As well as marketing and promoting work, the Internet can be used to enhance artistic experiences. Sydney Thornbury describes one initiative aiming to do just that.
When I created WebPlay six years ago, I was interested to see how technology could support and enhance the live theatre experience for young audiences. At that time, some theatre professionals were concerned that the Internet might somehow replace or dilute peoples experience of live theatre, while the use of technology to bring childrens theatre into the classroom was virtually unheard of. For me, the power of technology is the ability to facilitate communication, collaboration and creativity between people across great distances. I wanted to use technology to link a childrens theatre company with a number of schools across the world and to have them all create something together.
The result was WebPlay, a project that enables primary school children to create and produce plays while working in collaboration with a professional theatre company and children from partner schools in different countries. During the collaborative development and exchange of working on their plays, partner classes learn about each other and the cities they live in, while also interacting with the theatre company to learn about and see a live professional production.
WebPlay happens in Years 3, 4 and 5 classrooms over the course of the school year. The Culture Online funded project sits on Think.com (www.think.com), a free and secure online platform created by the Oracle Education Foundation that enables communication between schools around the world. Through online hot seat discussions with a partner theatre company, pupils learn how a professional production is created, communicating directly with the writer, director, actors and designers.
They read articles, watch video clips, look at designs and download the script. The theatre company then tours to each city so that all the classes can see the play live and take part in a workshop to help them create their own plays. We also train teachers in drama workshop skills. The programme culminates in the children combining everything theyve learnt to create their own WebPlays about their partner city, which are digitally videotaped and uploaded to the website for all the classes to view.
This year, 4,500 children from 148 classes participated in WebPlay from across the UK and US. We continue to explore ways of opening up the programme to new audiences, and we hope soon to involve schools in India. WebPlay is proving to be an effective vehicle for providing access to the theatre for young people, as well as for opening up new ways for companies to reach their audiences.
WebPlay provides many children with their first experience of live theatre a deep experience that includes them as audience members, creators and critics. Because the children develop a relationship with the company before they even reach the theatre, they have a strong sense of belonging when they walk into the building and also a tremendous feeling of ownership over the play. This is incredibly powerful when you consider the majority of WebPlay children come from areas of disadvantage and dont live in families who go out to the theatre.
The companies we have worked with Polka Theatre, Hoipolloi and Catherine Wheels all confirm that WebPlay is an exciting opportunity to work with audiences in a new way. They note that WebPlay audiences tend to be more attentive and more sophisticated than others and that the technology enabled them to form deeper and more extended relationships. As a result, the companies are more comfortable with technology and have continued to explore how they can use it in new ways.
Evaluations report impressive results for children participating with verifiable improvements in literacy, technology, drama, social studies and citizenship skills and also professional development for teachers.
When it is used purposefully and creatively, technology can provide a bridge for creating embedded and sustainable partnerships between cultural groups and schools. With funding from NESTA, Arts Council England and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we are now developing the Page to Stage Platform, which will enable theatre companies to create collaborative projects online with their schools audiences. We are piloting the platform in January 2007 with Oily Cart, Travelling Light, Roundabout, Replay, Theatre Na nOg and the Birmingham Playhouse, and plan to release it to the wider childrens theatre community in January 2008.
Technology isnt supposed to replace live artforms its supposed to be a tool that we use to enhance and extend the work we are trying to achieve as artists and to help us expand and develop new audiences. Over the past six years, WebPlay has devised a way of doing that and we have been fascinated by the process and by the results. We encourage other arts organisations to explore working with technology just like using improvisation to devise a piece of theatre, youll only find out what you can do once you jump in there and start playing around.
Sydney Thornbury is Executive Director of WebPlay.