Thursday, January 20, 2011

"O this learning, what a thing it is!"

This past Monday, January 17th, I had the chance to attend another Education event at the ASC. Guest lecturer Ryan Nelson, Digital Manager for Globe Education in London, was in Staunton to talk about some of his recent work. He discussed the importance of creating an interesting and entertaining education website for a place like the Globe Theatre, as well as the multitude of ways he went about coming up with and designing digital resources for teaching and research. “Participation through engagement” is the goal, as Nelson put it. And, as someone new to working in the realm of education, only just discovering the various ways of making the past relevant and, well, as cool to everyone else as it is to me, all of these projects struck me as ridiculously exciting.

The Globe Theatre, London

As part of his talk, Nelson walked through some elements of the Globe Education website. These ranged from the more scholarly to the more entertaining; from the basic to the fantastic, and all of which can be found at On the more scholarly end of things, you can browse through an archive of conference and lecture papers, like those from the 2006 Theatre History Seminar on the use of blood on the stage, where you can learn the history behind the nifty trick, “To cut off ones head, and to laie it in a platter” (always useful). Or you can peruse research bulletins, which act essentially as production diaries for some of the first shows staged at the new Globe and which also include some wonderful detail on the historical research and rehearsal processes of a play, as well as actor interviews (one actor from a 2002 production of The Golden Ass notes: if you’re a man playing a woman, it’s more than just “put on a funny voice and get on with it” – never walk in straight lines or show your thumbs).

On the more purely entertainment end of things, you can “adopt an actor,” which does not, as Nelson was quick to point out, mean that a member of the Globe’s company comes and lives at your house. Instead, it means that students can sign up to access exclusive blogs and podcasts from certain actors during a season. It’s a great way to get a close look at all the behind-the-scenes action of a Shakespearean-era playhouse (for example, Lady Macbeth likes to unwind with a glass of bubbly after a show). Probably my favorite site, however, was that for “Playing Shakespeare.” Although aimed at young people in London schools, it was a shameless blast for me as well. This section is all about interaction, featuring several of the Globe’s recent productions, including Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado about Nothing. There are audio and video clips, and interactive texts with an automatic, pop-up glossary. You can also alternately view these select scenes as the original script or as the director’s edit. Nelson spoke about his hopes to expand this part of the Education website in particular, ideally to a point where different groups could edit and manipulate play texts for different purposes. He referred to it as creating “a modern prompt book.” This stuck with me, since part of my ASC research has included researching cue scripts and prompt books. Listening to Nelson, I found myself thinking that it is a strange and wonderful thing to compare this idea of a contemporary prompt book, able to be created digitally through instantaneous re-crafting of these centuries-old written words, to the original, carefully copied and compiled prompt books of early modern theatre. They are two so entirely different methods for accomplishing the same purpose, and it is tempting to imagine the original members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men or the Admiral’s Men loving and thoroughly appreciating this concept.

Also within “Playing Shakespeare” is a “social network” mock-up (otherwise known as that word starts with “face” and ends with “book”), where characters from the plays have their own profiles, complete with “O wall, o sweet, o lovely wall.” Finally, students can post their own opinions on themes and issues of the different plays, where, Nelson joked, the students often discuss the weighty topics more civilly than adults. Browsing through this section of the website myself, it was satisfying to see the high number of posts under each category and to picture these youngsters voluntarily engaging in discussion and getting excited about the ideas presented. And they had some insightful things to say, too. About Much Ado about Nothing, one student stated, “I enjoyed the book even more because the type of things that occur in the play happen a lot in my age group or high school. So many emotions such as love, hate, jealousy, and justice occur at my school so therefore many people can relate.” Another student’s advice is rather more straightforward: “Watch the DVD.”

The main page of the Globe Education website claims to provide “Resources for people passionate about learning and engaging with Shakespeare’s plays.” What jumped out to me in this statement were the words “engaging with.” Before coming to work here, I had never made that unlikely connection between Shakespeare and the internet, and how critical the latter could be in promoting the former. As I continue to plug away at my own project, that oft-mentioned “Rehearsal Tools of the ASC,” I’m discovering that what makes this process so satisfying for me is that I am creating an educational resource for others while, at the same time, learning new things myself on a daily basis. And that’s not just new things about Shakespeare and early modern theatre, but new things about the role of an Education Department in places like this and the Globe. I left this talk feeling enthused and inspired to persevere with my own small contribution to the ASC’s website.

“I am weak with toil, yet strong in appetite” (Cymbeline, 3.7.10).

Natalie A.

P.S. Two other organizations which Nelson referenced as being at the cutting edge of digital education were the Royal Opera House and the Tate Gallery – I leave you to check out these websites for yourself, as the wealth of material to peruse at each is astounding and beyond the scope of this entry.

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