Discovering the History of Theater in Perkins Archives

Old papers and programs

Some programs from the collection, pictured before processing. These are packaged between thick paper and tied with string, within the brown paper wrapping.

November 14, 2016

When I started at Perkins Archives in September, I was presented with four packages of programs wrapped in brown paper which had not been touched in about sixty years. My internship project, completed as part of my archives class at Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, was to organize these materials and create a finding aid.

As I finished working with the collection (Perkins Music and Theater Programs, and Other Material, 1878-circa 1940), I used the photographs in Perkins’ Theater Collection and the detailed director’s descriptions in the Perkins Annual Reports to learn more about theater education for the blind, as well as the plays that I had become familiar with through the programs that I processed. I would like to share some excerpts from the Annual Reports, which focus on the blind students’ lively and impressive performances; describe the costumes, music, and audiences; and emphasize the educational importance of theater for the blind. 

​I am particularly interested in the Annual Reports’ emphasis on the impact of theater in blind education. In the 1903 report, Anagnos writes: 

"As we have stated in former reports, there is a distinct educational  value in these attempts of our pupils in amateur theatricals, aside from the financial assistance which is thereby given to the kindergarten department. The enjoyment of drama depends largely upon the visual sense. Deprived of that interpreter, however fine the delivery of the text may be, much of it becomes meaningless to blind boys and girls, who cannot see the accompanying action or recognize the speaker. The running commentary upon the movements of the play, which a seeing companion may give, is oftentimes inadequate. The sound pedagogical principle of “learning by doing” applies in this instance as it does in every phrase in the scheme of education. Let the pupil once gain an inkling of the fine art of the actor through his own efforts, and he is ready to exclaim with Hamlet: “The play’s the thing"" (1903 Annual Report, p. 83-84).

Old photograph of a performance of Twelfth Night

Photograph from the 1913 performance of Twelfth Night (Perkins School for the Blind Theater Collection, Flickr). This performance was a reprieve of a 1912 performance of the same play. Pictured are five actors: Maria (Sylvester Freeman), Sir Toby Belch (Roy Cloukia), Feste, the clown, (Paul West), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jacob Wallockstein), and Malvolio (James Morang). A card attached to the photograph reads ""Twelfth Night," 1913 Note All Parts Played By Boys"

While the plays were a source of enjoyment for the students, teachers, and community, they were based on educational principles. Anagnos nicely sums up this dual benefit (financial and developmental) in the 1904 Report:

“[The proceeds of As You Like It] were gladly added to the much-needed funds for the kindergarten department at Jamaica Plain, but the intrinsic value of these efforts in dramatic portrayal to the young actors themselves cannot be over-estimated. They are thus, and only thus, permitted to appreciate and enjoy an art, which must otherwise be shut out from their comprehension by their great deprivation, the loss of sight, but which through this means becomes an added factor in the development of their æsthetic nature. The presentation of one of Shakespeare’s plays must tend also to promote the love of poetry and rhythm” (1904 Annual Report, p. 80)

An embossed program for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Program accompanying the 1913 performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night pictured above. The cover indicates that the play was performed by the Howe Memorial Club at 8pm on Wednesday, March 12, 1913, at Perkins Institution Hall in Watertown.

The plays were apparently performed with great skill, especially given the students’ lack of vision. In 1901, the report praises the intensity of the boys’ performance of Dido: “The more especially is this [praise] true in view of their limitation. To them, at the theatre or opera, an actor’s voice alone may speak,--his gesture and his expression, often so fraught with meaning and suggestion are altogether lost” (1901 Annual Report, p. 80).

In 1903, the boys performed scenes from Shakespeare, and “[t]heir sense of direction was so true that there was not the slightest confusion or awkwardness in their movements, and their appreciation of the strength and dignity of the former scene and the fun and jollity of the latter was most evident in their fine rendition of the lines with true dramatic fervor” (1903 Annual Report, p. 83). For one particularly acclaimed 1904 performance of As You Like It, the Annual Report write-up even includes three newspaper reviews praising the performance. Of a play for Longfellow’s birthday in 1882, Anagnos goes so far in praising the theatrical achievements of his blind students as to declare that “[n]o blind person unexpectedly entering the audience on that occasion would have supposed that the actors before him were sightless” (1882 Annual Report, p. 68).

There was great enthusiasm for the student plays, both from the performers and from the large audiences. While we have no way of experiencing these performances ourselves, the programs in this collection, combined with the Theater Collection and the Annual Reports help us better understand the character and importance of music and theater to students at Perkins in the 1880s-1910s.

A box of folders

Part of Box 2, labeled folders pictured after processing.