Vanessa Lent has just begun the second year of a two-year postdoctoral EMiC fellowship at the University of Alberta (EMiC UA). As part of the larger EMiC UA efforts to digitize the fonds of Sheila Watson and the fonds of Wilfred Watson, led by Paul Hjartarson, Vanessa is creating a hybrid print-digital edition of Wilfred’s 1962 play, Cockcrow and the Gulls.
Wilfred was a dynamic artist, critic, and teacher whose work evolved over four decades. He began to work on Cockcrow as early as 1949, and was awarded a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship with which he funded a yearlong trip to Paris to work on the play within an environment steeped in avant-garde and absurdist theatrical production. When it premiered at Edmonton’s Studio Theatre in 1962, Cockcrow caused a stir in the theatre circles and academic communities of Edmonton and beyond.
Projected as a multi-phase project, Vanessa’s postdoctoral work asks how the database can serve the humanities scholar to interpret, organize, and present archival material. In “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives,” Ed Folsom argues that the “[d]atabase facilitates access, immediacy, and the ability to juxtapose items that in real space might be far removed from each other” (Folsom 1577). A database of Cockcrow will take advantage of such “virtuality, endless ordering and reordering, and wholeness” to create a new space for scholarly work. Vanessa’s project will entail the creation of a database for the Cockcrow material to construct a composition history of the play, allowing the textual multiplicity of the journals, play drafts, letters, and interviews to connect in ways unrestrained by traditional notions of linearity.
Wilfred’s archive contains a multitude of documents, which include drafts of his creative works, correspondence, and a series of personal journals and notebooks. These notebooks are, as Paul Tiessen calls them, “private intellectual journals” that serve as commentary on the massive amount of draft manuscripts (106). The Finding Aid for the Wilfred Watson Fonds demonstrates that the composition of Cockcrow occurred not only within the multiple drafts of the play, but also within Wilfred’s personal journals. At times, his meditations on Cockcrow are recorded in journals of a more personal nature alongside day-to-day observances, lists of letters written, short reviews of books, ruminations on art of various media, and long treatises on literary and artistic theories. Other times, these meditations are recorded in journals reserved exclusively for creative rumination (sometimes on Cockcrow and sometimes on other projects).
How does a researcher approach the complexity of such an archive? Kim Sawchuck encourages an understanding of archive as media because it “emphasizes its character as a complex organizational tool that facilitates or impedes individual and social communication with future generations about past events, through the instantiation of specific protocols and rules of access” (Sawchuck, n.p.). Understanding the archive as not only a collection of documents, but also as an “organizational tool” that can be interpreted as a media in itself opens up possibilities for approaching Wilfred’s fonds.
For Vanessa, the Cockcrow project opens up and explores many questions: What are the strengths and weaknesses of such a relationship between archive and database? Further, how does the researcher best use the interface to present the material to an audience? How can the scholar expand the audience for such a project from the academic to the public? How does the database serve the literary form of drama in particular? How does the co-existence of text on the page and text as performance manifest within a database? Are there visualization tools that allow the researcher to extend the interpretive possibilities of drama in new ways?
The Cockcrow project will be built as a relational database comprised of five potential phases. While “phase one” of the project consists of Vanessa’s post-doctoral work, the subsequent phases are suggestions of where the project could potentially be taken. Phase one will serve as a proof-of-concept of the strength of the database as an organizational tool for archival material, and will see the contents of the database limited to the first act of Cockcrow.
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