Belmont Students Connect the Past to the Present in Digital Archive of Local Shakespeare Plays

While country music is commonly associated with Nashville, Shakespeare and Music City are not quite as natural of a connection. An innovative digital scholarship project at Belmont University is working to change that, and in fact, bring together the city, country music, and The Bard.

Two years ago, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Folger Shakespeare Library toured the U.S. with an exhibition of the First Folio, including a stop at Nashville’s Parthenon. The Folger Library also awarded 21 micro-grants to universities, including Belmont, in cities on the tour with the purpose to strengthen undergraduate teaching, community involvement, and digital tools in the Shakespeare classroom.

Enter Stage Right

Belmont English Professors Marcia McDonald, Joel Overall, and Jayme Yeo wanted their micro-grant-funded project to showcase the vibrancy of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival which has been in winter residency at the University since 2008 as well as Belmont University Shakespeare productions. Yeo came up with the idea of linking McDonald’s Shakespeare course with Overall’s digital literacy course to create a digital archive of these local performances. In addition to creating an archive for the public, they felt it would also help students understand the intersection between English and the digital humanities by having them explore how to “translate a staged performance for digital media.”

Act I

The first step in archiving a production begins in the Shakespeare course. Students go to see the play and then collect data by taking photos and conducting interviews. They look at various aspects of the production – directing, acting, songwriting, and costumes. They also compared the original script with the local interpretation. Lastly, students write theatre reviews of the production and analytical and reflective essays of their experiences.

Entr’acte

Joel Overall teaches the digital literacies class, a course in the English major that students can also take as a humanities credit in Belmont’s BELL Core general education. The Shakespeare project had just gotten underway when Overall attended the NAC&U Digital Scholarship Workshop in hopes that he would learn how to fit the project into the framework of the course and ensure buy-in from students. After networking with colleagues that had experience with digital pedagogy, Overall identified digital humanities projects that influenced his students’ work. Also, he learned how to more effectively assign and assess student work through discussions with NAC&U colleagues from John Carroll University and Manhattan College who were teaching similar projects.

Act II

Overall first teaches the technical skills behind digital archiving – web design, HTML coding, and video production, for example. Then the students take the raw material from the Shakespeare class to create the digital archive, a website that is a hands-on application of the technical content they’ve just learned.

Curtain Up

Last spring Belmont hosted a regional conference on Shakespeare, and the students launched their website, the Shakespeare in Nashville Performance Archive. So far students have archived two productions – Comedy of Errors and Antony and Cleopatra – and are currently working on Hamlet.

Interestingly, Nashville’s interpretation of Shakespeare indeed includes country music, including songs such as Hoppin’ Mad in Comedy of Errors. Their content also examines how Nashville’s history plays a role in a play’s interpretation, such as the inclusion of a famous honky-tonk bar and its owner in Comedy of Errors. Having reviewed other Shakespeare archives and contrasting Nashville’s performances with other productions helps students to understand interpretations and to know that they are making a contribution to global knowledge of Shakespeare, explained Yeo. The site is included as a teaching resource on Folgerpedia, an online encyclopedia sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

“They realize that they’re designing an audience experience of a Shakespeare play. That has made them think in different ways about what they’re collecting to share,” said Yeo. “It also helps to illustrate the concept of a small-scale data set – they realize that their archive is supplementing other available information.”

 “How far that little candle throws its beams!”
-Portia, upon returning to Belmont, in The Merchant of Venice

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