Scholarly Multimedia Editions for Theatre Studies

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Miguel Escobar Varela

    National University of Singapore

  2. 2. Bernard Arps

    Leiden University

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Theatre ‘constitutes itself through disappearance’ (Phelan 1993) and its ephemerality poses methodological problems for researches. Before the twentieth century, most theatre scholarship focused exclusively on texts, whether they were produced before or after a performance. This is true for many theatre traditions around the world (including Javanese theatre, the case study in this paper). A textual model of theatre has serious limitations, as many of the social and improvised aspects of performance are rarely reflected in the texts. Audiovisual documents constitute better (if still imperfect) records, but they have yet to be adopted as authoritative critical editions in theatre studies. Several online platforms offer full length recordings of key theatre performances (for example, but they don’t usually include the level of detailed annotation found in literary editions, where individual words or phrases are annotated to report their genesis, elucidate interpretations and trace variations across versions. Audiovisual theatre resources are often accompanied by interviews with performers or introductory notes, but there are no standard formats to annotate specific moments in a performance (the intonation of a word, the movement of a performer, the laughter of the audience) and explain their significance within larger historical and cultural contexts. A scholarly infrastructure for the critical annotation of audiovisual documents has yet to emerge, even though relevant resources and technologies exist. We suggest that a digital philology of performance can be used to imagine new formats for scholarly analysis and communication, at the intersection of theatre studies and digital humanities.

Why philology?
Conventionally, philology has been associated with the study of literary material and the production of textual editions. However, the principles of philology can be used to interpret all aspects of a theatre performance: the audiovisual, social, and kinesthetic aspects of a performance can all benefit from a philological perspective. Theatre studies tends to be presentist, placing emphasis on novelty rather than tradition (Arps 2016). A philological perspective offers a principled method to study the historical layering of a performance (contemporary performance included), countering this narrow focus on the present. There are many ways in which a text-based philological edition of a performance can document the emergent, interactive and multimedia aspects of a performance, by using notational conventions to represent vocal parameters (an approach pioneered by Tedlock in 1978), tinkering with the spatial arrangement of text on a page, and using extensive notes to describe emergent and interactive aspects of a performance. However, the potential of philological editions can be more fully realized in digital editions that can combine audiovisual sources with careful philological attention.
There are calls for born-digital scholarship in performance studies (Mee 2018) in response to impressive growth of digital archives that offer full-length recordings of performances around the world (Caplan 2016). However, the authoring platforms suggested by Mee (such as blogs or Scalar) are not sufficiently malleable to accomplish the level of critical attention required by a scholarly, multimedia edition of performance. For example, it is important for scholars to link specific sections of audiovisual media to textual transcription and translations, in ways that transcend subtitles. These different media should all be amenable to meticulous cross-reference and annotation in ways that are sustainable, findable and reusable. There is no straightforward way to achieve these objectives with most available tools. How does a digital edition of a theatre performance look? What should it seek to achieve? Textual editions are standard critical objects that have benefited from a long history of continuous experimentation in both print and born-digital formats. There is an extensive corpus of influential digital editions and an extensive literature that explores how digital editions modify and continue traditions of textual editing (for example Dsicoll et al. 2016). But this level of experimentation and theoretical discussion has yet to be extended to multimedia editions in theatre studies.
To sketch a prototype for such scholarly, multimedia editions, the present authors embarked on a collaborative journey of creativity and discussion. Both authors have an interest in the Javanese tradition of wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre). A has worked as a scholar of Javanese language and culture for more than three decades; B is an early-career digital humanities scholar and web developer. In 2016, A published a philological, annotated translation of the work of an influential wayang kulit artist, based on the recording of a performance. The first version of this translation was published in book format. A and B are currently collaborating on an interactive, multimedia version of this translation. The development of a digital portal for this purpose is not just a matter of ‘adding’ audiovisual materials but a dialogical experimentation with the format and possibilities of a digital philology of performance.

Conceptualizing multimedia editions
Spatz (2015) suggests that video can document several aspects of performance, such as training (2015). Although he refers to these videos as ‘editions’, it is unclear how they constitute scholarly interventions. As Sahle (2016) notes, an edition without additional material that makes the document understandable or accessible is just a facsimile or an item in an archive. A critical attitude is required to determine what additional materials are required, and how they should be included. Their inclusion should follow rules derived from the relevant scholarly context, and these rules should be transparently and rigorously applied. An example from A’s print edition is that the symbol • indicates that the dhalang (the puppet-master in wayang kulit) knocks a mallet against a wooden box. The specific sequence of such knocks is of great significance to a performance: it might constitute a cue to the gamelan musicians or indicate that a different personage is speaking, while also contributing to the aural aesthetic of the performance. The transcription of these sounds is surrounded by explanations, and linked to detailed notes (indicated by the symbol ⓐ). For example:
[T]he dhalang raps the puppet chest to signal an accelerando and sforzando in the gamelan. ⓐ At the appropriate point in the structure of the piece he raps the pattern •• • as a cue to the gamelan to play slowly and pianissimo.
In the print version, the symbols substitute for the experience of listening to the actual sounds of these rhythmical pattern. In the multimedia version, the passage above is time-linked to the recording. The user can play the recording, and the appropriate segment of the transcript will be highlighted in a different color (Fig. 1). The user can also click on any portion of the transcript to navigate trough the audiovisual recording. This description is no longer a stand-in for an absent sound, but an interpretive scholarly layer. People who are not familiar with the tradition might not be able to identify the •• • pattern just by listening to the recording. Thus, the co-presence of audio and annotation, linked through time-based playback directs the attention of the users, making the material more accessible, understandable and usable for future research.
This example shows that even the simplest inclusion of audiovisual material is never just an appendage. The audiovisual material changes the function and potential of scholarly annotation. We are at the early stages of discovering the full implications of linked transcripts, annotations and audiovisual documents. Besides producing a specific web portal for this wayang kulit performance, we are documenting our process and producing an open-source software package that can be adapted by other scholars to tackle the problems a performance philology poses for other theatrical traditions.
We aim to develop tools that are usable by theatre scholars (even if they are not interested in web development) in ways that are citable, reusable and sustainable. The transcripts, translations and annotations of our edition are all TEI-complaint and we are working with both an academic publisher and a digital archive to preserve our edition and to manage its metadata records. We are also committed to making our materials available as data: this will enable the perusal of the materials online through customizable portals, as well as their eventual integration within computational, data-driven research projects. We believe that more collaborative work on this area will open new avenues for the digital transformation of theatre scholarship.

Figure 1. As the recording plays, the appropriate section of the transcript is highlighted.


Arps, B. (2016).
Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind: The Javanese Shadow-Play Dewa Ruci Performed by Ki Anom Soeroto: A Study in Performance Philology. ( Book, Whole). Singapore: NUS Press.

Caplan, D. (2017). Reassessing Obscurity: The Case for Big Data in Theatre History.
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68(4): 555–73 doi:

Mee, E. (2018). Born-Digital Scholarship.
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Phelan, P. (1993).
Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London; New York: Routledge.

Sahle, P. (2016). What is a Scholarly Digital Edition?.
Digital Scholarly Editing, vol. 4. 1st ed. (Theories and Practices). Open Book Publishers, pp. 19–40
(accessed 23 February 2018).

Spatz, B. (2015).
What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research. London and New York: Routledge
(accessed 22 June 2017).

Tedlock , Dennis (1978).
Finding the Center. Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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