Opera & student engagement: Students working with The Royal Danish Theatre

In the fall of 2013, The Royal Danish Theatre (RDT) will celebrate Verdi’s two hundredth birthday by setting up Othello, Macbeth and Falstaff, all based on Shakespeare. The design brief that the interaction design masters students Job van der Zwan and Torsten Hansson worked on stated that the RDT wanted to explore pedagogical and collaborative media design solutions that would be engaging gymnasium students to attend the opera celebration.

This post summarizes one of the concepts developed during ten weeks of collaborative work between masters students and the cultural institutions in the project Musikalsk Oplevelsesdesign. See an overview of all four concepts here.

Text written by Erling Björgvinsson.

The concept developed by the students is a learning format and learning platform that builds upon and develops workshop formats run by the outreach staff at the RDT. Central to the concept is a series of improvisation workshop formats that include warm-up exercises and novel ways of re-interpreting operas. Re-interpretative improvisations can for example be “The Maffia Bar” scene that reinterprets a quarrel scene, a “Bollywood” scene that jokingly reinterprets a love scene, a “Silent” scene improvisation where a seminal scene or a scene that is incomprehensible to the gymnasium students is nonsensically reinterpreted.

Video: an example of an improvisation workshop warm-up exercise (here on YouTube)

The main purpose of the improvisation formats is to make themes – dealing with love, hate, betrayal and conceit – in the operas relevant to the contemporary youth culture, their cultural expression, interests and concerns. Hence, instead of using learning formats where the students only focus on unearthing the meaning of an old media text, such as an opera, the improvisations format focuses on how old media text can “learn” from contemporary youth culture by becoming updated and reinterpreted. This is done in a playful and embodied way, rather than solely through text based analytical study formats. Today, study guides focus mainly on aiding students in their interpretation of the opera when preparing for class discussions or writing essays, a format that focuses on explicit and analytical knowledge rather than embodied, creative and interpretative learning formats.

Online Learning Platform – Wireframe

A wireframe from the Online Learning Platform. See more wireframes

The online platform includes teaching material and inspirational material that the teachers and students can use and modulate so it fits their purpose, the students’ needs, and the teachers’ teaching style and teaching constraints such as time allocated for preparation. The teaching material includes:

  • Background information about the opera
  • Tips and tricks on improvisation workshops
  • Descriptions of improvisations
  • Improvisation theater cards that can be easily altered
  • Videos showcasing good examples of student improvisations
  • Access to video and sound recordings from the RDT
  • Behind-the-scene insights
  • Exclusive access to props and costumes from the RDT

The platform would be a communication platform between teacher, and between teachers and the outreach staff at RDT. The access to unique competence, community nurturing and content would make this learning platform stand out from run-of-the-mill online learning platforms.

The learning format is scalable as it builds on the basis that the RDT would provide one-day workshops for teachers wanting to work with the opera production as part of their teaching. The teacher in turn would then engage their students in the study-program provided on the platform.

The design is grounded in the following insights gained from the fieldstudy, meetings with the RDT, student workshops, and a survey of pedagogical perspectives and formats:

  • Gymnasium students feel alienated from old media texts that they find difficult to understand, which makes it difficult for them to see how they are relevant to their everyday life.
  • Gymnasium students find it more rewarding to engage in co-creative and embodied learning than solely analytical and text-based formats. Embodied and creative reinterpretations increase exponentially the students’ understanding of the opera they are working with, which makes them more motivated and more rewarding to see the opera.
  • That gymnasium teachers have little time to prepare unique teaching material related to the RDT repertoire and they would therefore gladly be provided with such material from the RDT.
  • The RDT have limited ability to scale up their outreach and would find it difficult to receive large number of gymnasium classes.
  • The RDT produces unique productions and can provide unique content and knowledge on operas and improvisation techniques that can result in engaging teaching formats.

You can read Torsten Hansson and Job van der Zwan’s own thoughts on this project on the website moretheater.com