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Shakespeare and digital: the RSC’s perspective

Continuing our Shakespeare Season, Sarah Ellis, Digital Producer at the Royal Shakespeare Company explains why her organisation is embracing digital audiences and content creators

Shakespeare’s work has been continuously reimagined in theatres for centuries.  His plays have been reinterpreted for different audiences for over four hundred years. His words continue to resonate today with their great universal themes of love, violence, political corruption and the struggles within human nature. Today, the internet represents a similar technical and artistic revolution as millions of people learn to experience the world in new ways.

At the Royal Shakespeare Company, we are constantly reimagining and reinterpreting Shakespeare in our theatres and interrogating how we can make his work relevant to a new generation. It only seems right that we should be asking the same questions in the online space. We created  myShakespeare, an online project for the World Shakespeare Festival, to ask the question, ‘how do we interpret Shakespeare today?’

We aimed to combine the experience of one of the world’s leading theatre companies with the potential of the digital world, in order to engage online communities. It includes a series of commissions, submissions and think pieces that explore how Shakespeare is interpreted in today’s cultural landscape. The artistic programme has been curated by drawing on the expertise of the whole Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s a process we have worked on together as a company in order to devise a programme which speaks to different audiences, tests different ideas and challenges our own understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

We wanted to make a new work programme that was accessible, pioneering and sustaining, that had  a direct connection with its time and spoke to its generation. And we found a parallel in the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, when the ink, the ideas and the page came together in a new meeting point for culture. Similarly, in the 21st century, the online space has seen a massive increase in people uploading their own content and sharing their identities through their thoughts and ideas. How will people look back on this moment?

Speaking to people around the world about Shakespeare, I discovered a passion and a wealth of inspiration, from the historical perspective to the future of Shakespeare for generations beyond the iPad. For example, our first myShakespeare commission, Banquo by the Bureau of Visual Affairs, directly responds to this evolution. Banquo is a data aggregator that searches for references to Shakespeare and his plays through twitter, Flickr and eBay.  It gives you a window into this global conversation. It invites you to explore and make sense of the online world you see before you – much as an exhibition in a gallery or a play in a theatre would.

Today, there are over two hundred million Google results for Shakespeare, two million Facebook likes for Shakespeare groups, 250,000 Flickr images and 50,000 YouTube videos. This wealth of content and ideas from people across the world is deeply impressive and demonstrates how strongly embedded Shakespeare is in the online space. Some excellent digital programmes from our cultural institutions such as the Sonnets app by Faber and the Shakespeare app from the Cambridge University Press are now starting to enhance and capitalise on this and it will be fascinating to see the new products that emerge for and from this market.

myShakespeare is about building a community through a mixed economy of scale, broadcast of content and amplification as well as a high quality of thinking, ideas and new work. Through digital technology, we are using different canvases and this has prompted us to explore what we can achieve in these new spaces. What can they offer and what can they share?  The audience has changed and so also have the opportunities for the arts.

Physical buildings are no longer the only houses of our content and stories – there are new places for theatre in a much wider landscape and there are motorways, A-roads and small rocky paths that we need to explore. As cultural institutions, we are more porous now and this territory is new and challenging. Audiences have become increasingly mobilised and are eager to connect as makers, content providers, opinion formers and developers.

The future for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s digital programme is exciting and ambitious.  We aim to build on our learning in myShakespeare and for it to inform new ideas, commissions and connectivity.  We will continue to seek the new meeting points for culture and work with the past, present and future.

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