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Sharing Shakespeare: UCLA professors launch app to bring Bard’s community together

By Kelsey Rocha

Jan. 24, 2013 12:38 a.m.

The words of the “Bard of Avon” make their technological debut as they come to life through the screens of computers, tablets and Android phones. The saying “There’s an app for that” can finally ring true as Shakespeare breaks the threshold of online apps.

In spring of 2011, neighbors Mel Shapiro and Robert Watson, UCLA professors from the theater and English departments, respectively, decided to team up to create a Web application for the Shakespearean community, where critical analysis and rich, out-loud performances could converge. This past December, the app, “Playing with Shakespeare,” went live.

Shapiro and Watson initially submitted their project to be considered for a Transdisciplinary Seed Grant through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. Michelle Popowitz, the assistant vice chancellor for research, said the project didn’t meet the grant’s research criteria. However, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research opted to fund them $20,000 by exception because their project offered the key component of scholarship.

“I think it’s fundamentally a very big question for people working with Shakespeare and great traditional literature exactly how it’s going to integrate itself into the world of social media,” Watson said.

Shapiro said this is an unprecedented idea because despite all the various Shakespeare YouTube videos and websites, this app grants access to Shakespeare on several levels. Shapiro and Watson collaborated with professional actors, whom they know through personal connections, to perform selected Shakespearean passages. The readings are available through the app so users can learn the pieces.

After seeing the masters in action, individuals can then record their own interpretations and upload them to the app. This gives contributors a chance to interact with one another and bring Shakespeare’s work to life as they see it.

“I was very keen to see how technology could create a community that was devoted to Shakespeare in the sense of listening to the text, which for me I enjoy more than reading it, and to have some scholarship in terms of the commentary on the text that was selected,” Shapiro said.

Currently, the site features three selections, Sonnet 27, Sonnet 29 and Benedick’s monologue from “Much Ado About Nothing.” Esteemed actors and Shakespearean experts including Ellen Geer, Stanley Anderson and Joe Olivieri provide initial readings accompanied by commentary from Watson.

Both professors said they plan to use the app in their own classrooms at UCLA. Shapiro said his current acting class is expected to upload a video to the app for their final projects. Meanwhile, Watson suggests he would use the app as a means of feedback.

“My students will already have heard enough of me commenting on scenes from Shakespeare, so it would be interesting for me to hear their responses to several different performances of a scene,” Watson said. “The text doesn’t just declare a certain meaning that comes out differently in every performance, so having easy access to so many different interpretations would be a great teaching tool.”

Nick Rapp, a third-year acting student in Shapiro’s class, said he is very excited to see big names such as Geer as well as other UCLA students and professors using the app. He said that he plans to post his own video once Sonnet 129 is added to the site. Rapp also said the app presents a rare opportunity as it encourages people to film Shakespeare rather than just perform it on stage.

“You never try to recreate reality 100 percent onstage, but you definitely do on film,” Rapp said. “There’s something very raw that can be brought to Shakespeare on film, and there’s something very internal about these sonnets. … It’s a different way to deliver the message.”

The technical adviser of the project, Matthew Wrather, is a UCLA alumnus and former student of Shapiro’s. Wrather helped Shapiro and Watson design the link between the app and social media sites like Twitter, Google and Facebook. He said this easy access to a variety of performances is the app’s greatest benefit.

“I can’t predict who will use the app, but I think that the people who will benefit most are those who don’t have the resources to hear people perform Shakespeare,” Wrather said. “I think it will be an awakening for people whose only exposure has been with printed page, as opposed to hearing it aloud which is the way it’s meant to be done.”

Already, about 13 response videos have been posted by users with their own interpretations of the passages. While one performer records himself reciting as he makes the perfect cup of coffee, another contributor chooses to deliver a speech mid-run at Drake Stadium. Shapiro said all entries, as modern or as inventive, are welcomed and encouraged on the website.

“There’s no dogma or methodology in terms of performing,” Shapiro said. “The website really encourages you to be at liberty and do your own interpretation as long as it makes sense to you. There’s an artistic freedom.”

Watson and Shapiro said they are both really looking forward to expanding the website, specifically with the possibility of acting out entire scenes. Shapiro said this would provide an interesting way of connecting the Shakespearean community since it would essentially allow someone to act from Los Angeles with a friend from Ireland. Watson said that bridging these gaps in distance and time to create a sense of connectedness is what Shakespeare is all about.

“If people are actually in the position of performing these scenes together across the distances that social media connects, I think it will accelerate one of the virtues that Shakespeare has always offered, building a community,” Watson said.

Wrather pointed out the most poignant component of the app: Even as technology and society move forward into a more modern era, there is always a place for Shakespeare to grow alongside it.

“The app removes the uptightness of Shakespeare,” Wrather said, “It returns the language back to a more democratic purpose. … By using what are the now-current modes of communication to share Shakespeare, we can approach some sort of insight about what Shakespeare means to our contemporary situation.”

 Email Rocha at [email protected]
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Kelsey Rocha
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