Creating a relationship between schools in the UK and the US needs a high-quality product, good networking and an understanding of the different school systems, reports Sydney Thornbury.
WebPlay was created almost eight years ago – first, to combine technology and drama to enable schools across the world to collaborate on creative projects, and, second, to bring to American audiences the high-quality theatre for children that we see here in the UK. Having lived in both London and Los Angeles for a long time, I knew that classes doing WebPlay would find differences, but I was sure they would find they had more in common. Although the education systems are different, the emphasis on ‘raising standards’ is the same. The systems have thrown up challenges in both places – the curriculums in both are too rigid to build in project-based learning easily. Generally speaking, the UK curriculum is becoming a little freer.
Our programmes are largely Internet-based, enabling primary school children to use technology to learn about and get involved in drama. While there are some intrinsic differences between operating arts education projects in the UK and the US (not to mention the challenges of communicating between different time zones), everyone participates in the same programme, and we find that all children benefit in similar ways.
We use Think.com, a secure schools-only learning platform that provides a suite of tools for communicating, working and collaborating on projects. Each week pupils go online to research and communicate with each other and with a theatre company (Visible Fictions in 2008) – sending ‘stickies’ to ask questions or share photos about their partner city and class so that they can eventually create their own plays about their partner class in the UK and US.
UK schools are much better equipped with technology in the classroom, but US schools have responded well to the challenge, despite sometimes struggling for access to ICT facilities or even a white board. Our training and support gives teachers the confidence to try using technology in new ways. Our team of two based in Los Angeles find that US teachers tend to require more intensive support because they are less experienced at using technology in the classroom. We also provide teachers with ideas for how to expand their use of drama and technology in the classroom after their WebPlay projects have been completed.
To develop audiences, we have started doing public shows in addition to our school shows. We are also working on creating a network of US venues to tour the companies, and we plan to offer professional development workshops. I want US artists to exchange ideas with their UK counterparts so that we can begin to grow a thriving culture of artists who want to create high-quality theatre for young people in the US. We’re also looking for UK drama workshop leaders now working in Los Angeles or New York.
Perhaps the most positive sign of our impact is that next year the WebPlay shows will be presented as part of ‘UCLA Live’. This is the series that first presented Improbable’s ‘Shock-Headed Peter’ to US audiences, and is by far the hippest performing arts venue in LA. We will be part of their first-ever international theatre festival for children and this will provide massive exposure for the art form. Although there are many differences in working between two countries, there is one crucial similarity we see no matter where we work – that the power of theatre to delight, engage and inspire children is universal. In the long run, that one similarity is the thing that lets us manage all the differences.
Sydney Thornbury is the Executive Director of WebPlay. WebPlay uses the Internet to enable schools to collaborate on drama projects with partner classes from other schools around the world.
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