Breaking the Fourth Wall

Theater1In 2008, Abilene Christian University became one of the first universities to implement a mobile learning initiative based on the iPhone and iPod touch, allowing teachers and students to begin experimenting with new learning styles and new forms of connection and communication. In an increasingly digital age when students are more inclined to be engaged by discussion and collaboration, these 
devices can serve as a platform enabling new kinds of 
participation—better connecting teachers and students with their environment, with each other, and with nearly every area of their lives.

For many of us, technology has changed the way we learn and the way we gather and access data, yet many educational models continue to focus on passive, isolated learning environments where students go through the motions of memorizing dates and facts. ACU’s mobile learning initiative, on the other hand, is a case study in moving the technology that students use every day into the classroom. The initiative focuses on the collaborative efforts of students and staff both in and out of the classroom, allowing for a kind of connected atmosphere not possible until recently in many educational environments.

Collaborative technology & audience involvement

This summer, as ACU’s Theatre Department prepared for the annual Abilene Shakespeare Festival, they decided to integrate these technologies—and a new kind of collaborative emphasis—into their production of Othello. Rather than using technology merely to prop up the performance, ACU Theater directors wanted to create a digital space in which they could not only connect with audience members, but in which they could also carefully control what information the audience received and how they responded to that information, bringing the audience in on the performance in a new way. Production staff wanted to play with the idea of deception that is so prevalent in Othello, and take it beyond the borders of the stage and into the very lives and thinking processes of their audience. Their goal was to use the audience’s automatic acceptance of digital information to trick them into a misperception, just as Iago uses Othello’s trust to trick him. In this case though, the designers’ overall goal was less dastardly: they wanted the audience to think about and apply the play’s lessons in a new way—because they had experienced them first-hand. 

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Theater2Designers began their work by incorporating digital technologies onstage. The physical environment of the stage sets was enhanced with eight large screens suspended from batons or attached to the proscenium, which surrounded the playing space,. These digital “windows” eliminated much of the need for physical set changes, dressing the simple platforms with images of palaces and streets. The images portrayed worked with the actors, costumes, sound, and lighting to build the atmosphere of the performance, setting up the mood of each scene. They were also used to introduce some new characters, highlight plot points and character thought processes, and occasionally cue the audience at key points in the piece.

Theater3The other, more experimental digital strategy used in Othello came in the form of a blog accessible to audience members from their iPhones or iPod touches. When a certain icon appeared on the screens onstage, patrons could check for information about the scene—perhaps a definition of an unfamiliar word or an explanation of certain details in the context of Shakespeare’s world. A great deal of modern theatre seems to dictate a passive audience, but the cast and crew of Othello wanted to provide an opportunity for viewers to become literally involved with and entrenched in the world of the play, discussing what they were seeing on the stage before them, all without fear of being thought disruptive.

The Power of Suggestion

The production staff had another trick up its sleeve. Othello is, at its heart, a case-study in deception. Othello’s tragic flaw is not only his jealousy but also his ability to be led by Iago’s misinformation and suggestion. Often, I think, we as audiences watch a play like Othello and see only the high culture we’ve imposed upon Shakespeare, sometimes even overlooking the lessons we might learn. Our immersion in the world of the play is from the standpoint of an observer, rather than as part of the driving force of the play itself. The production staff sought to change that.

While they were interacting with the blog interface on their mobile devices, audience members were fed a series of facts about the play. However, half of the audience members were given false information, which built a case for Iago as the play’s protagonist, casting Othello as a weak, inept leader, overly jealous, and quick to anger. It was a perspective Iago himself would have approved. As the performance went on, these audience members’ comments almost universally reflected the information they were being sent. They began to defend Iago, even commenting on the suspicious nature of the other characters. As the piece drew to a close, these audience members were surprised to find they had been deceived. Through digital means, they had been given the opportunity not only to view a representation of the power of deceit, but also to experience deceit firsthand.

Making theater more accessible

Some worried that this constant stream of information would become tedious or distracting, but the audience reaction made it a success. Shakespeare can be intimidating, and in many cases, audiences approach it with the fear they won’t be able to follow the plot and language. If they encounter an unrecognizable word or event, audience members might naturally be inclined to lose interest. Yet given access to a forum, where answers and information can be delivered almost instantaneously, many of those people became active and engaged, discussing aspects of the play and story they found interesting, commenting on the nature of the characters, and participating in group discussions online through their iPhones and iPod touches. They were able to receive immediate feedback and response to what they witnessed onstage, and rather than disengaging them, the blog served to focus their attention and energy, allowing them to participate more actively in the performance.

Technological advances continue to shape the way we learn and inhabit our world. New methods of thinking and learning appear regularly in almost every area of our lives. Yet our experience with Othello shows that technology doesn’t have to be distracting or prohibitive. I believe it can find a place in our education, our art, and our true connection to others.

A Case Study of the iPhone in Theatre
January-February 2011
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