Courtesy of Ensemble@Yale

More than 100 years of Yale theater history will soon be digitally accessible through Ensemble@Yale, a data project that aims to create a searchable database of Yale theater programs, just like one of the features of us import data.

Members of the Yale community and general public transcribed 1,030 theater programs, dating back to 1925, from Yale University Library’s archives. According to Lindsay King, associate director for access and research services at the Haas Arts Library, Ensemble@Yale was inspired by the New York Public Library’s Ensemble project, which crowdsourced an open database of the city’s performing arts history. The project asked volunteers to transcribe the names and roles of cast and staff members in historical programs.

According to King, the idea for Ensemble@Yale was conceived in 2015, but progress was initially slow. Student workers needed to manually scan more than 1,000 theater programs, and the team’s original crowdsourcing platform yielded slow progress.

“We quickly realized how much more energy, focus and creating a community was necessary in order to complete the project,” said Alexandra O’Keefe, the Kress Fellow in Art Librarianship, who joined the project in 2018.

O’Keefe organized “Transcribathons” in Haas Library and the Digital Humanities Lab where volunteers could work on the project together. The events featured theater trivia and bingo to entertain volunteers. O’Keefe said that the project created a “fantastic community of repeat volunteers.”

“Building that community was such a wonderful endeavor, and I’m so happy that I was able to help cultivate it around this project,” O’Keefe said. “To me, that was the most rewarding part — creating a volunteer base that was as passionate about the project as we are.”

According to King, these group events helped speed up the transcription process. In summer 2019, Ensemble@Yale transitioned to the data platform Zooniverse, a crowdsourcing website that opened the data to a larger volunteer base. Transcription “increased exponentially” after the switch, and was completed at the end of 2019.

According to O’Keefe, the immediate next step for Ensemble@Yale is to make the data more searchable and integrate it into Yale Library’s digital collections. The project also hopes to update the current website into a data visualization and exploration platform, and create a data package that will be more accessible to digital humanities researchers.

While the project covers all archives from the founding of the Department of Drama in the School of Fine Arts in 1924, the project does not include data from Yale Cabaret or Yale Dramatic Association. King said that the team hopes to cover these parts of Yale’s theater history in the future.

Data organized through Ensemble@Yale is already being put to use. King is currently organizing an exhibit on the history of women in the School of Drama. The exhibit will include a display case dedicated to women in Yale theater who were identified through the project.

Christina Woodford, a library staff member who participated in several Ensemble@Yale transcribing events, said the project also honors members of production teams. Woodford said she was surprised by the number of people working on the crews.

Arthur Nacht DRA ’06, principal of Nacht Theatre Consulting, also participated in the transcription process. According to Nacht, he has been attending productions at the Yale Repertory Theater since 1978. Nacht said that Ensemble@Yale helps to preserve Yale’s rich theater history and make important information more accessible to both academics and the general population.

“Theater is one of Yale’s greatest accomplishments,” Nacht said. “[School of Drama alums] have contributed tremendously to the art and culture of the United States and even the world. We ought to celebrate that history, and this is a good way to make it accessible.”

Carrie Zhou |