Monthly Archives: June 2014

Teaching Shakespeare digitally

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium at the University of Birmingham on Shakespeare and education ‘in the age of digital humanities’. Sponsored by the British Shakespeare Association, it featured talks from Sarah Olive on the representation of Shakespeare and education on British television, Catherine Alexander on Shakespeare as a marker of cultural literacy, Abigail Rokison in conversation with Anthony Banks of the National Theatre’s learning department, Thea Buckley and Laura Nicklin (the organizers) on active approaches to teaching that they’ve learned about through recent workshops with Folger education and the like, and also a session with me on teaching and learning in the blended classroom.

My talk came from an essay I’ve written for the very recently published Shakespeare and the Digital World: Redefining Scholarship and Practice, edited by the wonderful Christie Carson and Pete Kirwan. The book looks at how digital technologies are shaping research, teaching, publication, and performance in Shakespeare studies. My chapter in the teaching section offers a critical reflection on distance learning education, looking specifically at how it works at the Shakespeare Institute. In lieu of an abstract, I thought I’d share the introduction to the essay below. The entire book is available both in paperback and as an ebook, so unlike many academic books it is actually affordable. And well worth a read I’d say.

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The Shakespeare Institute today.
Internal and External Shakespeare: Constructing the 21st-Century Classroom

In 1951 Allardyce Nichol and the University of Birmingham established the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, taking hold of a building called Mason Croft that had once belonged to a popular romance novelist named Marie Corelli and later served as an outpost for the British Council. Originally intended as an academic think tank for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre – later to become the Royal Shakespeare Company – the newly established Shakespeare Institute soon made its presence known, hiring three founding Fellows (Reginald Foakes, Ernst Honigmann, and John Russell Brown), starting up Shakespeare Survey and the International Shakespeare Conference, acquiring the full microfilm collection of the English Short Title Catalogue, and opening its doors to postgraduate students wishing to study Shakespeare. More than sixty years later, despite major changes in the UK higher education, much about the original vision for the Shakespeare Institute has remained the same, not least its commitment to cultivating new generations of Shakespeare scholars, teachers, and practitioners through postgraduate teaching and research supervision. It remains an extremely tight-knit community, with students and academics travelling from all over the world to seek out a particular kind of intellectual and social experience that permeates the lecture hall, seminar rooms, library, and even gardens of Mason Croft. While the building hasn’t been used as a private residence since 1941, it still very much feels like a home.

Back when it was Marie Corelli’s house.

Given the fact that the Shakespeare Institute experience is so strongly rooted in the atmosphere and history of a particular physical place, it may perhaps seem like an unlikely candidate for expansion into digital learning and distance education. Some of the best things about our community are decidedly analogue – impromptu research conversations in the garden, weekly play readings of lesser-known Renaissance plays, and seminars on Shakespeare’s life and works that draw directly on the heritage and theatrical life of Stratford-upon-Avon. And yet, like all centres of learning, the Shakespeare Institute has developed with its times, not least in the area of responding to changing student needs. Stratford is a small town that can at times be difficult to get to, particularly for students hoping to combine their prospective studies with existing work commitments and family demands. In an effort to open up our community to this broader spectrum of students, we have since 2002 offered part-time, flexible master’s degrees in Shakespeare and Theatre, and then Shakespeare and Education, both of which have offered at least a partial distance learning pathway since 2004. While in the early years of these programmes most part-time students were taught on-site at Mason Croft through intensive study weekends and summer schools, and thus at different times than our ‘traditional’ students, the growth of our distance learning pathway over the past five years has, perhaps paradoxically, brought our on-site and off-site students into greater temporal alignment. ‘Internal’ and ‘external’ students enrolled in a course have the same readings, assignments, deadlines, and tutors; they study the material over the same period of time and their work is marked together, meaning that no intellectual or administrative distinction is made between them. In some instances distance students may attend some of the face-to-face seminars for a course that they are otherwise taking entirely online, and likewise on-site students may share ideas and readings in the course’s online classroom space, resulting in a truly blended mode of study.

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Welcome to class.

This chapter reflects on the measures the Shakespeare Institute has taken to achieve this integration of internal and external learning, focusing in particular on the pedagogical principle of constructive alignment in the blended classroom. It argues that although many of the tools for on-site and virtual teaching may be different, the intellectual and pedagogical starting point should be the same: thoughtful consideration of what we want students to be able to ‘do’ with Shakespeare by the end of the course, and the steps we as instructors must take to facilitate this achievement. In this way, we welcome Leon Wieseltier’s recent defense of humanistic learning, and his associated plea to thinkers and educators to ‘[u]se new technologies for the old purposes.’[1] Of course, this isn’t to say that we don’t also value innovation in the classroom, but rather to suggest that the power of innovation, digital or otherwise, always emerges from a clear commitment to what learning means, not only practically but also philosophically. In the essay that follows I consider the principle of constructive alignment that underpins both our internal and external teaching, the teaching measures we have taken to achieve such aims in our blended classrooms, and the way in which such philosophical and practical approaches help lessen the ‘transactional’ divide in internal and external teaching and learning, even as our geographical spread increases.

[1] Leon Wieseltier, ‘Perhaps Culture is now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities’, New Republic, 28 May 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113299/leon-wieseltier-commencement-speech-brandeis-university-2013?utm_campaign=tnr-daily-newsletter&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=8840083# [19 June 2013].

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If you’re interested in finding out more about studying by DL at the Shakespeare Institute, have a look at the two videos below, which give further information from an instructor point of view as well as a student one.

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Celebrating the digital, part 2 — new directions

Earlier this week I posted a piece about three recent digital Shakespeare anniversaries — the 6-month anniversary of this blog, the 5-year anniversary of NTLive, and the 1-year anniversary of the RSC and Google+’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. Today I want to follow that up with some discussion of the recent re-launch of the digital arts site TheSpace.org, and the possible new avenues it may open up for online creativity and performance.

Originally developed as a pop-up site for the digital side of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, The Space returned last week as a new and more permanent gallery for the digital arts in the UK. While the old Space included a wide range of digital offerings, including the free streaming of recordings of 37  Globe to Globe Shakespeare productions, we are told that the new Space will leave broadcasting initiatives to BBC Arts Online and will instead turn its focus to more radical engagements with creative form. That means content that is more like Midsummer Night’s Dreaming and less like Globe to Globe streaming, as demonstrated by the kind of work generated by the #hackthespace all-night opening event at the Tate Modern last weekend.

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Hackers hacking. #hackthespace

While the new version of the site is still young and content is in the process of being developed, there are a few initial offerings that caught my eye. The most high-profile piece featured in the new Space was an iPad drawing from David Hockney of a lily against a mauve background. I say was because in the process of writing this post I realized that the lily, titled ‘1062’, has been taken down, and all the links to the Telegraph coverage of it are now mysteriously broken (to be fair, The Space responded to my tweet below saying that the Hockney was a a special and time-limited offering just for the launch). At the moment the drawing can still be seen in this Channel 4 story about the new Space, about halfway down the page. A couple of things about the work really interest me — first, the title, which to some extent highlights the potentially mechanized status of digital art (especially considering the fact that Hockney, unlike some artists, doesn’t tend to use numerical titles for his paintings), and second, the fact that the ‘drawing’ is actually an animation that allows you to watch the composition of the flower from start to finish. For me the work was much more interesting for the insight it gave into Hockney’s process, and I’d be interested to know if the 2-minutes’ worth of animation was in real-time or sped up. How long does it take to create a piece of digital art?

Leaving the question of the disappearing Hockney aside, the other work on the new Space that most interests me is a theatre piece called Longitude. Written by Tim Wright, one of the creatives behind the RSC’s 2010 digital experiment, Such Tweet SorrowLongitude uses Google Hangouts (as did Midsummer Night’s Dreaming) to broadcast three 20-minute episodes of a new play about global climate change and water shortage. It’s fashioned as a thriller, set in a near future that sees ocean levels rising, weather patterns intensifying, and clean water disappearing. The action connects actors in Lagos, Barcelona, and London, roughly all on the same longitude line, as they communicate with each other about a dodgy water deal that seems destined to go wrong. There’s still one more episode to go on 23 June at 6pm GMT, with a Q&A to follow, and episodes 1 and 2 can be watched online in the meantime (see ep. 1 below).

I’ll be interested to know more about the logistics of the performance, specifically how the live action and broadcasting is coordinated, since I had initially assumed it was pre-recorded based on cued technical break-ups in some of the video conferencing that were part of the dramatic action. With Auslander fresh in my mind I’m also interested in how the production’s liveness, a feature emphasized in its promotion on Twitter and The Space, might contribute to its status as theatre rather than television, film, or something altogether new. In any case it’s a really interesting example of possible new directions for digital performance, and the fact that it’s also partly commissioned by LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) points towards a growing and more widespread interest in what the digital, in all its infinite variety, may have to offer the performing arts today.

So lots to celebrate, I’d say, and much to look forward to. While I think that it’s right that we question the remit and scope of the so-called ‘digital’, and that we push ourselves to define how we’re using it in different contexts (a point discussed in part 1 of this post), I also think it’s important to allow it space to range somewhat wildly across form and platform, and to see what happens. By ‘what happens’ I mean not only what creative artists and producers come up with, but also how audiences of all different  digital competencies engage with and use it. And it looks like we’ll have more opportunity for this in the near future — just yesterday The Space announced a competition for £20,000 of seed money for the UK company that submits the most promising proposal for a new work of digital theatre. So stay tuned.

Image by kind permission of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. Core by Kurt Hentschläger, A digital installation commissioned by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, with support from Arts Council England as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
The new face of digital theatre?

Dressing Hal

Lots of thoughts from last night’s cinema broadcast of the RSC’s Henry IV, part 2, but first a quick non sequitur. I couldn’t help but notice Alex Hassell’s red leather coat and its resemblance to Tom Hiddleston’s in the Hollow Crown. And to Michael Jackson’s, circa the Thriller years. (It’s close to the chimes at miiiiiidnight…)

Celebrating the digital — anniversaries

June for me means a series of mini-anniversaries. First, and smallest, is the six-month anniversary of this blog. I started it in December to set down some of my thoughts on digital broadcasts and I’m happy to say that my first post on the RSC’s Richard II has just come out as a print review in the journal Shakespeare Bulletin. An interesting inversion of the traditional print model, at least in academia where we tend to hold onto our work for a long time and to make sure the ‘original’ version is in a suitably authoritative and often very expensive publication. So I’m delighted to be able to share my work freely on sites like this one and www.ReviewingShakespeare.com while also having it included in excellent journals like Bulletin, which are collected around the world by Shakespeare libraries and research centers.

More significantly in terms of birthdays, this month also marks the five-year anniversary of the National Theatre Live. It was June 25th 2009 when the NT launched its first live broadcast to cinemas with its production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren (garnering no less than a five-star review from the Guardian‘s Michael Billington). Since then the broadcast programme has included around five NT productions a year, with additional offerings from the Donmar Theatre, the Manchester International Festival, and occasionally the West End. I think it’s fair to say that NTLive has fundamentally changed the theatrical landscape, with other initiatives such as the Globe on Screen, Digital Theatre, and RSC Live further adding to what we might call this new theatre ecology. It’s interesting to note how present Shakespeare has been in all of these broadcasting programmes, and also how dominant British theatre has been across the board. So what next?

Since 2009 I think we’ve also seen a major expansion of new forms of digital performance — while broadcasting (live or otherwise) remains at present the gold standard in terms of wider audience appeal, there have been new experiments in kinds of digital theatre making that might give us some insight into where the performing arts could be headed in the years to come. In a thought-provoking blog post at the end of 2013, Rachel Coldicutt questioned the idea that arts broadcasting should even be filed in that ever-growing dossier labelled new digital culture:

It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896 … the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.

Coldicutt’s analysis exposes our confusion about how we define ‘the digital’ — Is it the content? Is it the platform? Is it both? And while I think she’s right to point out the fact that live broadcasts are an old and to some extent old-fashioned way of understanding the potential of technology to transform the arts, I still think they still deserve space within the discussion since they are one of the primary ways in which many arts patrons will begin to experience digital change (and in this sense I think I would say that digital vs analogue tv, radio, satellite relay is significant, if to a large extent functionally invisible — I couldn’t listen to Radio 6 otherwise). While this might just be a change of venue rather than of show, it is a change nonetheless and one that I think may mark a wider shift in creative processes, audience relationships, and artistic forms. If we think about the digital music revolution of the late 90s and early 00s, it’s significant that most people weren’t necessarily looking for radically new forms of music, but rather new ways of accessing it (though forms have of course changed too, thank you Autotune).

Remember these guys? Napster, 1999.

But new forms are important too, and if we are discussing them then we should also mark the one-year anniversary of the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the most ambitious digital performance of Shakespeare I’ve yet to see. The project took place over midsummer weekend in 2013, mixing together an audience-generated collage of Midsummer materials on Google+, a more formalized digital stage in which new social media content commissioned by the RSC appeared alongside selected audience contributions, a series of site-specific and time-specific live performances of the play (including the performance of acts 2-4 at the RSC from 2.30-4am, culminating in the midsummer sunrise), and finally a Sunday wedding fete along the River Avon that included family games and an open performance of act 5.

Taken as a whole (and to be fair, few audience members probably did experience this multi-day, multi-platform performance as a whole), this festive production pushed all sorts of boundaries. It invited audiences to explore the play itself through bits of live performance uploaded to YouTube (see one of my clips below), to riff on its themes of love, nature, and madness through audience sharing on Google+, and to think about the extended world of the play through new, playful content created from the point of view of Bottom’s mum or the snails, fairies, and beagles in Athens and the surrounding forests.

It was at once resolutely in-time and immersive, as anyone who went to the small 2.30am performance will tell you, while also being committed to being open and out of time through the online audience platforms that you could dip in and out of over three days. I loved its scale and vision, even if ultimately it might have been too much for one person to navigate. Most pilots start small and then scale up — if anything this project went big and future versions might want to scale down. But it did start to show us the many different possibilities for where digital performance might choose to go, a topic to which I’ll return in the next few days.

Going live with Philip Auslander

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With the end of the academic term and a few long flights under my belt, I’ve managed to crack on with a bit more of my digital Shakespeare reading list. One of the books that almost always comes up in discussions of live theatre broadcasts is Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, so I was especially excited for the opportunity to sit down and work my way through this text – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. First published in 1999, and then revised and reissued in 2008, Auslander’s book feels alarmingly prescient. He takes as his central premise the idea that ‘liveness’ is an ever-evolving concept, always existing in relation to the art forms and technologies of which it is a part. While theatre critics such as Peggy Phelan have argued that theatre’s unique value is in its live, ephemeral irreproducibility – that its ‘only life is in the present’, and that it ‘cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations’ (qtd p. 44) – Auslander sets out to make a case for how theatre has been shaped, marked, and circulated by media technology since the early twentieth century through to the present day.

This relatively short but forceful book divides into three chapters. The first and longest is a recapitulation of the book’s title and overall focus (‘Live performance in a mediatized culture’) and accordingly it offers the broadest and most theoretically encompassing examination of the study’s central concerns. It is also the chapter most focused on theatre itself, and accordingly the one of greatest interest to people like me thinking about the changing landscape of Shakespearean performance. Auslander begins with a rich history of the beginnings of television, which he evocatively, if questionably, suggests we might take as ‘an allegory’ for the wider relationship between the live and the mediatized (p. 10). In this account he documents how early TV broadcasts took theatre as a model for its own emerging art form, frequently featuring live theatrical performances in its programming. By the 1950s, however, a consensus began to emerge that TV was more akin to cinema than theatre, largely due to its adoption of filmic technologies and techniques, including multiple cameras and angles and denser visual editing.

The attention to editing and the kind of imaginative experience it produces for the audience of course interested me here. In one telling passage Auslander quotes at length from a 1953 TV production textbook, in which the author asks:

Why cannot the television medium transmit a stage play to the home audience, capturing the immediacy of the performance instead of attempting to simulate the motion picture? Perhaps if a play were televised into one continuous long shot with the proscenium arch of the stage constantly visible, the effect of a stage play would be retained. (p. 21)

Of course, theatre stages and technologies have changed alongside televisual and cinematic ones, with so many of the theatre broadcasts we see today coming from stages that are not proscenium arched. But the basic concept of the space needing to reveal itself through the relay as a stage, and perhaps also for the theatrical audience to maintain a visible role in this exchange, is one that I think still stands over 60 years later.

The chapter goes on to consider a series of examples from the late twentieth-century performing arts in which the ‘live’ and the ‘mediated’/‘mediatized’ have found themselves in close dialogue, including: the use of microphones as well as recorded music in many theatrical productions, experimentation with close-up video monitors in some symphony concerts, the inclusion of a laugh track in television sitcoms, the use of video and photo documentary in body and endurance performance art, and the use of ‘nonmatrixed, task-based’ performance styles by some avant-garde theatre companies interested in interpolating live human performance with media content (think the Wooster Group, below). Through each of these examples Auslander builds a case for the reflexive relationship between mediatization and the theatre, a relationship that helps him progressively call into question the ‘ontologically pristine’ nature of performance as beside or even beyond media representation and reproduction (p. 45).

All of this builds to a closing discussion of how our understanding of liveness has changed over the past century, evolving from a ‘classic’ conception encompassing both temporal and geographical co-presence, to more flexible varieties that may accommodate lack of geographical co-presence (such as live arts and sports broadcasts) or even lack of both (such as live recordings that can be viewed or listened to repeatedly at later dates). The rapid expansion of the internet has changed this even further, with Auslander discussing social ‘liveness’ online and the sense of co-presence and connection with others that it involves. Here he also considers what it means for a website to ‘go live’, a phrase and concept that he argues has principally to do with the generation of feedback between technology and user (pp. 59-62).

I found all of this discussion extremely productive and provocative, so much so that Auslander’s illuminating research and analysis ended up prompting me to call into question a few of his smaller points. His characterization of the liveness of websites made me think about the broader ways in which we use and understand the word ‘live’, most centrally in the sense of being a-live. While I can seeing how ‘going live’ with a site makes possible a kind of real-time interaction with site users that is akin to the temporal liveness and exchange involved in many forms of theatre, I also wonder if the phrase actually came about through a sense of the site becoming alive, of being birthed into the wider world of the world-wide web.

Such a sense of ‘live’ points us in the direction of liveness as vitality, of being alive with presence and some sort of emotional agency. Auslander begins to gesture towards this kind of aliveness, albeit somewhat indirectly, when he suggests that today our ‘emerging definition of liveness may be built primarily around the audience’s affective experience.’ (p. 62) Feeling live and alive is perhaps the most important criterion for what we understand by the experience of liveness, with Auslander suggesting that the sensation or even emotion of liveness may derive for the qualities of ‘spontaneity, community, presence, and feedback’ that we associate with many forms of theatrical performance. Though he goes on to systematically deconstruct and demystify these values, I would suggest that they remain core elements of live and alive experience, though that doesn’t mean that I think that they can only be achieved through traditional, face-to-face modes of interpersonal contact. We need to recognize the life that exists in so many forms of communal exchange, and we need to think about ways to cultivate that experience across a wide variety of arts and media. It is in that form of communion, I think, that we find culture.

So in about a thousand words I’ve just about managed to summarize and respond to Auslander’s powerful first chapter, which hopefully gives some sense of just how rich his book is. Though the second two chapters don’t address my particular research question quite so directly, they nonetheless offer compelling and very readable accounts of the constant reiteration of acoustic craft and recorded craft in pop music (‘Tryin’ to make it real: Live performance, simulation, and the discourse of authenticity in rock culture’), and the way in which economic and legal networks fashion seemingly abstract concepts like liveness in very technical, enforceable, and documentable ways (‘Legally live: Law, performance, memory’). They prompted me to ask myself whether I think it’s important if a band sings live or lip-syncs in a show, or if an actor has a right to control the data created when his or her body is digitally mapped for complex CGI effects in films. My immediate answers would be ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, but accounting for them in reasoned, logically consistent detail is more of a challenge. These kinds of questions and challenges are characteristic of Auslander’s book from start to finish, and I’ve no doubt that I will be returning to its pages many times again.