Tag Archives: Peter Kirwan

Introducing: Shakespeare on the Global Stage

book cover

Busy but exciting times — some of you know that for the past several years I’ve been working on a project exploring Shakespeare’s presence in the 2012 London Olympics. At the end of January, the final installment of this research was published, in the form of a beautiful and thought-provoking collection of essays from Arden/Bloomsbury entitled Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year. Below are a few Olympic Shakespeare-themed tweets I posted in celebration of its launch, as well as an excerpt from the book’s preface giving a list of its contributors and the questions and arguments they explore in their chapters.


From the Preface…

In the autumn of 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced its plans for ‘the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen’. The RSC’s World Shakespeare Festival (as it came to be known) would form a major part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and would feature such highlights as the Globe to Globe Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe. Together these projects would bring dozens of Shakespearean productions from overseas to British stages, as well as inspire a range of new interpretations by UK companies. Anticipating what was an unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable moment, a group of UK-based scholars created an informal collective with the expressed aim of documenting and debating the performances of Shakespeare in the Olympic year. Reviewers were dispatched to the nearly seventy productions, and their responses were promptly posted on the project’s website, www.yearofshakespeare.com. A few months later, these pieces would be published together as A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival (Arden, 2013).

If that book reflected the ‘documentation’ of the Festival, offering short, eye-witness accounts of what it was like to be caught up in the celebrations in ‘real time’, this book makes space for the longer view, inviting authors from the UK but also abroad to pursue the range of complex issues raised by the collocation of the Olympics and what we call ‘Shakespeare’. One of the paradoxes of mega-events like the Olympics is that while the event is intensively concentrated in the host city and nation, it is nevertheless designed for the enjoyment and consumption of a truly global audience. In calling this book Shakespeare on the Global Stage, we try to capture the sheer reach of the internationally visible outcomes of the 2012 Olympics, but this book is also profoundly interested in the build-up and backstage histories that lie behind that final spectacle.

Paul Prescott begins by exploring the overlaps between the philosophy of Olympism and the various forms of dream work performed by Shakespeare in 2012. The juxtaposition of two previously unpublished poems by Kapka Kassabova – a writer in residence in Stratford-on-Avon in the Olympic year – invites the reader to consider the relationship between a captured moment of parochial festivity and the weight and responsibilities of global citizenship. Interviews with Frank Cottrell Boyce, Tom Bird and Tracy Irish offer reflective and personal accounts about the process of scripting, producing and teaching Shakespeare for and on the global stage.

The next two chapters consider the politics of culture from the perspective of nation and region, analysing the relations between space, identity and representation. Stuart Hampton-Reeves focuses on the interrogation of nationhood offered by three Globe to Globe productions; he uses this so-called Balkan trilogy to reflect on boundaries and faultlines within London in the lead-up to the Olympics. Adam Hansen and Monika Smialkowska question the boundaries between local, national and global, and tease out the ways in which the northeast of England was and was not represented in the 2012 festivities.

The Globe to Globe Festival shifted our understanding of the nature of cross-cultural exchange between performer and audience. Stephen Purcell and Rose Elfman’s chapters draw on both quantitative and subjective accounts of spectatorship to explore the ways in which audiences collaborated in the creation of meaning and value throughout the Olympiad. The networks of global production behind the World Shakespeare Festival are interrogated by Colette Gordon in her analysis of the sometimes problematic ways in which one continent – Africa – signified and was represented across Olympiad programming.

The following two chapters offer telling comparisons, one synchronic, the other diachronic. Peter Kirwan and Charlotte Mathieson’s chapter analyses the ways in which London (and other spaces, real and virtual) celebrated and remembered two canonical writers, Shakespeare and Dickens (2012 was the two hundredth anniversary of the novelist’s birth). Tony Howard finds echoes in 2012 of the last London Olympics of 1948, in which international cultural exchange benefited the British understanding of Shakespeare in another age of austerity. The promise of far-reaching legacy underwrites every Olympics, and Erin Sullivan’s concluding chapter considers how investment in Shakespeare in 2012 connected with an optimistic, if unrealized, vision of Britain’s global future. Finally, in her afterword Kathleen McLuskie weighs the virtues of that optimism against the almost intractable complexity of capital and culture, reflecting on the irreconcilable pressures and pleasures that Shakespeare celebration in the Olympic year exerted on the individual.


Shakespeare Pedagogy in the Digital Age

A question I was left pondering after part 1 of Shakespeare in the Digital World was whether or not digital research was inherently more or less social than its non-digital counterpart. Bruce Smith argued strongly that it was less social, less experiential, less time-bound–in a word, less human. But David McInnis also showed how fundamentally collaborative some digital projects are, and how this enables a form of international social and professional exchange that simply wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago.


I bring up the social here because in part 2 of this book, which focuses on TEACHING, similar questions relating to digital interaction, sharing, and sociability make up a central theme. In his introduction to the section, Peter Kirwan points out how active, up on your feet, interactive approaches to Shakespeare have dominated many pedagogical discussions in recent years. ‘The focus on physical bodies, proximity and movement tends to gloss over the integration of new technologies’, he writes, ‘except when that technology reinforces the live classroom’ (p. 59). This recent emphasis in Shakespeare studies on pedagogy as a kind of theatre is interesting and provocative in and of itself (is your classroom ensemble-led, or more the director’s theatre variety?), but in this post I will restrict myself to saying a few words on these issues specifically in terms of the digital. I will keep it to a few words though, since one of the essays in the section is in fact by me and so to a large extent I’ve already said my piece on the subject, both in the essay itself and in a previous blog post here.

Sarah Grandage and Julie Sanders, Sheila Cavanagh and Kevin Quarmby, and Peter Kirwan himself have written the other essays in the section, and together we cover experiences relating to distance learning, blended classrooms, joint teaching via video conferencing, collaborative class wikis and Twitter hashtags, and new resources for teaching performance online. As I read the essays together I found myself underlining phrases like ‘experiential creativity’, ‘digital connectors’, ‘socializing practices’, and jotting down notes such as ‘social facilitation’, ‘experience, experiment’, ‘interactivity, engagement’. I suppose this emphasis on digital pedagogy as collaborative and social shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given the fact that the Web 2.0 tools so frequently discussed in this section are essentially what we know as social media. But it is interesting, I think, to see how all of us have emphasized social liveness and communal exchange in our reflection, with the assertion very often being that not only can digital teaching be as social as its non-digital counterpart, it can sometimes be more so.

I think that’s right, but it’s an idea that is worth further consideration. In their discussion of joint teaching via Skype, Cavanagh and Quarmby explain how students recognized the authority and presence of the Skyped-in instructor as fully as they did the co-instructor that they knew in the flesh. ‘The virtual presence was, albeit unconsciously, fully integrated into the class psyche’ (p. 93). All of the essays, in one way or another, talk about habituation to the digital. That is–once we get used to using it and seeing it, it no longer becomes something that is different, or worryingly non-human. It is simply part of normal life. I am reminded, though, of Bruce Smith’s comment in part 1: ‘If I have learned anything since I started teaching in 1972, it is to distrust binaries … What is needed in every case is a third thing, a tertium quid, a synthesis that reconciles thesis and antithesis’ (p. 28). Leaving aside the question/joke of what Smith makes of binary code, I am left wondering what the third thing might be for digital sociability. It is certainly not inhuman or beyond the human–we are, after all, the agents (or subjects?) driving and making it–but neither is it a part of human experience and exchange as we’ve previously known it. What is the synthesis then that lies, unconsciously, in between?

Alongside the discussion of big questions like this one, the section offers a helpful range of practical ideas and tips that I’m sure I’ll be making use of in my own teaching. From performance resources available online, to how to create a sense of presence through the Skyped screen, to how to use a student-led wiki to fuel research, there’s lots to think about and work with here.

‘Digital Humanism’ by Oskari Niitamo


Shakespeare Research in the Digital Age


In my last post I spent some time reflecting on the introduction to Shakespeare and the Digital World by way of the Year of Shakespeare project; in this post I want to dive right into part one of Carson and Kirwan’s edited collection, which focuses on RESEARCH.

Each section in the book is fronted by a short introduction by one of the editors, and here Carson begins with a quotation from Katherine Rowe: ‘Older forms and values provide a vital intellectual framework for the way we use newer media, shaping the needs we bring to the new tools and the opportunities we find in them’ (qtd p. 10). It’s an apt start to a section that often focuses on the experience of the researcher, and especially on the experience of researchers for whom the world hasn’t always been digital. Essays from John Lavagnino, Bruce Smith, Farah Karim-Cooper, and David McInnis make up this thought-provoking opening section, and below are four big ideas I am left with after reading it.

(1) Digital research is more than what we think it is.

John Lavagnino starts us off with a snapshot of the long history of digital, electronic, and computer-assisted humanities research. Digital humanities may have come on the scene in or around 2008/9, he reminds us, but ‘”applied computing in the humanities” has been visible since the 1940s’ (p. 14). In addition to looking back, Lavagnino’s chapter also looks around and forward at digital research now, in particular its use of tools and resources created by industry rather than the academy (Google Books, YouTube, etc.), and the fact that even people who wouldn’t consider themselves digital humanities scholars are doing ‘invisibly digital research’ through their use of EEBO, Literature Online, and the like (p. 22). Bruce Smith’s subsequent chapter discusses what it feels like when that naturalized kind of digital research is made visible, primarily through its disruption. Here he reflects on the experience of locating a book in the library that eludes him online, which prompts him to consider how much and how quickly we have come to take for granted widespread access to research materials that were previously the focus of more limited, time-bound, and difficult scholarly pilgrimages.

(2) Digital research is more mediated than non-digital research– or is it?

Karim-Cooper’s chapter on iPad technology continues with a meditation on the experience of the researcher today, one who is ‘no longer able to sit for hours researching and writing in university libraries, but … [is] instead encouraged to run multiple projects simultaneously, create new partnerships and travel around speaking to the public, all while maintaining an impressive publishing profile’ (p. 37). Tools like the iPad help facilitate research in unlikely but necessary places — namely, on trains — but for Karim-Cooper they ultimately remain just that: tools. While research into haptic technologies is working on putting the sensation of touch back into the touchpad, Karim-Cooper observes how researchers ‘of the screen’ miss out on the full sensory experience of handling, and thus learning from, material books. Does this mediation of physical feeling, she wonders, also entail a parallel mediation of emotional and cognitive affect? When we use an iPad or any other screened device to read literature, ‘Will we be able to feel the effects of poetry in the same way?’ (p. 38). Smith likewise considers the embodied experience of the researcher, and the way in which digital research methods are reshaping what he calls ‘the phenomenology of knowledge’ (p. 29). For him, though, digital research is radically unmediated, in that pages from digital facsimiles appear to us online without context, without ‘sedimentation’, without history. They are simply there, and their dissociation from anything else leads Smith to suggest that digital research is a supremely ‘presentist’ way of working. What you see is what you get, but perhaps not much more.

(3) Digital research has often been about tools and resources, but maybe it needs to start being more about research questions.

Lavagnino’s opening essay suggests that the most influential digital scholarship has taken the shape of scholarly resources rather that critical or analytical innovations, and Smith and Karim-Cooper’s interest in the digital primarily as tool or approach adds to this line of thought. But David McInnis’s final chapter presents an example of how digital ways of working may also allow us to change the fundamental research questions we can ask. Although he explains that he and his colleagues did not initially think of the Lost Plays Database as an online project, they eventually realized they needed to go digital in order to allow for the international scholarly collaboration that was needed to meet the aims of their project: ‘Creating a record of this disparate and obscure information [i.e. that involved in tracing lost plays] relies on collective knowledge and the assemblage of information which has little significance on its own … encouraging new and easy ways of interacting with other scholars is essential if the sum is to be greater than its parts’ (pp. 45, 52). While we might often think of digital work as isolating, distancing, or even antisocial, McInnis shows that this certainly need not be the case. What’s more, his bibliography of the collaborative print publications that have emerged from the LPD project likewise illustrates that the divide between ‘traditional’ and digital ways of working may not always be as stark as we first think.

(4) Digital research is not necessarily easier, cheaper, more democratic, more manageable, more innovative, or faster than non-digital research.

Lavagnino starts the section with the warning that ‘a common problem has been unrealistic ambition or overestimation of what can be done in a purely computational way’ (p. 17), and McInnis finishes it with the observation that ‘the transition from print to web is often made with little planning or critical reflection’ (p. 43). That has certainly been my own experience in terms of digital projects. What’s the point of doing things digitally, if you don’t have a strong sense of how or why you’re doing them in the first place? Which is something I’ll no doubt come back to in my post on part 2 ofShakespeare and the Digital World, which focuses on teaching and pedagogy in the digital age.

Technology and the Book

In my last post I mentioned the fact that an essay of mine has recently been published in Shakespeare and the Digital World, a new book edited by Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan for Cambridge University Press. I received my contributor copies in the mail last week, and I’ve been enjoying flipping through the pages and seeing what kinds of issues come up in the other chapters. The book is divided into four sections – research, teaching, publication, performance – and rather than wait until I’ve finished the entire thing, which might take awhile given all the other stuff that is (quite literally) on my desk, I thought I’d blog about the book section-by-section as I work my way through it. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first book to try to take stock of how digital knowledge, practice, and life is shaping the way in which academics of all varieties are working with Shakespeare today, and I think and hope it will be of interest to quite a lot of people in the field.


But before jumping straight into the four sections, I wanted to reflect a bit on Carson and Kirwan’s introduction, which invites us to think about the nature of the book itself. I suppose some people might question whether or not a critical discussion about digital transformation should really take place in a physical book like the one photographed above, but I think Carson and Kirwan are right that ‘What a book can do well, and has always done well, is to provide an extended argument on a topic through a structured approach that leads the reader through it in manageable stages.’ (p. 2) The idea gave me pause; it is, on the face of it, an obvious statement, but it manages to articulate something clearly and succinctly that we very often take for granted – that a book is a discursive form, and that switching to other kinds of publication platforms isn’t just a change in delivery format, it is a change in discourse and argumentation themselves.

I hadn’t fully realized it, but the power of the book as a form hit me last year when we published A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, much of which already existed online as a collaborative blog (www.yearofshakespeare.com). The aim of the website and book was to document and respond to each of the more than 70 productions of Shakespeare’s plays that were put on in 2012 as part of the UK’s Olympic celebrations. While the website finished around November 2012, the book came out in April 2013, and I was surprised by how publishing the essays as a book really did give them a new identity and life. Of course, somewhat predictably, it meant that certain people now recognized its contents as research – authorized by an academic press, materialized on a physical page, it gained new status for some as legitimate knowledge. But this wasn’t all the book did for the project. First, and very simply, the physical book reached readers that the website didn’t, and vice versa. I suppose it wasn’t unlike touring a theatre production to different audiences, or even recording it and sending people the DVD. By putting the contents onto different kinds of stages, a wider cross-section of audiences knew about it.

Year of Shakespeare: the website

Second, and even more significantly, the book influenced the fundamental nature of the project, even if most of the words themselves did not change. While the website contained about 130 essays, hundreds of user comments, dozens of audio interviews with audience members, and as much multimedia material as we could find, the book contained one essay for each of the 74 productions in the World Shakespeare Festival celebrations, topped and tailed with new material from me and my two co-editors. Most of the production essays had already appeared on the blog (in fact, they’re still there), but they had not appeared as a sequence that could be worked through step by step, and they certainly hadn’t appeared as a collection that you could hold, measure, and visualize as an object (i.e. object-ively?).

Year of Shakespeare: the book

As a book the size and scope of the project is more easily grasped – even if, ironically, the book is a more select version of the collaborative website. I don’t think some people realized that the project really did cover all of the festival until they could see it together in material form. There is also a sense of linear progression and narrative sequence in a book, even if that sequence is at times arbitrary (we ended up going with alphabetical order by Shakespeare play, meaning that people can read about three Romeo and Juliets at once, but also that that the reason things start with All’s Well and finish with The Winter’s Tale has nothing to do with the live, lived experience of the 2012 festival itself). What I suppose is most significant about all this is not what the book does to the essays themselves, but rather what it does for our apprehension of them. It creates a story out of them that we can follow, even if we know that story is largely imposed. The website on the other hand creates a landscape out of them that we are free to explore, but that we can also get easily lost in.

The final thing that’s worth mentioning is that, at least for our project, the physical book has proven more durable than the digital website. While the book took longer to generate, once it arrived it hasn’t changed. The website on the other hand was faster and more responsive in its publication, but has been quicker to deteriorate. Over the last two weeks I’ve been working with two PhD students to archive the site for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which holds the Royal Shakespeare Company’s archives and collections (the World Shakespeare Festival was produced by the RSC). Led by specialists at the SBT, our archiving process has, perhaps paradoxically, involved printing out all of the website’s contents into a hard copy, and saving as much non-textual material as possible to CDs. In the process of doing so we’ve been surprised by how many of the website’s links, plug-ins, and videos have been broken or died in the 18 months since I stopped maintaining it regularly. Call it naivety, but I didn’t fully appreciate how present a blog could be in the moment, but how ephemeral it might prove a few years into the future.

Year of Shakespeare: the archive

The question for me, then, is the extent to which these differences are intrinsic and the extent to which they will fade with time. I have no doubt, for instance, that a website could be preserved just as well as a book by someone who was more diligent, and more technically skilled, than me. But what about the academic status of digital publishing, or the potentially divided audiences for digital and analogue publishing platforms? Will these distinctions become less visible with every year? Most significantly, what about the way digital and analogue forms and formats shape our ability to understand and interpret the contents they hold? If this changes too, then it may very well be us, as psychological and social entities, that are the main things being changed.

So — many thoughts, and all within reading of the first 7 pages of Carson and Kirwan’s introduction. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 250 hold, and so I move into part one of its sequenced, structured conversation, flipping its physical pages as I go.

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.


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.

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].


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.