Background, origins and history of ESAT

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1979-1993: Background and origins

The general idea of some kind of encyclopaedic documentation project arose while Temple Hauptfleisch was head of the Centre for South African Theatre Research (CESAT) at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) (1979-1987). Working with the vast archives of over 400 000 items contained in the Centre's documentation centre gave rise to the notion of somehow writing up the history of South African theatre history and led to a number of subsequent articles and books on the topic.

In 1988 Temple Hauptfleisch moved to the Drama Department at the Universaity of Stellenbosch and the CESAT archives was moved to the State Archives, so the idea languished for a while. But then, as he began setting up a new research centre at the University of Stellenbosch in 1990 and the general idea of a published documentation of SA theatre history was specifically proposed as the core project of the Centre's overarching research programme on South African Theatre.

The project was thus planned in more specific terms and with the actual founding of , the Centre for Theatre and Performance Studies (CENTAPS) in 1994.

1994-2010: COMSAT

The project proper began as a research and documentation project, A Companion to South African Theatre and Performance (COMSAT). The aim was to involve a range of researchers and students to compile a general reference work on South African theatre and performance which would make the results of academic and other research more readily accessible to the general reader and the theatre enthusiast. In this sense the basic aim was rather to condense and collate available information on all South African theatre and performance forms (as far as they have been documented) in a single volume and in a handy format, rather than undertake any comprehensive new research. A key model for this project was Phyllis Hartnoll’s famous Oxford Companion to the Theatre.

The working procedures for the original COMSAT project were relatively simple. The basic framework of the project was conceived by Temple Hauptfleisch, while the detail principles for the publication – and especially the the format for the entries (see below) – were devised by the Project Committee in consultation with the Advisors. With these in hand the members of the Project Committee thereupon did a basic search of the most prominent books and articles on South African theatre and performance, in order to compile a gross list of possible entries for the Companion. The gross list was then honed down to a basic shortlist of about 2000 entries, which were apportioned out to possible authors.

This first version of the encyclopaedia focussed only on live stage performance and was originally intended to be a formally published mini-encyclopaedia and reference work called A Companion to South African Theatre and Performance (COMSAT) and was derived from a database collated by Temple Hauptfleisch and the Centre for Theatre and Performance Studies (CENTAPS) at Stellenbosch (with the help of a large number of associates and assistants) over the course of twenty years (1990-2010)

While the authors were working on the entries, the project’s co-ordinator Yvette Hutchison – with the help of Petra Malherbe of the University of Stellenbosch’s Data-centre, set about devising a computerized format for the various kinds of entries, utilizing the Microsoft’s Access programme. This would allow the team to continually update the basic information, and possibly publish revised versions of the book or go on to an online facility or a CD-rom based product.

When the original deadline for entries had come and gone in 1996, only 21 of the 80 people approached had accepted the contracts, 12 had submitted material, of which only 9 had had fulfilled their contracts completely and properly. (A few more submitted entries during 1997-8, bringing us to 11 contributors by 1999.) It became clear that the project was very close to getting bogged down. At a subsequent meeting, the Committee decided that the rest of the book would be written by Temple Hauptfleisch, assisted by Yvette Hutchison and some of the post-graduate students in the Department of Drama , while the two sub-editors – Edwin Hees and Arnold Blumer – would help with the final editing process.

As a result of all the aforementioned processes, the project expanded almost exponentially between 1994 and 2010, generating over 10 000 new individual entries and a number of sub-sections, including an overview of theatre and performance in the country, a chronology of theatre events (in the context of social, cultuiral and political events), a comprehensive bibliography and annotated lists of plays and performances.

This database of more than 2000 pages soon became a core resource for the research undertaken by the staff of the Centre for Theatre and Performance studies as well as the staff and students of the Drama Department. Gradually international enquiries also begtan to come in to the Centre.

In view of this interest the pressure to publish the material in some form began to grow. However, it slowly became clear that that (a) few publishers were really interested in a publication of this enormous size and (b) as the material still kept on increasing , much editing still needed to be done, and there was an enormous amount of information still lacking. Thus the research team began to explore other possibilities. The most promising seemed to be an online version of the database, done in consultation with the Stellenbosch University's IT section and the J.S. Gericke Library.


2010-2011: The birth of ESAT

In May 2010 a meeting was held with Ms Ina Smith head of SUNScholar and Mr Hilton Gibson IT specialist for the J.S. Gericke Library, to create a website for The Encyclopaedia of South African Theatre and Performance (ESAT). This would form part of the University of Stellenbosch's Libopedia programme. The various templates were now developed, the staff were trained and transferal of the data to the ESAT file began in July 2010.

The new online version of COMSAT, now called ESAT, was conceived as a means of "publishing" all that material online, and thus making the results of all existing and emerging academic and other research more readily accessible to the general reader and the theatre enthusiast nationally and internationally. In this sense the basic aim is rather to condense and collate available information on all South African theatre and performance forms (as far as they have been documented) in one place and in a handy and accessible digital format, rather than to undertake any comprehensive new research. Happily a great deal of little known and/or forgotten information has in fact come to the fore in the process, and much is still being discovered as the project grows. However, that was never - nor is it - the fundamental aim of this first version of ESAT.

In this period the bulk of the original material was transferred to the new ESAT website by a number of student-assistants and Ms Miriam Terblanche, the project's research assistant and administrator. The entries were uploaded as they were, unedited as yet. The website was initially kept closed to outsiders, in order to facilitate the process of uploading material. However, at the end of 2011, the University opened up the website to readers and internet users, and a circular was sent out to alert potential users of its existence and inviting their help in expanding, correcting and improving the resource.

2012-2015: Expansion to Media and Film

In 2012-2013 the scope of the ESAT Project was considerably enlarged by two factors. In 2012 a meeting was held with Marisa Keuris and members of her archival project on provisionally called SA Drama- en teaterbewaring ("SA Drama and Theatre Conservation"), which aims at creating a digital archive of materials on South African theatre, in association with similar international archives. This association means that the ESAT project and the SADET project become partners, sharing information and each supporting and supplementing the other. Discussions on this matters continued into 2013. In 2013 another expansion took place, when film specialist Freddy Ogterop approached the project team to suggest that we expand the scope of ESAT to include South African Film. This discussion led to the idea that perhaps Radio Drama and TV Drama may also be added to the scope of ESAT. Ogterop declared himself willing to join the research team and be the editor for the film section. This was immediately implemented, and the title of the project changed to the Encyclopaedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media and Performance (but retaining the acronym ESAT). By 2014 the pattern had been set and the encyclopaedia was receiving over 1 million visits to its various sections.

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