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Oral history: performing arts and music

The British Library Sound Archive holds many oral history collections covering a cross-section of those involved in the performing arts. Projects and collections include recordings with those involved in theatre, the circus, opera, ballet and jazz.


  • Oral History of British Theatre Design (C1173), a collaborative project between National Life Stories and Wimbledon College of Art (University of the Arts London) charts the developments in post-war British theatre design.
  • The Legacy of the English Stage Company (catalogue no: C1316), a National Life Stories project sponsored by the John Hodgson Theatre Research Trust, covers the careers of theatre directors associated at some time with the Royal Court Theatre, London.
  • Unfinished Histories (catalogue no: C1322) is a collaboration between Jessica Higgs of In Tandem Theatre Company and Susan Croft, documenting British alternative theatre from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s through oral history interviews and the collecting of archival documents. The initial strand focuses on 'Women's Theatre - 1970s and 1980s'
  • Pascal Theatre Company: Mothers and Daughters – A Jewish Archive (catalogue no: C1242) is a collection of 50 interviews with Jewish women of various ages and cultural backgrounds recorded by the Pascal Theatre Company as part of a film and exhibition project 'Jewish mothers and daughters: a personal history of the 20th century through 50 Jewish women's lives', in collaboration with the London Jewish Cultural Centre.
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Interviews (catalogue no: C35) were recorded with retired and working members of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, Warwickshire in 1982 and aimed to depict a picture of the life of the theatre within living memory.
  • An interview with Athene Seyler, president of RADA and of the Theatrical Ladies Guild, is included in the National Life Stories project Leaders of National Life (C408).
  • The NSA: General (catalogue no: C465) collection includes interviews with theatre designers Jocelyn Herbert and Tanya Moiseiwitsch.
  • For other relevant material and live recordings and performances see the drama audio and video collections.
  • The Theatre Archive Project was a five-year collaborative project between the British Library and Sheffield University, and funded by the AHRC, to reinvestigate British Theatre history between 1948 and 1967. For more information, visit the Theatre Archive Project homepage.

Opera and ballet

  • The Royal Opera House Sound Archive (catalogue no: C915) comprises 146 interviews with people involved in the Royal Opera House Development Project 1997-1999. Interviewees cover the spectrum of ROH employees and range from backstage technical staff, to dancers, patrons, the archivist, Chief Executive and Balletshoe Mistress.
  • The Verdi Oral History Project (catalogue no: C1063) is a series of interviews with singers, conductors, music staff and musicians carried out by Jon Tolansky for the Royal Opera House Verdi Centenary Project 2001.
  • The Dame Adeline Genee recording (catalogue no: C645) is an interview recorded in 1965 with Dame Adeline Genee, ballerina at The London Empire Theatre, 1897-1907.
  • Glyndebourne Oral History Project (catalogue no: C511) includes interviews with many of the people associated with Glyndbourne, including Ian Wallace, Peter Gellhorn and Robert Ponsonby.
  • An Interview with mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans is included in the National Life Stories project Leaders of National Life (catalogue no: C408).


  • Oral History of the Circus (catalogue no: C966) features interviews with circus performers, members of the old circus families and others who recall a circus industry and way of life now long passed. There is also an interview with magician Don Ricardo within the NSA: General (C465) collection.
  • The Vicinus Music Hall Interviews (catalogue no: C486) were conducted by Martha Vicinus of the University of Michigan during the summers of 1974-1975, with British music hall performers, many recorded at Brinsworth House, a retirement home for performers.


  • Oral History of Jazz in Britain (catalogue no: C122) is a collection featuring specially commissioned interviews with musicians, authors and broadcasters from the beginning to the present day. Selected interviews are available for higher education users on the Sounds website project under the content package ‘Oral History of Jazz in Britain’.
  • For other relevant material and live recordings and performances see the Sound Archive's world and traditional music, classical and pop collections.

Related recordings

  • The British Council Oral History collection (catalogue no: C1083) is a collection funded by the British Council and co-ordinated by the British Council Association Oral History Project, covers the careers of prominent employees of the British Council.
  • For oral history collections relating to arts, crafts, theatre design, fashion, and photography, see visual arts and crafts.

Accessing the collections

To access oral history material:

  • Search for oral history recordings held at the British Library using the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue (see useful advice on searching the oral history collections).
  • Onsite access to oral history recordings: The Listening and Viewing Service in St Pancras provides free public access to the oral history collections on an appointment basis. Many digital recordings are also available via SoundServer, a computerised listening facility located in the Humanities Reading Rooms.  SoundServer is also available at the British Library’s site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
  • Internet access to selected oral history recordings: The British Library Sounds website gives remote access to a selection of interviews from the Library’s oral history collections. Some recordings are currently only licensed to Higher and Further Education users in the UK, others are available for full public access.

Further information

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

T +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History  / Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Curator, Oral History / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Archivist, Oral History)

External links

Pascal Theatre Company