CELEBRATING SHAKESPEARE’S YEAR THROUGH
IMMERSIVE TELEPRESENCE-ENABLED VIRTUAL MOBILITY
BETWEEN THE UK AND FINLAND
Taking the text of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as a basis for study, students from both the University of Tampere (Finland) and Coventry University (UK) worked on a small section of the script (3:3) in both Finnish and English. A ‘virtual space’ was created in both locations through the re-purposing of videoconferencing technology and the use of large rear projection screens, high speed internet connections and unidirectional, hypercardioid microphones. Moreover, a unified spatial design and a careful use of lighting gave the actors the illusion that they were occupying the same physical space.
Skype and Adobe Connect were used for self-directed student rehearsal, peer-to-peer learning and discussion and were also used to provide a series of seminars and lectures contextualising Renaissance theatre, Finnish theatre culture and the theories underpinning acting in a foreign language. The scene chosen also allowed the opportunity to investigate the concept of the citizen in the “mobile” age, the relationship between politicians and the people and their ability to engage in meaningful political dialogue through computer-mediated exchanges.
The documentary embedded above and the sections below offer more details of the planning, execution and student engagement.
Since 1995, the degree programme of acting in Tampere has sought new ways of investigating performance through the use of foreign languages. Each year class has either produced an entire play or scenes from a play in a language unfamiliar to the performers. This technique encourages actors to make use of the body to communicate meaning, focusing on the materiality of the text and physicality of the voice which can improve articulation, adding energy to the act of speaking and having a positive effect on body awareness.
Over the last three years Coventry University has developed substantial expertise in the field of virtual mobility, as demonstrated by its Online International Learning Programme, embedded into the formal curriculum and providing students with an opportunity to interact with peers at international universities, developing intercultural competences and digital skills while collaborating on subject-specific learning activities.
This project explored the text of Coriolanus in both Finnish and English. As Shakespearean blank verse is difficult for native English language speakers and unfamiliar to Finnish students it was felt that the challenge would be equal on both sides and seemed like a fitting way of commemorating the 400 years since the death of the author.
Traditionally, one group of students would travel to another location to participate in workshops and rehearsals, a process that is expensive, time consuming and ultimately environmentally unsustainable, so a digital solution to this problem was explored. The scene, in which Coriolanus is exiled from Rome after treating the citizens with contempt, also enabled the students to interrogate the relationship between politicians and the polis in the digital age. A series of contextual lectures on Renaissance theatre, Shakespeare, Finnish theatre history and theories underpinning acting in a foreign language were delivered using Adobe Connect before the practical section of the project commenced.
A number of methods for enabling rehearsal work on both sites (approximately 2555 Km apart) were explored during the planning stage of the project, but all were found to be unsatisfactory. Traditional video-conferencing such as Skype, GoogleHangouts and business conferencing telepresence devices were found to be very limiting for performers in terms of image, sound quality and latency. The intention was to create synchronicity between both sites and to have an invisible technological interface enabling the performers to rehearse in much the same way as if they were sharing the same space in a live sense. Inspiration was provided by Extract/Insert, an installation at the Herbert Art Gallery (Coventry, 2012), devised by Joff Chafer, Ian Upton and performance artist Stelarc.
Our project would eventually adapt the basic set up of this venture, which required a sophisticated yet affordable technological infrastructure. H.323 Videoconferencing technology was repurposed to operate in conjunction with large scale rear projections in both spaces. A ‘virtual rehearsal room’ was created utilising a unified spatial design mirrored in both Tampere and Coventry with careful use of lighting and directional sound integrated into both spaces to give the actors the illusion that they were occupying the same playing area. Careful placement and fine tuning of the cameras and projectors in both spaces enabled the participants to make eye contact with each other – particularly important in performance work.
The bulk of the technology was hidden from view behind both screens with the intention of making the process as close to a traditional theatrical rehearsal as possible. Students were divided into six groups and were given their own Adobe Connect room to continue rehearsals and peer-to-peer learning outside the main space with tutors moving between these virtual spaces, giving advice and direction as well as monitoring and recording the activities in these rooms.
The project occurred over two weeks in late January/early February 2016 with thirteen students from Tampere and twenty students from Coventry taking part. After an initial meet and greet session to familiarise the teams with the set up, students were split into six groups to work together on the scene in both Finnish and English. A Facebook group was created to exchange rehearsal details, research and supporting materials, feedback on the ongoing process as well as advice on how to use the Adobe Connect technology.
As this was a pilot version of the project, group sizes were kept small and students were encouraged to experiment with the technology to test the limitations of what it could achieve. Each morning an hour was set aside to experiment and play in the large virtual space and activities in this hour included games sessions, lessons on Finnish folk dancing and round singing. Students were prompted to take the lead on activities and often brought in ideas generated in their Adobe sessions to try out in the large performance space. The remainder of each day was spent working in depth with smaller groups on the scene, examining character, blank verse and physical/vocal techniques in this larger space whilst each group continued to develop this work in both languages in their own Adobe Connect rooms with assistance from tutors.
As the process continued, students became more familiar with the technology and more adventurous in pushing the boundaries of what it could accomplish. In feedback interviews conducted at the end of this first iteration of the project, many students stated that it was ‘life changing’ and indicated that they wished to continue to develop working with international partners using this technology.
The project has generated a great deal of interest after our initial findings were disseminated at the Shakespeare: The Next 400 conference at Helsingor (Denmark) in April 2016. It has also been the recipient of a Coventry University Excellence in Education award for internationalising the curriculum. The ability to teach Shakespeare, one of the UK’s greatest cultural icons, to an international group of students without the need for travel can only be beneficial for both education and theatre in the future.
The use of peer learning on collaborative tasks in a virtual setting improves both cultural and technological awareness. Of course, the use of this technology is not just limited to Shakespeare (or even theatre) and colleagues in Dance, the visual arts and more traditional subjects have expressed an interest in using this technology to develop their own pedagogy with international partners. In an increasingly competitive labour market and globally interconnected society, students who develop the abilities (knowledge, skills and attitudes) to work effectively in multicultural and geographically distributed teams are likely to be more employable, as employers value such global competences.
International academic and cultural experiences like Coriolanus Online can help students broaden their horizons, permit discipline based academic theories to be contrasted with practice and, in addition, enable students to have greater confidence in assessing how theatre is created in other countries. Students reported an increased intercultural awareness and responded imaginatively to the problem solving tasks that the scene work and technological challenge promoted. The contrasting work styles of Finnish and English students meant that the English students had to focus more intensively on characterisation and vocal clarity whilst the Finnish students coped with the restrictions of acting in blank verse and iambic pentameter.