Power to the pupil
Marcus Romer worries that some theatre folk are not waking up to the possibilities of the Internet. "I don't know about theatres getting on the bandwagon," he says. "Theatres are notoriously slow at picking up new technology. I reckon the bandwagon has long gone and some theatres are getting left behind. Sixty-six per cent of teenagers have access to the Internet, they are the new audiences and we should be reaching them."
Romer is artistic director of Pilot Theatre, a small but wonderfully energetic company currently on tour with an award-winning adaptation of Lord of the Flies. Pilot produced a CD-Rom for the first tour of Lord of the Flies two years ago and it has been updated. Costing a mere 50p to produce, the CD-Rom comes free with the Lord of the Flies programme.
"Cheaper than a standby photocopier," beams Romer. "Our education resource materials are on it and if a teacher wants just half of page three, or the workshop on bullying, he can download just that. It saves a lot of money, school money and our money, and there aren't lots of booklets gathering dust."
Last year the National Theatre rang Romer and asked him about Pilot Theatre's educational material and its website, which of course pleased him no end.
He admits that his technology skills are limited but he more than makes up for that with his enthusiasm. He appreciates how the Internet can blur the distinctions between art forms, how it can help to demystify the creative process and stimulate debate.
"Having students connecting and communicating because they have seen a piece of theatre is incredibly valuable," he says. "Having a role within the creation of a piece of work has to be empowering. As a theatre maker I want to include young people and I want to inspire them."
He is excited by the Internet's power to access and download music. His company has secured the world stage rights to S E Hinton's cult novel Rumble Fish and youngsters are already downloading the soundtrack from the company website, as it is being developed, and passing on their comments.
Many theatres and touring companies, including Pilot Theatre and the RSC, have joined the Learning Circuit's New Generation Audiences scheme. It offers free theatre seats for schools and exciting possibilities for online activity. NGA has a powerful, fully protected website with news pages for theatres and schools and hyperlinks to the theatre companes' main websites. Romer's company has joined NGA because he wants informed, theatrically aware audiences.
"If you are a student in Wolverhampton - how do you find out about a play at the Lyric, Hammersmith?" he asks. "You can wait for The Guardian review or watch your teacher put a poster on the wall, but you are stabbing in the dark. Now, thanks to the Internet, youngsters can find out much, much more."
The NGA site will encourage discussion with theatre professionals, and part of the free tickets for schools deal is an obligation to evaluate performances online, participate in other site activities and share resources. Schools can get involved with the online activity without having to attend theatres.
Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's splendidly revamped website has a fascinating game - can you produce a play within budget limits and then put bums on seats? It is intended for students, but certain theatre professionals could benefit from some quality time on that one!
The Royal Exchange site will offer conversations with actors, directors and designers, the chance to explore characters and themes in past and present productions, as well as an opportunity to browse through its renowned costume collection and photo archive.
A website at the West Yorkshire Playhouse attracted many positive comments when it was launched two years ago and visitors to the theatre had free use of a cybercafe. At the same time stage productions were beginning to benefit from an enthusiastic embracing of new technology. The cult novel Deadmeat, staged last summer, had digital cameras on stage and actors talking to characters on video screens.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre has had an active website for three years. Users can access terrific resources from other schools and can adopt a company actor. There is a determination to ensure that all schools have the same quality of experience.
Contrast all of that with the attitude at another theatre. Its website manager was adamant that access to the thoughts of actors and directors was not a priority: "We would prefer students to come to the theatre to ask their questions."
Kevin Berry is a freelance writer
Reference point for many theatres and touring companies
Manchester Royal Exchange
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Royal Court Theatre
Oxford Stage Company