It’s 2023, and though many of us have returned to public spaces like schools, offices, and theatres, the demand for virtual offerings isn’t going anywhere. A few short years ago, it was hard to imagine fulfilling theatrical experiences without shared physical space, but thanks to the pandemic, we’ve seen what’s possible in a digital world. The lingering effect is a new set of expectations for convenience and accessibility, and theatre organizations like Stratford Festival have taken note.
Launched in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, STRATFEST@HOME is a digital subscription service that allows patrons to stream the entire catalogue of Stratford Festival On Film recordings (as well as additional content including coaching materials, historical performances, and original media) on demand. Now, the platform has expanded to include a new tool designed specifically for educators and students called Classroom Connect.
A collaboration between the Education and Digital Content departments at the Festival, Classroom Connect was developed in response to teachers’ requests for access to digital content beyond the Shakespeare productions that have been available through Stratford Festival On Film since 2015.
“During the pandemic, virtual engagement and digital engagement jumped way up. That gave us the opportunity to devote time to figuring out what teachers need and what we can offer them,” said Lois Adamson, director of education at the Festival. “This content is also ever-developing, so we can be responsive to changing priorities in education and changes in youth culture. We can be responsive to what [teachers] are finding is really working and continue to build it collaboratively.”
Specially curated to align with the needs of intermediate, secondary, and post-secondary curriculums, the platform includes materials complementing the filmed productions, including study guides, exclusive interviews with artists, and other supplementary resources. While much of the collection is original content produced by Stratford Festival, there is also material licensed from theatre companies and theatre-makers across the country. Additionally, In December Classroom Connect celebrated the release of its first fully interactive feature film, Illuminated Text.
Directed by Rob Myles with illustrations by Alice Mazzilli and narration by Amaka Umeh, Illuminated Text is an interactive video experience, allowing audiences to engage with the text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Umeh starred as the Danish prince in the Festival’s 2022 production of the tragedy) in a multidimensional experience. Rounding out the project’s creative team are sound editor Thomas Ryder Payne and animator Tamisha Harris. Using the same game engine technology powering Netflix’s choose-your-own-adventure film, Bandersnatch, Illuminated Text offers students multiple points of entry to material that can often feel unapproachable using a combination of sound design, animation, and visuals.
Devised to appeal to different learning styles, users can click around the text to engage with different “dimensions” of the work including rhythm, rhetoric, sound, and imagery.
“It really makes sure that no matter how you learn, you can come away from this experience going, ‘Now I understand what Shakespeare meant in this play,’” shared associate director of digital content Genna Dixon — the producer of the project — in an interview, hinting that Illuminated Text versions of other Shakespearean plays may be coming in future seasons. “In the digital department we are always looking at ways to integrate theatre into [digital] formats, and it doesn’t just mean filming a staged play. We’re exploring the question: What does digital theatre mean? We need to think outside of the box in order to do that.”
…An 8-year old, a 12-year old, a 3-year old is a whole person who deserves access [to theatre] because it can effect a change in them.Lois Adamson, Stratford Festival Director of Education
For many students, having access to Classroom Connect could help them develop an individual relationship to theatre in a way that hasn’t always been accessible. For those who grew up within an hour or two of a theatre hub like Stratford Festival, their education likely involved a once-a-year classroom excursion to see a play (probably Shakespeare) they didn’t choose. While exciting and memorable for many, field trips like these — often students’ first and only exposure to professional theatre — can leave some with a lasting impression that theatre isn’t welcoming or interesting. Still, in much of Canada, opportunities to see theatre in person are even more limited. While there’s no substitute for the magic of live theatre, access to expansive performance libraries could give young people the chance to experiment with different stories and styles, learning about their unique tastes. Classroom Connect may also allow anyone who initially feels uncomfortable with the formality or unfamiliar etiquette of live theatre spaces to nurture their theatrical interests in a safer environment.
“Theatre isn’t necessarily accessible for all backgrounds. Maybe you feel that theatre currently isn’t welcoming, but you could come to a platform like [Classroom Connect] and go, ‘Oh, actually I do see myself in some of these stories. Here’s Indigenous storytelling, here’s stories about Black culture, Asian culture, all cultures.’ It’s really about being welcoming to all and I hope it changes perspectives, and grows a more diverse audience,” Dixon said.
Dixon isn’t shy when sharing that fostering new generations of theatre-goers is another long-term goal of the platform. However, both she and Adamson stress their primary focus is opening up access to the powerful benefits theatre has to offer young people.
“Yes, I care that we have audiences in the future, but mostly I care about the fact that young people deserve these experiences because an 8-year old, a 12-year old, a 3-year old is a whole person who deserves access [to theatre] because it can effect a change in them,” said Adamson. “Stories are how we understand ourselves and connect with each other. When we’re doing our best work, that’s what happens.”
Committed to presenting stories representing diverse communities, Classroom Connect includes focused sections highlighting new voices, Indigenous work, and this month a featured collection honouring Black History Month. The Festival updates the content presented on the platform frequently, with new episodes and programs arriving weekly. At the moment, upcoming releases include the Stratford commissioned 1939 by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan, and Moliere’s The Miser starring Colm Feore. Subscribers already have access to Umeh’s production of Hamlet, and other standouts currently available include the 2022 Stratford production of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (directed by Tawiah M’Carthy) and Ismaila Alfa’s Voice (directed by Cherissa Richards & Thomas Morgan Jones), a theatrical response to the murder of George Floyd that the Festival acquired from Winnipeg’s Prairie Theatre Exchange. Works represented on Classroom Connect aren’t limited to one medium, either; dance, music, and even audio drama performances are all available in addition to plays.
While Classroom Connect is targeted at intermediate, secondary, and post-secondary students, STRATFEST@HOME has content for younger audiences as well. Kids Corner, aimed at children 13 and under (and as young as age one), launched during the pandemic with the dual intention of providing parents with a resource for talking to their children about theatre and keeping kids stuck at home entertained. With story-driven podcasts, colourful animations, and recorded performances, Kids Corner has a little bit of everything. It even features a documentary-style series called Curious Kids, in which the young actors from the 2022 production of Richard III lead a behind-the-scenes tour, interviewing members of the Festival’s different departments.
Whether platforms like Kids Corner and Classroom Connect instill a life-long love of theatre in their young viewers or not, Dixon is betting they’ll benefit nevertheless.
“By designing a space for young people and their families, or teachers and classrooms, we’re telling [young people] that theatre is relevant for you,” she concluded. “It encourages things like self expression, empathy for others, and it’s a place to experience deep, personal stories together.”
Classroom Connect is available to educators, students, school boards and institutions at a cost of $180 for up to 150 users over five months.
To purchase, reach out to email@example.com or request access to a preview by email or phone at 1-800-567-1600.
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