Stage

@shakespeare: Bell's new app

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Most people who have been through the school system will have memories of reading Shakespeare, trying to make sense of the text from a crusty old, yellow library book. Hardly an inspiring theatrical experience. Most of us sat in classrooms wondering why teachers decided these strange plays with strange words were important.
Bell Shakespeare has long been an important force in education in theatre. When John Bell established the company in 1990, he transformed the way we looked at Shakespeare with his contemporary productions of the Bard’s work, telling the stories our way. At the same time, those lucky school students who went on excursions to the theatre saw Shakespeare leap off the page and into life, and finally began to see how these plays could still be relevant.
The company has long had educational programs that involve both in-theatre and in-school sessions. Their latest development is an app for iPads called Starting Shakespeare which features video content, synopses, character profiles, historical information and interactive learning journeys, designed to introduce younger students to Shakespeare.
We asked Bell Shakespeare education manager Joanna Erskine about the development of the app and what the company hopes to achieve.
How big a part of Bell Shakespeare’s education strategy is the app?
Starting Shakespeare is a significant part of our new primary program. After 23 years of working with high school students, every week we still meet teenagers who “hate” Shakespeare. They believe it’s too difficult, like a foreign language, and that it has no relevance to them. This barrier to engaging with and appreciating Shakespeare pervades their studies on a whole, and is often the result of inherited negative perceptions by older siblings or even parents, who have had a negative experience of Shakespeare in their own schooling lives.
Bell Shakespeare works hard to subvert these negative perceptions. We have found that working with primary aged students, who have no negative preconceptions and no inhibitions, are perfectly placed to commence their journey with Shakespeare. These students are enthused by the strange language, not put off by it. They are engrossed in the stories and make immediate links to their own lives. Most importantly, they have a positive experience with Shakespeare so that when they enter high school, they have an in-built appreciate and knowledge base.
The app will reach students and teachers around Australia (and possibly the world). We want to start a Shakespeare revolution so that one day, students won’t groan “Oh no, not Shakespeare!” and introducing his plays to students while very young will help us achieve that goal.

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Where did the idea for the collaboration between Bell Shakespeare and digital education company Deeper Richer come from?
We have been in conversation with Deeper Richer for quite some time. Although we had been approached by other digital companies in the past about creating digital resources, we felt that Deeper Richer were the right team to work with because of their extensive experience working in education, and our complementary skills. We have incredible Shakespeare content and ideas to share, and they have the digital smarts and skills to help us share the content in the most accessible and exciting way.
Why do you think an app is an effective way of delivering this kind of education?
Young people’s lives are intertwined with technology. Even toddlers know how to operate iPads. With the presence of technology in their lives being so pervasive, we have to find a way to use that medium to reach them with meaningful content and learning experiences. Ultimately we want the activities and the information in Starting Shakespeare to inspire them to engage with the arts and with live performance. They can use the iPad to film their own scenes. They can hear and see professional actors performing Shakespeare. We can find meaningful ways to link the technology with live engagement with the plays – both mediums can inform the other. iPads are being used in classrooms around Australia every day, and we believe high quality Shakespeare content of this kind is lacking.

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Do you think the app can replace the experience of seeing Shakespeare performed live?
No, not at all. Nothing can replace the experience of live performance, and Bell Shakespeare intends to continue producing in-school and in-theatre shows for all audiences. The app is designed to support students and teachers with the study of Shakespeare in their classrooms. We hope that this will build an appreciation and enthusiasm for Shakespeare which will lead them to seeing Shakespeare in performance!
The app has been developed for grades 5 & 6 and so far only focuses on two plays – are there plans to develop the scope of the app further?
Yes absolutely. We do believe that the app is relevant and suitable for even younger ages, however Years 5-6 is the key audience. We look forward to receiving feedback on the app from teachers and students so that we may refine it and expand further. This may include more plays in the future. We also intend to create a comprehensive app for secondary students and teachers in the future.

[box]More information about the app is available at startingshakespeare.deeperricher.com[/box]

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