A Glimpse into the Digital Humanities: Mobile Shakespeare
Exciting news for drama lovers: Shakespeare productions are about to experience a shake-up.
The pair was recently chosen as a recipient of a grant from National Endowment for the Humanities that’s designed to “encourage innovations in the digital humanities.” Their project, “Mobile Shakespeare Scripts” (or “MyShx”), offers actors and directors a mobile app for customizing scripts to include commentary, production history, or other digital enhancements. MyShx will initially be produced for iPads, and it will be used for the first time in the production of one of American Shakespeare Theater’s 2012-2013 shows.
inReads caught up with the team earlier this week to learn more about their project.
inReads: Both of you have very distinguished literary careers. What sparked your interest in digital humanities?
Katherine Rowe: I did my PhD in Renaissance studies but spent a year in 2005 returning to graduate school to retrain in cinema and media studies, supported by a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I came out of that experience with a new sense of myself as a scholar—deeply interested in the long span of reading and writing practices from antiquity to the present. It was also really valuable to be on the other side of the classroom again in a sustained way. It reminded me what it’s like to be very new to a field; it helped me think like a student again, something that may have contributed to the concept of this app.
Bruce Smith: It was my experience in writing two books—one on sound in Shakespeare’s England and one on color–that made me realize the limitations of print. Especially with the sound book, I really needed a medium that could present sound files. The overall design of Cambridge World Shakespeare Online (of which MyShx will be a component) will allow for multimedia resources (still images, moving images, sound files) to surround the scripts of Shakespeare’s plays and allow users to experience Shakespeare through their ears and their eyes as well as with their brains.
inReads: What is it about reading Shakespeare on an iPad that interests you? And why did you choose to focus your project on Shakespeare – as opposed to, say, a more modern author?
Rowe: Shakespeare’s works have a very rich life in our culture. We encounter them in the classroom, in the theater, on film and video, recited out loud at special events, and as a reading experience. For most of these encounters, there are many resources to draw on, traditional and digital. Surprisingly, however, there are few digital resources designed specifically for people working with Shakespeare in the theater—actors, directors, designers, students. Our app is designed for theater professionals and theater students working with Shakespeare’s plays in production. They will be able to make cuts and additions to a script in rehearsal, record speeches they are working on and share them, make notes and link to resources in theater history that may be helpful in designing a production, and share these notes and links.
Smith: They say that the reason for Shakespeare’s staying power across the centuries is his infinite adaptability to changing cultural circumstances. I think “they” are exactly right. Since Shakespeare wrote mainly for the theater, for live performance, his works are best experienced in a medium that can capture vision, sound, and motion. As technology stands today, an iPad seems to be the tool that optimizes these possibilities. And in a portable form. In my books The Key of Green and Phenomenal Shakespeare, I investigate the physical environments in which Shakespeare’s contemporaries read his printed scripts and poems, and I speculate about the influence of those environments on readers’ perceptions. It’s a totally different experience, for example, to read Venus and Adonis in a room hung with tapestries or painted cloths depicting scenes from Ovid than it is to read the same poem in a cinder-block dorm room. The iPad blends into the physical environment—it invites the environment into the experience of reading—in a way that is not unlike the hand-size quartos in which Shakespeare’s poems and many of his scripts were first printed.
inReads: What will one of the scripts look like? When actors use the scripts to study their characters and learn their lines, what will they see? How are the scripts different than other electronic texts?
Rowe: One of the things that’s new here is that the view is dynamic. Users can switch from a “complete” text (that looks much like a printed play) to an “actor’s track” that shows a specific part or parts, with cue-lines, and back, as they choose. They’ll have the option to open windows along the side with additional material—video or audio files, articles, notes on a word or line, archived cuts they might want to reconsider. It’s the ability to manipulate the text in these various ways, in preparation for a production and then while moving around in a rehearsal space–and freely share the results with the company—that is genuinely new.
Smith: MyShx will leave most of these possibilities up to the user. An actor might want to see only his or her lines, with maybe just the cues before each speech. Or an actor might want to annotate the script with balloon comments along the edge, like the comment function in MS Word. Or the actor might use the search function to find and highlight certain words and phrases. The possibilities are really huge.
inReads: When directors and actors at the American Shakespeare Theater in Staunton, VA use the scripts for the very first time in their 2012-2013 season, what will they notice? Do you think “Mobile Shakespeare Scripts” will change the production process?
Rowe: This is a key question we hope to study but we anticipate some differences. The AST company does a lot of work remotely. As actors learn their parts, for example, they may be scattered around the country—only coming together for a short period of rehearsal time before the production goes up. Our app creates a socially-networked script, where they can record themselves working on lines and share those files with a director; or push cuts, questions, additions, design ideas to each other. Designers might have more lead time, for example, to engage with new ideas that come up while the actors are working remotely in this way. We hope this will make the lead-up to rehearsal a more fruitful period for all involved.
Smith: We hope so, in at least two fundamental ways. 1. Instead of getting a paper script that gets marked up, each actor will get an electronic script that can easily be changed and annotated. 2. Social networking among the actors will be available at the touch of a key, on the same instrument that contains the script. With a paper script, the actors have to turn to a different medium, a computer or a smart phone, to communicate with each other. With MyShx, the script and social communication will be located on one and the same instrument.
inReads: The scripts for the American Shakespeare Theater are being made only for iPads. Do you plan to make them compatible with other devices, as well?
Rowe: We hope to. We chose the iPad as a starting place because it is a form factor that’s relatively easy to develop for and it has the advantage of a number of built-in tools that are particularly helpful for our purposes. These include wireless access, manual note-taking, audio recording, etc. So it’s a particularly good platform with which to test this concept.
Smith: Yes. The program we develop with the actors will be available for use with other instruments.
inReads: What are your future goals for the project? This sounds like a product that will be useful to professionals in the humanities. But it also sounds like a highly marketable product. Do you have any business plans for the scripts?
Rowe: We have a number of options going forward. My hope is that we’ll find a way to make this tool widely available to students and teachers producing Shakespeare’s plays, as well as to professional companies.
Smith: A smart question! The NEH hands out development money only for projects that will be freely accessible. That will be true for MyShx. We will make the software (minus the Cambridge scripts) available without cost. The highest-functioning version of MyShx, however, will be distributed through Cambridge World Shakespeare Online, which will be partly available on open access and fully available on subscription. I say “highest-functioning,” because only with CWSO will My Shx be linked with the fully edited and annotated texts of the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, with the two-million-word resources of the Cambridge World Shakespeare Encyclopedia, and with digital resources at research libraries.
inReads: And a personal question: Do you own an e-reader?
Rowe: Yes. I read voraciously and in a variety of ways. For pleasure reading, I use my laptop e-reader, a Kindle and traditional books, depending on what’s available. I read scholarly essays and books on my laptop and in traditional books (not my Kindle because I can’t easily take notes with the tiny keyboard). I read newspapers on my laptop and in traditional print (yes, I still have subscriptions both to the local papers and the New York Times). I find e-readers useful in certain ways and limited in others. It’s wonderful to be able to carry around a virtual stack of books when I travel. Because I read a lot for pleasure, I love being able to sample many different authors freely and download multiple novels for a weekend reading binge when the books I want aren’t in the library. On the other hand, I find it annoying that the pages don’t turn fast enough and I can’t take notes in the margins easily (the iPad’s manual note-taking may be an improvement on this). And of course you always have to turn off your e-reader on a plane, for takeoff and landing. Traditional books don’t have that disadvantage; they don’t run out of power, and if you drop them in a bath or hot tub, you can dry them out and still read them–unlike most e-readers.
The one kind of book I don’t regularly read in conventional print any more (and don’t expect to) is reference books. The OED online is so much better overall than it ever was in a traditional print form.
Smith: I do not! I think about getting one every time I see someone using one on an airplane, but for the time being I love the feel of a book—especially when that book is a novel. I’m more reconciled to electronic formats for non-fiction. Thanks for asking this question. You just made me realize the distinction in my feelings.
MOVED BY WHAT YOU READ?
Share your Thoughts below or read the Thoughts of other inReaders!
Want to save this to read it later? Dogear it.