By Susan Soric
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

I think the objects we hold onto say fascinating things about how memory works and what we choose to retain”
—Kit Novotny

“I myself have never really been a collector,” says 2009 alumna Kit Novotny, who staged a one-woman play this spring that explores why some people are deeply driven to collect objects.

The play, titled re/collect, combines Novotny’s dual passions of anthropology and theater. The piece grew out of her own detailed ethnographic study of 17 collectors, for which she interviewed people who collect a variety of objects, from art and antiques, coins, stamps, Legos, and cookbooks, to Bakelite jewelry, Pez dispensers, postcards, antique spoons, and toy soldiers.

“I interviewed a woman who collects African American dolls and Marshall Field’s memorabilia. I’ve seen tabletop cigarette lighters, Masonic memorabilia, air sickness bags, and one guy who collects half-eaten celebrity sandwiches.”

The project required that she become an expert on a pastime she had never quite understood.

Although the idea of collecting has always appealed to her, she always lost interest in the small collections she started as a child. “I would pick up 100 acorns one day, and then never look at them again.”

But re/collect is an ambitious collection of stories and personas, with Novotny in the leading role.

A Collector of Collectors

A double major in Anthropology and Theater & Performance Studies, Novotny combined her concentrations to create a hybrid—“performance ethnography.” The resulting piece also became her BA thesis.

Novotny says playwright Anna Deavere Smith was one of her influences for the performance project. Smith, who often bases her pieces on interviews with real subjects, was the University’s first Presidential Fellow in the Arts visiting resident in 2005.

Novotny says that her research, including reading every book she could about collecting, influenced the creative process she undertook. “I discovered that the anthropology of collecting is a burgeoning subdiscipline.”

She conducted and recorded most of her interviews in the Chicago area and a few back home in Massachusetts. One collector often led her to another, she says. “I became a kind of collector of collectors.”

The Objects of Memories

One of her subjects is Debbie, who has collected more than 5,000 African American dolls. When she was a child, there weren’t a lot of black dolls around, so her grandmother would dye dolls for her, says Novotny. “For about 50 years, she searched for a doll that looked just like her—tooth-gap and all.”

Sometimes, says Novotny, collecting is about holding onto things against time or hanging onto childhood memories. “The main focus of my dramatic script is the relationship between collecting and memory.”

Another subject, Steve, whom Novotny refers to as an accidental collector of half-eaten celebrity sandwiches, acquired his first and most important item one fateful day in September 1960. His Boy Scout troop served as the security around then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s picnic table at a political fundraiser in Steve’s hometown of Sullivan, Ill.

When Nixon left the table to make his speech, and the 14-year-old scout impulsively grabbed the abandoned buffalo barbeque sandwich and ran home with it. He asked his mother if they could freeze it, believing that would make it last forever.

Forty-nine years later, Steve still has the sandwich in deep freeze.

“I think the objects we hold onto say fascinating things about how memory works and what we choose to retain,” says Novotny.

Keeping It Real

To avoid making her subjects feel self-conscious, Novotny says she waited until after the interviews to inquire about portraying them on stage. Once they approved, she took great care to respect her subjects as she took on their voices, mannerisms, and physicality. “I wanted to keep the characters human and to respect them and their stories,” she says. “There was a lot of comedy in the show and moments of real pain, but throughout I was very conscious of not making them caricatures.”

Novotny invited her subjects to see re/collect, when she performed it in April during University Theater’s New Work Week, featuring new student performances.

An actress in University Theater productions over the past four years and a member of Off-Off Campus, Novotny took first place for her play re/collect in the Theater & Performance Studies’ 2009 Olga and Paul Menn Foundation Award contest, given to a graduating fourth-year for an original play of one or more acts.

“Having the people I interviewed, and who I was playing, there in the audience was probably one of the most fulfilling, if slightly surreal, parts of the whole experience,” Novotny says.

One of her subjects, Daryle Lambert, who collects antiques, collectibles, and art, wrote in his blog about how deeply the performance affected him.

“Her play gave me a newfound understanding of the thinking of collectors, and I now realized that it is truly an individual thing and often has very little to do with the object but more about the memory,” wrote Lambert. “And as you know, in the world today we are in a battle for those good memories.”