwise have disappeared.

Founded singlehandedly by the late James “Jim” Taylor in 1993 to preserve live theater performances, WAPAVA is one of just three major continuous Actors’ Equity-approved video performance archives in America. The others are in Chicago and New York City. 

Housed in both the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Martin Luther King D.C. Public Library on G Street, N.W., WAPAVA’s archive is a resource for theater professionals and scholars, students and educational programs, specialized researchers, and the general public.

And since October, out Helen Hayes Award-winning actor/director Rick Hammerly has been WAPAVA’s new executive director. Tipped off to the opening by his close friend actor Felicia Curry, Hammerly was excited to find an opportunity that would tap his talents, degrees, and background. “Rarely do you see a job posting where you have all of the requirements – I was a little concerned about the website stuff but that hasn’t proved a problem.”

 Hammerly suggests his strongest attribute is his longevity in the industry and his many connections in local theater: “I can reach out to a lot of people, I’m willing to go out and speak about WAPAVA. I can put a face to the organization.” 

“Increasing visibility is very important for us,” says longtime WAPAVA board of directors president Jackson R. Bryer. “We were looking for someone who could help with that. And with Rick’s numerous connections, and familiarity with area theater, we believe he is right for the job.” 

Bryer, a professor emeritus of the University of Maryland’s department of English, says fundraising for a nonprofit archive presents unique challenges: “First, the product isn’t shared easily. Recordings can only be viewed on site in College Park and downtown. And unlike Arena Stage and other theaters where donors can attend openings and meet the actors, we don’t give that kind of experience.”   

Hammerly hopes to offer some new ideas. His goals include finding innovative ways of interactive fundraising. He is also reconstituting an advisory group to aid in the selection of productions to record. With the help of a diverse group, he wants to employ a curatorial approach in selecting quality, noteworthy works based partly on their relevance and representational content. 

A veteran of local stages, Hammerly was aware of WAPAVA, but never thought too much about it. However, as producing artistic director of Factory 449, an esteemed D.C. company focused on contemporary works, he has become more aware of the archive’s value. “I began using the College Park location to acquaint myself with unfamiliar playwrights and to get an idea of the capabilities of an actor that I might cast. It’s a wonderful tool – like a phone book back in the day, you know it’s there when you need it.” 

With libraries closed due to COVID-19, WAPAVA might have stood still. Instead, they’re adding a new pandemic archive to their extant Series 1 (productions filmed by WAPAVA) and Series 2 (productions filmed by local theater companies): “We’re collecting online productions, readings, interviews, and roundtables,” says Hammerly who lives in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood with husband Dar Gazder. “I feel it’s important to have these things because five years from now when somebody looks back and asks ‘what did people do when the theater closed?’ there will be a record of how we pivoted, of how creative we were in trying to keep content coming, and the ways we embraced a new medium. And how artists dealt with it.” 

He’s also eager to grow the archive with recent theatrical productions by reaching out to companies that may have quality recordings, particularly recordings of Helen Hayes Award-winning shows. 

As executive director, Hammerly is keeping Jim Taylor’s vision alive. Though he’s making some tweaks here and there, Hammerly is determined to carry on WAPAVA’s essential mission to remain passionate in its obligation to preserve theater by recording it.

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