This wiki space contains archival documentation of Project Bamboo, April 2008 - March 2013.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY APPLIED TO
THE STATE OF THE ART
By Raffaella Santucci, Luca Giberti
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.
An actor moves across this space while someone is watching
and a piece of theatre is engaged.
In performance studies (but the same can be said about drama practice), we embrace the several 'languages' used by theatre — sound, word, body, light, space, objects, images — by adopting many different approaches: while some of us are interested in script-based theatre, others focus their research on collective creations, in which actors devise, through extensive improvisation, the text and the physical score they will use in performance. Some of our work is concentrated on psychological theatre, some on socio-political theatre, and for some, dance and mime are central to the investigation. There are many paradigms for theatre, each of which is well represented by great works of art. Common to all performance studies is the pursuit and investigation of the impulse, and the inner workings, behind great theatre.
In the following pages, we will provide a quick overview of the most relevant existing applications of information technology (IT) to tuition in the fields of drama and performing arts studies. We shall deliberately avoid the distinction between practice-based courses (drama) and theoretical/criticism courses (theatre or performance studies), using instead the expression "theatre education" to designate both. This is done for several reasons:
- first of all, the tools afforded by IT naturally put an emphasis on aspects of interaction, involvement and creativity that blur the line between the two fields;
- secondly, and most importantly, it is our profound belief that serious study of the performing arts cannot take place without first-hand experience of stagecraft;
likewise, aspiring practitioners in the field should possess an awareness of what came before them, so as to be able to exploit knowledge of theatre history and theory to their advantage.
The distinction between theory and practice in theatre has got as much sense as the separation between academics devoted to Euclidean geometry and real-world empiricists in pre-Galileian times.
1 THEATRE EDUCATION TODAY
In the Western world, theatre studies teaching generally relies on a traditional approach based on more or less media-rich lectures and seminars, revising on lecture notes, researching on books and articles, limited access to media for browsing and studying, and assessment via written essays and/or oral examination. Likewise, drama practice is based mostly on extended workshops with teachers, and tends to rely even less than theatre studies on text and media as vehicles of knowledge.
The scarce impact of IT on teaching theatre appears to mirror a generalised trend that applies the whole of education: "The dream of universal access to high-quality, personalized educational content that is available both synchronously and asynchronously remains unrealized. For more than four decades it has been said that information technology would be a key enabling technology for making this dream a reality by providing the ability to produce compelling and individualized content, the means for delivering it, and effective feedback and assessment mechanisms. Although IT has certainly had some impact, it has become a cliché to note that education is the last field to take systematic advantage of IT. There have been some notable successes of innovative software (e.g. the graphic calculator, the Geometer's Sketchpad, and the World Wide Web as an information storage and delivery vehicle) but we continue to teach - and students continue to learn in ways that are virtually unchanged since the invention of the blackboard."
In theatre education (but also in academic research), the following problems still await a widespread standardised solution:
- organising different typologies of content (text, video and image records) for effective searching, browsing, commenting and quoting by both students and researchers;
- providing ways to access and share the above records between scholars and/or students, and practitioners remotely and securely.
IT-based tools not only hold the promise to solve these problems, but open up many possibilities for developing new pedagogical and research paradigms, for which IT is not merely an aid but a central feature.
Multi- and cross-media databases are also of great importance for preserving and transmitting knowledge of such an inherently transient activity as theatre is. The body of knowledge connected to theatre practice can at least in part be preserved and transmitted through extensive recording of exercises, training, rehearsals, which are expression of a knowledge that is difficult to verbalise.
2. SELECTED CASES OF IT APPLIED TO THEATRE STUDIES
Successful instances of IT tools applied to our discipline are few and oftentimes limited in their scope. In this chapter, based on a criterion of quality, we present the most relevant amongst them.
2.1 IT-ASSISTED THEATRE EDUCATION: HYPERTEXTUAL TOOLS TO COMPLEMENT TRADITIONAL APPROACHES
A variety of IT tools have been developed as an aid to research as well as to the traditional teaching approaches outlined in the previous chapter.
2.1.1 Online lecture content
These are essentially virtual counterparts of real-world entities: online lecture notes and literature, streaming lectures. Notable examples are:
- MIT Opencourseware (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Music-and-Theater-Arts/), which provides materials from almost all MIT courses; these may include syllabi, lecture notes, problem and answer sets, readings and reading lists, videos, special features and more; performing arts courses are included;
- UC Berkeley course/event webcasts (http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details.php?seriesid=1906978525), consisting of courses and events for live viewing and on-demand replay over the Internet; no drama, as only theatre studies are covered.
2.1.2 Online theatre-related databases
Scattered, sometimes vast multimedia databases have been started, their expanding contents originating from the ongoing digitisation of existing collections. Interface is webpage-like with forms for queries. Notable examples are:
- Shakespeare Electronic Archive (http://shea.mit.edu/) , a comprehensive resource designed around ease of use and integrated access to materials across several media; electronic texts are closely linked to digital copies of primary materials; it will eventually become The Global Shakespeare Project, incorporating multimedia content from all over the world;
Shakespeare Electronic Archive - View of the interface
- GloPAD (Global Performing Arts Database, http://www.glopad.org/pi/en/), a multi-lingual resource containing "digital images, texts, video clips, sound recordings, and complex media objects related to the performing arts around the world, plus information about related pieces, productions, performers, and creators"; includes 3D content;
- Theatre Archive Project (http://www.bl.uk/projects/theatrearchive/homepage.html), about British theatre history 1945-1968, by the British Library and Sheffield University;
- Welcome to CESAR (http://www.cesar.org.uk/cesar2/), about French theatre of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; in the future, it will be complemented by The Comédie Française Performance Archive, an international university effort;
- The University of Bristol Theatre Collection (http://www.bris.ac.uk/theatrecollection/), about British theatre history;
- Theatre Museum Canada - Legend Library, Whittaker Collection (http://www.theatremuseumcanada.ca/Collections.asp), about 20th-century Canadian theatre;
- e-Stage (http://cordis.europa.eu/data/PROJ_FP5/ACTIONeqDndSESSIONeq112422005919ndDOCeq67ndTBLeqEN_PROJ.htm), "an information service that is built around material related to puppetry, such as plays, descriptions of puppets, abstracts of plays, and useful literature like tales"; the digital collection was conceived as a self-organising and self-sustained service available for free and updated by the free contributions from its users; unlike other systems preserving cultural content, it wasn't based on already-existing physical collections;
2.1.3 Dedicated virtual environments
In a way, these can be viewed as monographic databases with a 3D front-end, although the user experience is more engaging and visually appealing. Notable examples are:
- Theatron (http://www.theatron.org/), an EU-funded "educational multimedia application" for the history of theatre, in which users can freely move inside virtual 3D models of historical and contemporary European theatres; reconstructed models of lost venues are of particular interest - especially given the difficulty that teachers in theatre departments face when trying to instil in their students a sense of what performances in the past were like; future development entails the integration of Theatron with Second Life (http://www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/explore/projects/archive/technology/tech23.php): "new scenarios to be developed and tested will allow a wide range of Higher Education subject areas - including but extending far beyond the performing arts - to take advantage of the social, collaborative and interactive aspects of this shared virtual environment."; these supposed advantages stemming from Second Life, however, have yet to be proved;
Theatron, Theatre of Sabbioneta - Reconstruction
- Virtual Textbooks - Arts education at the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre (http://www.gertstein.org/edudram2.html), consisting of several different types of online texts developed for distance learning, with the capability of connecting "performers, students and scholars to rare archival holdings at museums and private collections around the world"; they feature "3D models of historical theaters, audio, and video, with interactive exercises and grade tracking facilities"; teachers can customise textbooks by choosing chapters, posting their own writings, linking content to online glossaries and multimedia resources within the database; each chapter contains an archive for online access to relevant multimedia records; users can navigate across 3D models of sets and theatres; unusual online records include design blueprints, scale models, blocking and design notes from the original promptbooks; Interactive Global Timelines provide a useful hypertextual tool for a comparative approach in the study of theatre history.
2.2 IT-BASED THEATRE EDUCATION: CROSS-MEDIA TOOLS IMPLYING CREATIVE USER INPUT
This paragraph considers environments/tools that entail a more interactive approach, requiring significant user input whilst integrating the use of various media. The most notable examples are:
- Cross Media Annotation System (XMAS - http://icampus.mit.edu/xmas/), which was originally known as the Shakespeare Video Annotation System; it is "a tool that faculty and students can use to include video clips in presentations, projects, and online discussions, without violating copyright";
XMAS - View of the interface
XMAS also provides a dedicated annotation workspace; born out of very practical pedagogical concerns, the system has been tested both qualitatively by teachers and quantitavely via surveys; as a result of its efficacy, its use has spread past theatre literature courses to media and film studies; perhaps the only significant weak point is that it works only under Windows.
- OpenDrama (http://mtg.upf.edu/opendrama/), a flexible tool for both education and entertainment in the field of opera; developed by a consortium of nine companies and research institutes from four European countries it "offers a variety of ways to experience, understand and interact with live or recorded opera performances" ; users can:
OPENDRAMA - A snapshot
o follow the plot in graphics and text;
o view and hear the actors, with the possibility of muting channels of voice or music to understand the structure of the performance;
o step in as replacement for one actor in a form of karaoke;
o enter into a 3D operatic world and meet fellow fans.
3 OTHER IT PROJECTS THAT MIGHT HAVE APPLICATIONS IN THEATRE EDUCATION
This chapter presents examples of innovative use of IT that could be of inspiration for similar approaches to theatre education.
- Charismatic (http://cordis.europa.eu/search/index.cfm?fuseaction=proj.document&CFID=10468908&PJ_RCN=5062670&CFTOKEN=94729980), is a platform aimed at "the development of new forms of Cultural Heritage Visitor Attraction" through the use of "drama, story-telling and live interactive dialogue" in "high fidelity virtual environments, populated by intelligent virtual humans"; in other words, traditional speech and movement-based performing arts are introducted into "virtual environments" via intelligent avatars; these on-site, location-based VR simulations are intended to feature "many of the current entertainment capabilities of theatre, film and television, but with the added values of interactivity and immersive experience"; the Charismatic consortium involves researchers and practitioners in the fields of computing science, theatre, film and television, computer image generation, graphic design, multi-media content creation, video gaming, historic preservation, archaeology and virtual reality.
- Life to the Second Power
(L2 - http://shl.stanford.edu/research/lifetosecondpower.html), a felicitous example of 're-invention' of an existing physical archive, is the project of digitisation of the existing archive of artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, now housed in the Special Collections Library at Stanford University; an "online meta narrative"
Life to the Second Power - Snapshot
integrates "real and virtual architecture, artificial intelligent avatars, artifacts, somatic characters and situational components such as site tagging, GPS, and GIS modeling into a mixed reality and pervasive gaming environment"; the highly interactive structure, requiring active input from the user, and the use of all available media are examples of good practice in the online transposition of archives.
4 CONCLUDING REMARKS
Successful examples of software for IT-based theatre education put the accent on the importance of solutions that are borne out of real teaching concerns and then tested and abetted by their practical application in work with students and researchers. Cross-media, shared interactive functionalities, database structure, ease of use all appear to be necessary characteristics for IT-based theatre education. The implication is that more general-purpose standalone software (for general-purpose e-learning, or chat/video-conference, or remote reviewing of media) is not suited for the task. This is what justifies the development of ad-hoc tools such as those examined.
The very positive experience of XMAS and OpenDrama goes to show that software for IT-based theatre education proves equally (if not even more) useful in film and media studies, which benefit greatly from interactive, shared cross-media functionalities. These are good means for promoting active learning.
The fruitful interplay of film and theatre studies is beautifully illustrated by Jan Kott's observation about Shakespeare's storytelling strategy: in his plays, the plot progresses by dense juxtapositions of scenes and moods, providing a 'denser-than-life' emotional arc. This characteristic was lost by post-Elizabethan performers, who tried unsuccessfully to steep these twists and turns in acting realism. The study of filmed versions of the plays has, in turn, shown how naturally the original text works as a film script, acting as a primer for the cuts-based syntax of film. This is illustrated, for example, by the beautiful economy in the number of character entrances and exits in order to tell the intricate story of Midsummer Night's Dream.