Is this a virtual dagger I see before me?

Karen Faux sees how schools are using ICT to help pupils link play texts to performance

Ghosts, murder, madness and revenge are some of the dramatic ingredients in Macbeth that can prompt stimulating debate. You might, for instance, ask your class for an explanation of why Macbeth murdered the king. Or just how evil do they think Lady Macbeth is?

The replies will depend on how closely pupils have read the play, and therein lies the challenge. To teach drama effectively there has to be an emphasis on it as a performance. That means giving students the opportunity to participate in the drama as well as encouraging them to analyse the words.

ICT can be a bridge between these different activities. The internet can provide a springboard for research into meaning and dramatic techniques, and interactive software provides a time-saving way of involving children in acting, directing, script-writing and design. The two together make a powerful combination.

At Bishop Wordsworth Grammar School in Salisbury, English head Craig Ennew has been using interactive Kar2ouche software to teach Shakespeare to his Year 9 class. What he particularly likes about its CD-Roms for Hamlet and Macbeth is their flexibility and the way they allow the teacher to control how pupils are using them.

"We have 15 machines capable of running the software and it has proved enormously popular," he says. "I'll kick off a lesson with a 20-minute demonstration on how to use the programme and then outline a specific task, such as condensing a scene into a certain number of frames. It is then down to pupils to define the outcome."

There are 15 interactive CDs for each title, including a range of suggested lesson activities in line with the national curriculum. Kar2ouche has developed its programmes in association with schools to make the study of drama more hands-on. The software features scenes and characters which can be compiled into presentations and animations. Pupils can read the lines of the play themselves and add these as sound files over the Shakespearean actors' voices. They can also insert their own text.

"These CD Roms really help pupils to visualise scenes and relate to characters," Craig says. "The main task given to them using the Macbeth programme was to present between five and 10 consecutive lines from the banquet scene, to show that they had fully understood them. This involved choosing the lines and drawing up a preliminary storyboard on paper, and deciding on how to divide the lines and link them to key events on stage."

Some of Craig's pupils chose a series of stills to illustrate the progression of their dialogue while others animated the sequence by running up to 100 slides quickly together. "A number of students also ran explanatory text under their Kar2ouche presentations," says Craig. "This assisted in making the scene accessible to a younger audience which was a key requirement of my original brief."

Following their work on the presentation, pupils were asked to explain their work in writing and to evaluate how they had used the Kar2ouche software. Feedback on the software was positive from everyone in the class. "All of the students felt the exercise had helped them to visualise the scene and in doing so had brought a greater understanding of the key themes and characters," says Craig.

Zeba Clarke is director of drama at Hurstpierpoint College, an independent secondary school in Sussex. She says ICT has enabled her to make drama a big part of the English curriculum. She has introduced ICT as a spur to many aspects of drama, ranging from performance and improvisation to the design of posters and advertising material.

Zeba is enthusiastic about Australian CD-Rom Stagestruck as a way of helping pupils engage with the artistic and practical aspects of a production. "It's a very user-friendly package," she says. "The programme's database allows students to direct, write scripts and rehearse acts. There is also the potential to save scenes and email them to others."

In an hour-long lesson pupils will spend 15 minutes working in groups on particular tasks associated with the programme, such as designing a scene or creating a character.

At the end of the session Zeba demonstrates how these come together. "ICT tends to be more popular with boys but it is good to see these kinds of activities pulling girls in," she says. "It is also evident that non-acting students are sticking with the subject longer."

From key stage 5 she encourages independent use of the internet for research on actors, playwrights and current productions. "Pupils are really keen on checking out the websites themselves and they love the idea of technology providing so much scope to explore different aspects of plays," she says. "Once they start tapping into theatre sites and artist biographies they begin to feel part of an acting community."

Zeba particularly praises Faber amp; Faber's edition of After Juliet, a play by Sharman Macdonald. The play is part of the publisher's Connections series commissioned by the Royal National Theatre and written by professional playwrights. Each book contains details of online educational resources, as well as Royal National Theatre website information where details of past productions and interviews with actors can be accessed.

The play begins with a tense truce held between the Capulets and the Montagues after the death of Romeo and Juliet. Benvolio, Romeo's best friend is in love with Rosaline, Juliet's cousin, but Rosaline is bent on revenge. The play is written for a cast of 12, plus musicians and extras. "We used the suggested scheme of work on the Connections website to kick-start it for my year 10 class and took it from there," she says. "It doesn't require any knowledge of Shakespeare's original and the emphasis on approaching it as live performance has made it a good subject for GCSE mock practicals."

Importantly, the online scheme of work surmounts the barriers presented by stylised and potentially inaccessible language. Practical exercises, using group discussions and role-play highlight plot and character relationships and from there students can move on to a number of interesting activities. They can click on pictures from past productions of Romeo and Juliet to guess the identity of characters by their poses and gestures. Or in trying to imagine how characters such as Rhona and Alice from After Juliet physically look, they can enter Vogue magazine's site and select the images they feel are most appropriate.

Having experimented with ICT in drama for the past year, Zeba is now keen to develop it further. Her lifeline, she says, has been Yahoo's drama teacher group and she has also discovered a wealth of information about theatres and touring companies through time spent surfing the net. "ICT is not a replacement for the live experience but is best viewed as a tool to enhance performance and appreciation," she says. "Drama is essentially about communication and ICT sits very comfortably with that."

Macbeth, and Hamlet. Kar2ouche. Role-play and scene manipulation help children appreciate key themes and gain practical experience. For five stand-alone users (comes on five CDs) pound;159. A 30-user concurrent network licence (comes on one CD) pound;399. Discounts are available through a membership scheme. www.kar2ouche.com Tel: 01865 811099 Stagestruck, by Amanda Morris. Produced by the Australian National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in association with the University of Wollongong, this CD-Rom is not yet under licence in the UK but can be obtained from NIDA at www.nida.unsw.edu.au or through the University of Wolverhampton. pound;26 approx.

Tel: 01902 321000 National Theatre Connections www.connectionsplays.co.uk Yahoo!Groups drama teacher group http:groups.yahoo.comlistdrama_uk

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