Image: Used by Permission. All rights reserved, Playbill Inc.

The exhibition, Focus Center Stage, chronicles both theatre history and how TOFT has changed how we remember that history over the last half century

The past half-century of the documented history of theatre is on display at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ newest exhibition, Focus Center Stage: 50 Years of the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, opening July 14. Spanning two floors of the Library, the exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of its world-renowned Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT), showcasing excerpts from the many productions the division has filmed since its founding in 1970. Featuring Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatre productions, the exhibition also includes interviews and dialogues with important figures, rare photographs from the behind-the-scenes work of some of the talented artists dedicated to creating theatre productions, and the TOFT staff and video crews recording them for future generations.

Originally planned for 2020, but postponed due to the pandemic, the exhibition, Focus Center Stage: 50 Years of the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, opens on July 14 and is scheduled to run until February 25, 2023. It scales two floors at the Library for the Performing Arts’s Shelby Cullom Davis Museum, in the corridor gallery section of the building at Lincoln Center.

“With literally thousands of productions from which to select, it was a truly daunting task to curate this exhibition,” said Patrick Hoffman, who has served as Director and Curator of TOFT since 2001 and was its Assistant Curator for 8 years prior to that. “First and foremost, we wanted to feature and demonstrate the depth and breadth of our TOFT Archive and its phenomenal collection of video recordings of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatre productions. None of these recordings would have been possible without the incredible support of the theatre community as a whole, the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds, producers, playwrights, directors, choreographers, designers, actors, orchestra musicians, company managers, production stage managers, and stagehands, as well as the TOFT staff and talented video crews whose work makes TOFT’s mission possible. Fifty years of hard work has happened behind-the-scenes to make all of this happen, and I am proud to finally raise the curtain on Focus Center Stageat the Library for the Performing Arts.”

Dozens of excerpts from all types of theatre productions are arranged thematically in nine video reels around areas of the collection. It includes an overall, grand highlight reel from the TOFT collection of a wide range of theatre performances, plus: 

  • musicals, including a sparkling array of work from artists like Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Meredith Willson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jeanine Tesori; 
  • plays extending all the way back to revivals of the Greek classics, to Lorraine Hansberry and Tennesee Williams, and contemporary figures, like Martin McDonagh, Lynn Nottage, and Paula Vogel;
  • interviews and dialogues, including a selection from the over 400 documented discussions about theatre;
  • social movements that highlight the many examples of diverse and inclusive productions, as well as a vast range of social issues and concerns, which have always been a hallmark of TOFT’s documentation efforts.

The title of the exhibition, Focus Center Stage, evokes the camera direction where archive staff and video crews directed their attention documenting and preserving performances for the past five decades. Visitors can access all of those recordings in the Lucille Lortel screening room on the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts for free with a New York Public Library card.

The exhibition also includes a remembrance of TOFT founder, Betty L. Corwin, who convinced  The New York Public Library, the theatrical unions and guilds, and creative artists, to realize her vision to record live theatre performance for future generations. Such an archive was without precedent and Corwin’s dedication to building the collection was paramount to its success; she was instrumental in raising funds to support its work, established the essential relationships with theatrical unions and guilds, and forged new ground on best practices for video recording theatre productions without existing models. Corwin kicked off TOFT’s archive by recording Golden Bat, an Off-Broadway, all-Asian cast, avant garde, rock musical in 1970. The inaugural filming defined TOFT’s mission to archive not just top Broadway performances, but also to capture the breadth, diversity, and variety of the world of theatre—essentially, what makes the field so unique and so beloved by those in the theatrical professions who create it and audiences alike.

The materials in the exhibition represent the tip-of-the-iceberg in a collection that encompases an extensive range of performances and offers visitors a sense of the archive’s magnitude and extraordinary depth over the past 50 years. Since its inception in 1970, TOFT has preserved live theatrical productions and documented the creative contributions of distinguished artists and legendary figures of the theatre. The collection consists of over 5,000 plays, musicals, classics, experimental and avant-garde productions, and an additional 3,000 videos of interviews, dialogues, film and television adaptations, award presentations, and other theatre-related programs. The TOFT Archive remains today the single largest, most comprehensive collection of live theatre anywhere in the world.

Focus Center Stage will be on display at the Library for the Performing Arts from July 14, 2022 through February 25, 2023 at 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, New York. https://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/focuscenterstage

The Schloss Family Foundation is the Lead Sponsor of Focus Center Stage: 50 Years of the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. Additional sponsorship support is provided by The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Inc. and The Ted Snowdon Foundation.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts gratefully acknowledges the leadership support of Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman. Additional support for exhibitions has been provided by Judy R. and Alfred A. Rosenberg and the Miriam and Harold Steinberg Foundation. 

About the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT)
Since 1970, TOFT has preserved live theatrical productions and documented the creative contributions of distinguished artists and legendary figures of the theatre. It is the first and, remains today, the largest archive of its kind in the world. With the consent and cooperation of the theatrical unions and guilds and each individual production’s artistic collaborators and cast, TOFT produces professionally-shot video recordings of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatre productions, as well as dialogues with notable theatre personalities. These historic recordings are available for research in its Lucille Lortel screening room, located on the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts.    

About The New York Public Library For The Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts houses one of the world’s most extensive combinations of circulating, reference, and rare archival collections in its field. These materials are available free-of-charge at all times, along with a wide range of special programs, including exhibitions, seminars, and performances. An essential resource for everyone with an interest in the arts — whether professional or amateur — the Library is known particularly for its prodigious collections of non-book materials such as historic recordings, videorecordings, autograph manuscripts, correspondence, sheet music, stage designs, press clippings, programs, posters and photographs. The Library is part of The New York Public Library system, which has 92 locations in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, and is a lead provider of free education for all.