Any organisation committed to arts education faces a range of challenges. Jim Gatten explores how new technologies can help address these, and previews a debate that will begin at the arts4schools conference next month.
Most arts organisations have a remit to attract, develop and educate young audiences. But, as everyone knows, this is no simple matter. How do you attract them in the first place? Once in, how do you ensure they feel welcome, engaged, and relaxed - yet not so relaxed that they distract performers and other members of the audience? And how do you turn them into independent visitors, confident to repeat their experience on their own?
At the other extreme, if your education programme creates extraordinary demand, how do you meet it? If you are tied to a fixed location, constrained by its size, or working to a tight budget, what can you do to open up your work to a wider audience?
To whom does the task of inspiring tomorrow?s audiences fall in your organisation? And where do they get their own inspiration? What ensures the projects they craft are engaging, stimulating and fun? Creativity doesn?t happen in a vacuum. It needs provocation, happenchance, interaction, and experiment. Like all creative workers, education professionals need a rehearsal environment to let their work become innovative, challenging, and of the quality needed to engage today?s diverse young audiences.
Engaging the audience
One misconception which those of us who grew up ?realspace? (rather than cyberspace) often struggle with, is that technology won?t ever replace live performances and workshops. But a multimedia dimension can significantly augment access to, engagement with, and understanding of live education work. Indeed many arts organisations are already running successful technology-based projects to engage young people in the performing arts.
Polka Theatre recently won an e-commerce award for a project using cyberspace to involve primary school children with a production still in rehearsal. Bryony Lawrence, Polka?s Education Manager, observed that ?The buzz of a WebStage audience is fantastic - they point out part of the theatre that they've seen in the virtual tour, call out hello to staff, by name, and you can feel the excitement in the auditorium as they recognise on stage a prop, mask or extract of script that they?ve learned about on the site.?
Enhancing education work
Used well, new technologies provide excellent opportunities to put the live performance into context, enhancing understanding and enjoyment. Moreover, by using the communication channels young people feel most at home with, these projects bypass the barriers traditional arts education activities sometimes create. Globe Education, another pioneer of online arts education activities, believes firmly in the importance, and educative value, of such initiatives. Ian Crawford says: ?The web allows us to develop bespoke education programmes that enable students worldwide to directly interact with theatre professionals and engage with the discoveries being made in the Globe Theatre on a daily basis ... At a time when educators are determined to develop the use of ICT in schools, online resources are fast becoming the learning materials of the future. Within this context, it is our responsibility to develop and expand these resources, ensuring their continued relevance and value to both teachers and students.?
Extending access and communication
Digital technologies can also extend work well beyond the bounds of the traditional arts event. Geographical, financial, cultural or access constraints limit many young people?s opportunities for arts education, but the Internet and email level the field. Young Scottish Highlanders could have the same access to the cultural riches of the UK as their peers in London; well-designed websites can be fully open to those with disabilities; and online resources can stretch overbooked education programmes to those who would otherwise miss out.
Interaction is vital for creativity, and arts educators working alone or in small departments have too few opportunities to share ideas, best practice and advice. Networking with their peers provides the energy, excitement and enthusiasm educators need to produce top quality work. Regular physical networking events may not be possible ? but cyberspace knows no geographic boundaries and offers an immensely cost-effective meeting place.
Funding multimedia projects
Although multimedia projects can be hugely expensive, they don?t have to be. A clear sense of what you want, and a focus on content rather than state-of-the-art design, can deliver impact at very modest cost. Sydney Thornbury, Director of Polka?s WebPlay project, explained: ?As a not-for-profit Children?s Theatre, we don?t have the money to invest in a lot of bells and whistles, yet we were eager to explore the power of the Internet and what it could do to further and enhance the live theatre experience for children ? none of us were used to working with technology. But we knew what we wanted to achieve ? winning the e-business award confirmed our belief that the true power of the Internet is the vision you bring to using it.?
Jim Gatten is Development Director of arts4schools. e: firstname.lastname@example.org
?Inspiring Tomorrow?s Audiences?, a conference being held in London on January 20, will provide opportunities to share ideas, concerns and advice on the issues raised in this article, as well as explore the visions and ideas of a range of speakers. For more information w: http://www.arts4schools.com; t: 020 8201 9124