Classrooms & Theatres / Learners & Spaces: an assessment of electronic learning resources for teachers and students of Ancient Greek Theatre

By Monty McKeand and Craig Morrison
Parkside Community College, Cambridge


Opportunities

The digital world provides a unique opportunity for teachers to engage students in the study of ancient drama. ICT, as it is known in the UK curriculum, is meant to encompass Information, Communication, and Technology. However, the communications element is often left behind, with students being taught the how but not the why of technology. The potential to bring people together, in conversation, is the key benefit of ICT to secondary and tertiary education, with ancient theatre being no exception.

The internet in particular allows the stuff of antiquity to be infused with a real dynamism. Theatre is process as well as product, and the multimedia possibilities of the web make it possible to explore the varied acts contributing to performance and its trappings: pottery depicting a space; a philosopher's thoughts on a playwright; sound recordings of an early twentieth-century Oedipus; video of a contemporary rehearsal. Learning becomes more immediate, and exclusive resources are 'democratised'. It could be said that the same opportunities exist in any subject, yet the study of ancient drama is particularly brought forward by the use of technology: the computer interfaces of the present day help to bring about a realisation of the modern currency of Greek and Roman drama.

Context

Accessibility is a key issue in the study of ancient drama at school age. As noted, technology has the possibility to flatten out many social barriers between student and text. However, the nature of the curriculum and the schools system problematises contact with classical material. The National Curriculum for English in the UK stipulates study of Shakespeare and English poetry (both pre- and post-1914) for students of 14 and 16 years of age; although many drama teachers have campaigned for a separate national curriculum for Drama, and several others have questioned the requirement only to teach twentieth-century drama at age 16, there is no statutory requirement to study ancient drama in the UK at school age. The answer though is not to campaign for dividing the curriculum further, but to make educators aware of the opportunities available within the elective curriculum for the investigation of Greek plays, and for teachers to work across subject divisions to create projects questioning ancient theatre from a multitude of angles.

Classics is a minority subject within the English comprehensive schools system. There is a lack of resources, subject expertise, and teacher training opportunities within the UK for the subject. There is a difficulty in aligning the study of ancient drama and culture with a knowledge of Latin or Greek: firstly, such a system privileges those students studying in public schools, where the languages are more widely taught. Secondly, there is a danger of positioning ancient theatre as an experience for those with skills in further languages, which denies the pleasures of such study to many.

ICT opens up the value of modes of communication that accelerate learning about ancient theatre. The most important opportunity is that computer programs now allow for an experience of theatre in several ways, whether through pictures and videos of objects and events or, increasingly, the chance to explore space through virtual reality interfaces.

We have used a variety of electronic resources in the teaching of ancient drama to students in our school, Parkside Community College in Cambridge, England. We will offer an introduction to some of these resources, and aim to address some key questions:

1. How do available resources present opportunities to explore and learn about theatrical space?

2. What do these resources afford teachers and learners in their work? How flexible or responsive are they? Do they support teaching and learning in particular or various environments?

3. In what ways do the resources motivate learning and encourage interaction?

Stages of Theatre Theatre from the Ancient Greeks to Shakespearian Times

As an example of CD-ROM resources, Stages of Theatre, offers a simple yet effective design to lead the student through the evolution of theatre spaces. As it begins it has a very clear page layout reminiscent of an introductory guide to the theatre. The colours, font size, images and language all combine to make this easily readable. The text guides and engages the user in how to proceed. The advantage of the bookish style is that it provides something familiar for the student; the prompting style to each page makes it just different enough and is one benefit over a basic book. Though immediately engaging for a school age audience, the exercise is a very linear one, and some students can be put off.

Beyond the first few pages one begins to get hints of what the package is truly capable of. Clearly, the objective is to provide users with a glimpse of what theatre and theatres looked like in the past. For those that have seen the archaeological remains of any of the buildings it brings to life the past in the same way that modern cinema can with special effects. The visual is ably supported by the text and 'The First Theatron' section provides the first moving images. The text follows the visuals suitably, whether pictures or animated 'fly-throughs' of 3D models. The user has the opportunity to read and reread the text before or during the fly-through, and can watch the fly-through again once their understanding has been developed, therefore allowing the pages to be digested as students' learning develops at their own pace, which is excellent.

The same formula is followed in the section entitled 'A Stage for Dionysus,' guiding and prompting the user to continue to consider space. The fly-through of the Odeon of Pericles seems to answer questions of what it would have been like to be there; the sense one has of being able to share the view of a contemporary theatre-goer is enthralling. The imagination starts to take itself away from learning about theatres to learning about being within it, the atmosphere, and what it would have been like to actually be there, watching. There is a similar feeling later when we are taken through Epidaurus: the sheer scale of the theatre is breath taking, the distance from the orchestra to the very back of the complex is amazing, and the background of the area inserted as it remains today is a nice touch to add realism to the piece.

Learners seem to be really involved in the section on the 'Greek Theatre Parts'. The simple diagram of the theatre is clear and the Greek terminology is well presented and obvious in its interactivity: one simply presses a button to learn what each element represents. The movie taking the user through the area completes the association between what it would have looked like in the past and an understanding of what the terms actually mean. It is in this section that one can really appreciate how far technology has come in allowing people to interact with the past and how it can allow knowledge to become understanding. Other sections could be even more engaging still if they stimulated more of the senses, and allowed the user to interact as they do here. The fly-through could make more use of labelling or highlighting of different sections, with connections made clear through the use of text and colour. A step further in this multimodal interactivity would be truly to involve users and talk them through what they are witnessing. The interactivity would be substantially increased if one were to make use of audio commentary to guide students through what they see. This multimodality would offer people something they have never been able to experience before. Today if one walks through a museum, strolls around the Coliseum, or visits an art gallery, one can take an audio commentary as a personal guide. There is an opportunity more fully to engage the student in the surroundings they have never before been able to envisage with their own personal teacher talking them through the wonders that they can now feel a part of. By making reference to the text, pausing at moments to draw attention to something that should be remembered... there are clearly many different techniques that could be used further to capture the attention and imagination of a student.

Looking at a range of CD-ROMs it is clear that space is the common denominator, the quantity explored. However, on the whole, these are spaces commonly treated as artefacts: performance codes are mentioned and often explained, yet are not demonstrated. CD and DVD-Rom does still have a place to play in a field where the internet can be so much more flexible to changing needs and events. It is in the high storage capacity of the disk that we find the possibility to lay bare the relations between spaces of the past and contemporary performances within theatres and other venues. This can be done by providing links from reconstructions of spaces to video clips of modern performance. Video resources such as The Oresteia at Epidaurus, charting Peter Hall's production in Greece, come to mind - documentary material, in whole or in part, which should be reaching a wider audience in schools.

THEATRON Theatre History in Europe: Architectural and Textual Resources Online

As an example of a resource using digital 3D visualisations, Theatron, offers a new way to develop our understanding of the theatres of the ancient world by actually recreating them for one to explore in three dimensions. Information is provided to enhance the understanding given by the visual; but there are strong enticements on offer, with the chance to walk around the ancient complexes. We are can 'walk' where no-one has been able to for thousands of years. Nothing available at the moment takes us quite this far into the ancient world whilst still allowing one to make it a personal journey. This is not a documentary of a film from Hollywood leading us through an ancient element of the past; it is up to us where we want to go and when we want to go there. We can determine how long we wish to take, and from exactly which angle we wish to view the past. Using the standard Windows PrintScreen function, we can capture snapshots in the way we do in the real world with a camera. Different viewpoints allow us to access the area from the ground as we would approach it in reality, or from an aerial viewpoint if we wish to see the structures from further afield.

To enter from the more personal viewpoint puts one in the place of tourist looking around. We can use our imagination to see what it would have been like to watch from different seats around the building, or we can turn the tables and see what it would have been like for someone to look out from the stage. In addition to the real-time navigable model, one can call up images and animated fly-throughs of highly-detailed models. The first person 'avatar' control is essential in making this a truly independent learning experience, especially as space can be considered from the viewpoint of different participants. The third-person perspective allows for a welcome degree of objectivity, and a consideration of the structure as a whole.

Static models of people lend a much needed perspective to the event. We are given the freedom to walk around and look where we want and how we want, but there is perhaps too much freedom to go exploring for some people. We want to be able to do more than just look at what is available, we want access to more parts of the building and, as our students have found, we also may need help along the way to learn more about the building and what it would have been like to be in it.

It is perhaps a victim of its own success in presenting the past so well that it can feel restricting when one is unable to have a look around inside. The building itself was created well by the modern researchers, but how was it physically created at the time? We want to look inside and see what went into the structure behind the seating, the stage and so on. When we are lucky enough to have any of these buildings standing today, as tourists and classicists we want to explore and see behind the façade. We are able to do so in what remains of some of these buildings today because this top layer has been stripped away by the ages.

For a school-age student learning about the buildings it is a unique perspective but would require some prior knowledge or some research afterwards to understand what exactly they have just seen. In the random wanderings we are allowed to make through these buildings some guidance is necessary, something to explain what we are looking at and what it actually would have been like to be there when it was full of people, life and atmosphere. The static models of people could be developed as interactive information points to provide a valuable perspective on what it would have been like for them to have been there. The actor on the stage could answer questions about the life of an actor; about what it would have been like to look out on the thousands of people attending the events; about what it is like back stage and so on. With enough people placed around the building one could enhance and indeed offer explanation to those who require it. The opportunity to 'talk' with all or any of these people does not have to be taken up if the student already knows the answers to the questions; but it would help to explain a bit more for those who need such guidance. Voices could be added to the characters to make them more engaging. This would include the user more and allow them to learn by listening not just by reading and looking. Perhaps this learning is a little too independent for some as it stands at the moment.

A good example of interactive avatars is to be found at Converse, a University of Cambridge site, for which one of the authors of this article, Craig Morrison, co-wrote the teachers' handbook. Converse is an interactive tour of the Globe theatre, which allows for students of different abilities to explore the theatre in a variety of ways. The most pressing question to academics involved in creating resources for school-age children is one of mendacity. Giving a sense of personality to avatars within a VR space could be seen as taking conjecture too far: for example, how can we be really sure of audience opinion in Greek, Roman or Shakespearian periods? Do we want to be, even implicitly, suggesting that such ideas are based on bona fide knowledge, only to have to unravel such assumptions later on in a student's education? Or, is this a reasonable cost for increasing student motivation and engagement?

As school teachers we feel that any exploration of ancient spaces should lead to actual working in real space. There is a lack of action and language in most reconstructions available, and it is vital that students personally engage with the plays, and interrogate their own staging choices, considering the ancient traditions alongside contemporary theatrical practice and any current issues they wanted to explore through their staging of a translation. All teachers must see student research and practice on a continuum, or ironically risk using more engaging resources such as those discussed above actually to distance students from reworking the dramas themselves.

Although working with the plays practically must come first, there are also pieces of software which complement VR reconstructions in allowing students to develop design concepts impossible to create in a school environment. At Parkside we have been working with Immersive Education and the Institute of Education, University of London in developing the use of a programme called MediaStage. MediaStage allows students to create 3D environments in which they can programme avatars to 'play' scenes in myriad ways, along with the ability to programme lighting and so on. There is the possibility, in future, for such software to incorporate VR reconstructions of ancient theatres so that students can begin to populate impressive, yet empty, spaces with dramatic action.

What is available today on the web?

Most of the sites available are aimed at tertiary education and range, from amateur efforts like Dr J's Illustrated Guide to the Classical World by Janice Siegal, the Assistant Professor of Classics at Illinois State University, to the all-encompassing Perseus. Despite the limited network of Classics sites some are worth investigating and the ideas and imagination surrounding them is, for the main ones, good.

The amateur sites can be rather bland and difficult to read, as in the case of Dr J, but even this is developing to offer an on-line survey of Audio Visual Resources for Classics which sounds very promising indeed. The rather fun site Mythman is a better-presented amateur site that is aesthetically pleasing, being both colourful and full of superb images. Mythman is a light-hearted look at the ancient world with quizzes, tests and a 'Myth of the Month'. Some of the pictures are illustrations provided by the creator of the site and others are taken from books which highlights the limitations of the amateur website.

University sites have a variety of ideas; East Los Angeles College offers a basic page which acts as a reasonable introduction to Theatre. The Open University's Reception of Classical Texts website provides a lot of excellent information, some of which one may prefer to print out and read, requiring at times a high level of understanding or ability. The information is really tailored to university level but it is thorough and useful. The case studies provided for plays are excellent, detailing different productions and images of these productions. Included in these studies are interviews with stage directors and a production database to which you can add your own comments. This site is one of the few avenues for students to find reliable information on contemporary productions, which is a very disappointing discovery. As this database grows it will become invaluable for students of ancient theatre, and they themselves should be encouraged to contribute after seeing a performance. The site could be made more attractive to school-age users: an example of a performance archive currently well used by students is the British Film Institute's Screenonline, searchable by theme, geography, contributors and more; it also offers an unrivalled selection of video clips to users within schools.

GHR Classics makes available a good background level of information as well as a good range of study guides to the Ancient Greek works. Within these guides there are worksheets of variable quality and synopses for the different plays; these are presented in a simple table allowing a visual representation of the dramatic structure in a straightforward and easy to read manner.

Although at times literature-based, The Classics Pages covers aspects of the theatre, making good use of themes and commentary. The site is clearly presented and easy to use and has some excellent ideas. The Oedipus Game is a simple way to introduce or revise the Oedipus the King, playing on children's own ideas and reasoning about modern and ancient cultures; assumptions are powerfully confronted in this activity.

At the top of the pile is Perseus, a quality product providing a dynamic approach to a range of ancient sources of various types. The areas of study are vast and the presentations of them are imaginative, making good use of maps, stills, flyovers etc. Different formats are supported, e.g. Quicktime and CAD, as well as different languages, making it user friendly and with wide appeal. Presentation is key to Perseus' success, as well as the strength of its structure: users can navigate the site according to their own interests and always be given further options to go forward in their study.

Many of the sites would be better improved with access to actual performance texts, whether script or video. In terms of written texts, there needs to be more opportunity to access a variety of translations actually used by practitioners.

Conclusions

Looking back to our initial questions it seems that theatrical space is, on the whole, well addressed by authors of electronic resources. However, they are split in their attentions: do they offer spaces to be viewed from a distance (as objects of the past), or as spaces to be involved in? The most successful resources are those which offer multiple viewpoints, first- and third-person, which allow students to begin to marry together the subjective with the objective. There is, though, still a lack of resources offering examples of performance within space, be they ancient or contemporary. There is still a real need for students physically to explore space, and ancient plays within these spaces.

The electronic resources available provide learners with well structured environments, with good prompts, although there are missed opportunities for video examples and audio commentary which would engage those with varied learning styles. However, although prompts can be improved, students are more motivated by resources which allow independence, such as the Theatron reconstructions. The key value of such resources is clearly in the range of materials, some previously unavailable, and the variety of modes in which they exist. Multimedia allows for students to learn in different ways, and also for them to learn at home, sharpening their skills in working independently.

Where electronic resources do foster independent working there is a subsequent demand upon the teacher to respond to students' questions and to shape the learning, which is something to be encouraged. Where these resources actually bring about more interaction and conversation between teachers and learners in classroom spaces, we begin to see their true value.

Monty McKeand and Craig Morrison

Parkside Community College, Cambridge, is an 11-16 Leading Edge Media Arts college, serving 600 students and their families. It has an international reputation for its innovative approaches to teaching and learning, particularly with relation to media literacy and technologies. Visit Parkside at http://www.parkside.cambs.sch.uk

Monty McKeand is Head of Classics at Parkside. He has several years experience in cultural and heritage services in Scotland, including archaeological teams. He is involved with the Cambridge Classics Project, and is undertaking a research project into the value of web-based revision materials for students of GCSE Classics. A website, including material from the students, is in development.

Craig Morrison is Head of English/Media/Drama Faculty at Parkside. He read English and Theatre Studies at Warwick before training to teach at Homerton College, Cambridge. He is a member of the Drama Committee, and Eastern Region Coordinator, of the National Association for the Teaching of English and has been an examiner of A Level Theatre Studies. He is also affiliated to the Specialist Schools Trust's Vision 2020 group, and holds the position of Associate Tutor for the Trust's regional CPD programme.

Craig Morrison and colleagues developed several interactive learning resources for the Converse website mentioned in this article. The teacher's handbook, written by Craig Morrison and Nicole Tremblay, which is available for download as Word document, contains guidance on how to use the Shakespeare's Globe activity, and e-learning in the classroom as a whole.