My experience working and attending the 2012 Shakespeare Theatre Association Conference in Orlando, Florida was a unique opportunity to immerse myself in the world of Shakespeare theater and gain an understanding of the values and inner-dynamics of this organization. Established in 1991 as the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America, STAA was originally comprised of nearly 40 theatres primarily involved in the production of Shakespeare’s plays. These founding organizations came together to provide a network for supporting and sharing ideas related to American production and education of the Bard’s work. Twenty-one years later, the organization has more than tripled its number of members, and in recent years, has embraced a more worldly approach, dropping the ‘of America’ from its name, making room for theaters from across the globe (including The Globe!). The scope of the STA makes it an ideal network through which to understand trends and practices related to Shakespeare production and education worldwide.
Each year the STA comes together at a different member company’s theater for a week of discussion and debate over current issues related to the production and education of Shakespeare’s works. This is the STA’s mission: “to provide a forum for the artistic, managerial, educational leadership for theatres primarily involved with the production of the works of William Shakespeare; to discuss issues and methods of work, resources, and information; and to act as an advocate for Shakespearean productions and training.” The Conference serves as a cultivating space for members to network, learn from one another, and leave inspired, ready to channel that energy into their work. The sense of camaraderie among STA members is palpable, and I was grateful to be welcomed into the family in order to facilitate a social media presence for the conference, and in the process, inform my research on technology and Shakespeare education.
Preparing for this conference I outlined a series of learning objectives I hoped to achieve through my participation. These objectives included the ability to 1) report back on best practices for teaching Shakespeare as discussed by leaders in the field, 2) examine how technology does/can/will play a role in these established best practices, 3) identify key Shakespeare organizations leading the way in technology integration and examine how/where they incorporate technology into their programming and protocols, 4) understand the most common challenges Shakespeare organizations are facing when it comes to integrating new technologies, and 5) make connections between my work blogging for the conference and how it ties in with my larger research topic: the role of technology in Shakespeare education. Experiencing the conference as a participant blogger provided me with a unique opportunity to successfully achieve these objectives, and will help inform the next steps of my research.
The theme of this year’s STA Conference was “Shakespeare Here and Everywhere,” embracing the more outward focus the organization has taken and playing with themes of time and place. The “Shakespeare Here” explored anti-bulling work being done thought Colorado Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night school tours. “Shakespeare Then” dealt with revisiting original practices in Shakespeare performance. Discussions of “Shakespeare Everywhere” included those with both a geographic and virtual focus, exploring facets of international Shakespeare productions as well as how social media fits in with the artistic and educational missions of an organization.
Achievement of my first three learning objectives occurred primarily through attendance of the “Shakespeare Virtually Everywhere” breakout session that focused on social media and the educational mission. The panel for the Social Medial and the Educational Mission session was moderated by Mike LoMonico, Senior Consultant on National Education for the Folger Shakespeare Library, and was comprised of arts educators Sarah Enloe, Director of Education for the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia; Rebecca Ennals, Artistic Director of Education Programs for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival in California; Harper Ray, Digital Manager, Globe Education for Shakespeare’s Globe in London; and Josh Stavros, Associate Education Director for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. These organizations are among those that have established their own best practices for Shakespeare education and are paving the way for establishing best practices with technology integration. In this session these arts leaders set out to address the following questions: 1) How can the web and new media support active theatre-centered learning? 2) Is screen-based learning a contradiction when trying to engage students with the “now” of live theatre? 3) How can we avoid resorting to posting study guides on-line? 4) What opportunities does the web offer us for collaborative projects? The questions themselves give good insight into the expectations STA members have for the role of technology; words like active, engage, opportunities, and collaboration give a good representation of the values that members of the STA Education Focus Group hold close.
While there’s still more work to be done in documenting the best practices for instruction as defined by these leading organizations, initial research supports what exists in much of the literature on Shakespeare education, emphasizing the importance of engagement and play. Folger Shakespeare Library has done a great deal of work to establish their own best practices for Shakespeare in the classroom, and providing numerous resources for teachers and students via their website at folger.edu. An important aspect of the Folger philosophy on quality Shakespeare education is that it’s more important to get kids excited about Shakespeare than to get them to understand every word, and to get kids excited about Shakespeare, you need to have them perform Shakespeare. More research into their work on best practices for Shakespeare education will be important moving forward with my research.
I am also interested in juxtaposing an organization like Folger’s best practices with an original practice company such as the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia. Original practice Shakespeare performance works to stay true to Elizabethan production values, whether it be with physical conditions of the production, playing practices, or business practices. This original practice approach plays an interesting role in Shakespeare education, not only for the historical value, but as I discovered in Sarah Enloe’s Pre-Conference session on Cue Scripts and Original Practice, by using the same techniques an Elizabethan actor would have used to analyze his script, students are able to unlock a host of clues within the text that help in understanding of and engagement with the language.
Each of the organizations highlighted during the panel discussion were in agreement that technology, defined as web and new media, plays an important role in students’ education today. Because these technologies are changing and advancing so quickly, the best practices for incorporating these new media become outdated before they can be written. The STA Conference provides a valuable forum for Shakespeare organizations to share their successes and resources with one another. While the value of collaboration among institutions was acknowledged in the panel, it was also discussed as an area of weakness. Instead of sharing resources and pointing students or teachers to other organization’s websites, when it comes to generating educational materials, Shakespeare theaters are often in constant efforts to reinvent the wheel. While it seems more effective to share resources and collaborate with other organizations on educational materials, it is at odds with what many funders are looking for. As mentioned in the panel, many grant proposals require evidence and documentation of original lesson plans and educational materials—a requirement that doesn’t necessarily best serve the theater or its educational efforts. There also comes the issue of costs. While many theaters would love to be able to give away their materials (and many do) there are still costs incurred by the organization who created the materials, and what can be done to ensure compensations for their efforts?
Collaboration is something that the STA clearly values, and organizational efforts to facilitate each other’s educational missions will continue to be built upon in years to come, especially as the need for strong, new media applications devoted to Shakespeare education increases. The STA Education Focus Group recognizes that there is a place for these new media in educational practices, but also recognizes the concerns that these screen-based technologies will have a negative impact on the live experience of theater. Rebecca Ennals of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival is interested in understanding how to use technology in such a way that makes people want to experience the in-person interactions that live theater facilitates. She observed that kids want to learn in highly interactive ways, but that many teachers lack an understanding of how to use the latest advances, such as Smart Boards, even if funding is present to provide these materials. In addition, many parents are eager to get their kids away from the computer screens and mobile devices. Thinking about ways to use social media that can engage students and encourage a live-Shakespeare experience, Ennals has some great ideas for using flashmob models of communication to publicize guerilla-style popup Shakespeare performances throughout San Francisco parks. Instead of print advertisements, performance times and locations would be communicated using social media platforms such as Twitter. In this way, technology is being used as a tool for facilitating a unique, live theater experience, and not looking to replace the live experience with a digital one.
Another highlight of the Social Media and Shakespeare Education panel conversation came from the unveiling of a soon-to-come web-based application, The Scene Machine, from London’s Globe Theatre. Harper Ray with Globe Education encourages theaters to “embrace the medium” of digital technologies and use them for their strengths: as a tool for rapid response, low cost delivery, an international footprint, and two-way communication. Globe Education, which had a website before the Globe Theater did, is comprised of forward thinkers working to utilize technology in such a way that puts the text into action. The Scene Machine will allow students (young and old) to make creative choices about Shakespeare’s plays and take on the role of the director, creating their own scenes that can be uploaded to their favorite social media sites and shared with friends. The Scene Machine programmers will work with the Globe’s acting company, recording the performers as they deliver lines from a given scene of a play with a series of different emotions. For example, the simple line “Whither wander you?” from Midsummer Night’s Dream can be said with joy, sorrow, anger, fear, etc., and each different reading can give the scene a different motivation. Given the variety of choices to consider, students can create scenes, invent, build, and resolve conflict, all based on their own creative interpretations. Keeping in mind the importance of the actor/audience relationship, the next step in the classroom, according to Sarah Enloe with American Shakespeare Center, would be to have students perform the scene themselves, after having the chance to work and play in the web based environment. While this tool could be seen as a substitution for performance, it and other media-based applications should be approached in such a way that help facilitate performance.
Ultimately, there is some excellent work happening in the world of Shakespeare education and some clear ideas about where new media and web applications fit into this world, but the possibilities are still untapped, and the surface is only beginning to be scratched. What is innovative now is likely to be outdated within the next couple of years. Just as we’re seeing with changes in expectations from modern audience members, modern students have different expectations and needs when it comes to modes of communication and means of engagement. This requires a great deal of effort on the part of designers to invent and create applications that meet these demands, as well as the educators who must not only keep current on the changes, but be able to implement these changes in with their lesson plans.
Another challenge that was not extensively addressed in the social media and education panel but is present nonetheless is the issue of quality control. While there are a number of different web-based resources available to teachers and students, there lacks a standard method of evaluation for these tools. As recommendations for Shakespeare and digital media best practices emerge, these standards can help inform teachers and guide them toward applications worth using. The STA could play a role in facilitating this by highlighting the work of their member organizations, making this information accessible to teacher organizations.
As progressive and digital-minded as many arts managers at the STA Conference are, there is still a push back from a significant representation of the membership and a divide between the techno-wills and techno-won’ts. With the pervasive role that technology plays in our daily lives, there are valid concerns in the performing arts world that digital experiences will overshadow, disrupt, or demean the live performance. The live Shakespeare experience is at the core of STA’s mission, for which there is no digital replacement, and it makes sense that there exists a cautious attitude within STA moving forward in this technological era.
This divide over the digital was seen in small ways, from the hesitancy over the blog and it being considered a useful tool for the membership, to murmurings from attendees who would have preferred a different choice during the “Shakespeare Virtually Everywhere” session because they weren’t interested in social media. Another example was during a discussion of the STA’s publication, Quarto, and whether or not to convert to an entirely online mode of distribution. In a straw poll taken during a business meeting, there was a fairly even divide between those in favor of the moving to a completely digital Quarto. These conversations about the value of social media and the digital distribution of materials provided unique insight into the landscape of technology and Shakespeare education I had hoped for; this divide over digital is a common struggle among nonprofits these days and is worth noting moving forward into my research.
The fact that my primary responsibility leading up to and during the conference was building and maintaining a conference blog site—the first time this had ever been done at a STA Conference—made for an even richer experience as I interfaced with technology to provide an educational component to the Conference itself. Overall the blog was considered a great success by the STA members. On the last night of the conference, I received a number of thank-yous from attendees who found the blog useful because they were able to sit and listen to the conference sessions without having to take notes themselves. The fact that there were designated note takers in each session and those notes were being posted to the blog on a daily basis meant that conference participants could listen and engage, rather than worry about writing it all down. In addition, the blog is already helping to make the STA more visible in the greater Shakespeare community. There was a PhD candidate at Florida State University in Tallahassee, working on founding an original practice Shakespeare company, who learned about the conference on our first day after his friend discovered the blog and sent him a link. He promptly registered to become a members of the STA and drove down to Orlando, joining us for the remainder of the Conference.
The blog also had a wide reach of followers. Not only was it a useful tool for conference attendees, but STA members and general Shakespeare enthusiasts nationwide were able to follow along with the conference, reading the notes and participating in live-tweeting during the sessions. While the debate over live-tweeting during a theater performance is still divisive, live-tweeting during the conference seemed to be acceptable. We were sure to include a message in the conference program that encourages live-tweeting during conference sessions and directed members to use the hashtag #sta12. This way all conference-related tweets were archived under a single hashtag and an RSS feed was included on the Conference blog site. There were approximately 10-15 STA members who were regularly tweeting the conference and who knows how many more following along. As noted by one of the conference participants, the live Twitter feed was especially useful during breakout sessions where multiple topics were being discussed at once. The Twitter feed allowed participants to be physically present in the room for one session but still have a virtual presence in the others. These success stories demonstrate the educational value that can be achieved in integrating new media into Shakespeare organizations. The positive reception the blog had from STA leadership makes it highly likely that it will continue to be offered as a service by the conference hosts in years to come, and I am eager to see how blogging can be continued to be utilized by the STA.
I can’t say enough how valuable my participation with the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s 2012 Conference has been, as a student, blogger, researcher, emerging arts leader, Shakespeare enthusiast, and more. Moving forward with my research next steps involve more investigation into best practices for Shakespeare education, comparing Folger Shakespeare Library with the American Shakespeare Center, while also examining other theaters involved in the panel discussion: The Globe, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and Utah Shakespeare Festival. While there are excellent resources currently available and in development for Shakespeare educators, there lacks 1) a comprehensive inventory of STA member educational resources and 2) an evaluation rubric for new media and web-based educational materials. As an organization, the STA has the power to be an authority, setting the standards on quality Shakespeare education and digital media integration.
It’s also worth noting that conference discussions of technology integration were framed within a focus on the organizational mission, be it artistic or educational. Approaching the subject of technology and Shakespeare from a viewpoint of an educational mission gives my research the institutional focus I’ve been working to steer towards. Most Shakespeare theaters include education as some component of their missions; its inherent aspect of the work we do. Blogging this conference would fall under the STA’s educational mission, and in that way connects to my larger research objectives.
The act of experiencing and facilitating technology integration throughout the conference made for a truly unique and very interdisciplinary experience. It was a two-week crash course in the subject of Shakespeare Education and Digital Media. I am sincerely grateful to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater for giving me this opportunity, and to the Shakespeare Theatre Association for making me feel so welcomed and appreciated throughout the process. Among the many discoveries I’ve made post-conference as I processes my STA experience is that my exploration into the role of technology and Shakespeare education is one that could easily become a life-long journey. I have left the STA 2012 Conference with a much deeper understanding of the current state of Shakespeare education and digital media integration than when I began, particularly when it comes to the values and concerns of current Shakespeare educators. I am excited to delve deeper into the material, charting the paths I’ve uncovered from this experience and continuing to document my process along the way.