ICT On Stage!
When you think about it, we use a lot of technology anyway. Videos , slide projectors, C.D. players and tape recorders, lighting desks and so on give us creative flexibility and improve the overall quality of our drama. Placing a computer in the wings is simply another piece of equipment that will extend that flexibility. I'd like to share my experiences with you in the hope that you will be encouraged to experiment and save time and money. This personal approach may cause some disagreement amongst experienced ICT users but they should agree that it represents a good starting point.
The learning curve is steep at first but rapidly levels off. Struggling to come to terms with the fact that your work doesn't disappear forever when you close the window onto the taskbar and learning the various terms is worthwhile because you will soon find that most programmes operate under similar principles and you can soon pick up an unfamiliar piece of software and get where you want to be pretty quickly. It doesn't help that most manuals and help pages have been written by idiots who have no idea of the needs of novices but persevere.
If you don't already, it is time to buy one or two computer magazines in order to keep abreast of what is happening and acquire a few useful pieces of software. "Computeractive Magazine" is published bi-weekly and costs just 99p. This is a useful beginners mag with features and informative workshops that are clear and will encourage you to experiment. Visit their website at : www.webstore.computeractive.co.uk in order to view a list of workshops from previous issues, available for a small cost. Also consider, "PC Pro", a monthly magazine that offers a good deal on subscription rates. It has a useful collection of adverts which allow you to get a quick idea of cost, and it also has a cover CD which always contains some useful programmes for working on and with the web. A last, more personal selection is, "PC Format", magazine, again a monthly publication, quite expensive but it has two CDs with it that often have a lot of useful programmes on them. It is very games orientated but some of the programmes they have had in the past ( old versions and therefore offered free and with no restrictions ) are excellent and more than up to the job. Some programmes offered free on discs are restricted in their functions or are offered on a trial basis, for example 30 days.
Desk Top Publishing.
I am sure that many of you already use DTP for designing your programmes and posters. I have found it quite productive to enlist the help of the G.N.V.Q. students in order to produce the programme and to work with a student in the Art department who enjoys working with computers. Outlines for tickets, programmes and even information letters can be saved and used year after year thus saving a lot of time and helping to build an identity amongst students and parents. In the near future I am intending to run a competition to design a logo for our productions that can be saved as an image file and used as required.
You will find you will spend a lot of your time working with images and editing software. Make sure that your computer has a lot of memory. I would suggest that 64MB is an absolute minimum and you can never have enough. If you are considering upgrading your existing machine then this is the place to start. Scanning is a slow and frustating process with only 32MB of memory. Budget scanners are a worthwhile buy. I use a "Primax Colorado Direct 9600" which cost less than £60 and produces acceptable results. A cheap colour printer is also handy otherwise you are constantly trying to squeeze things onto a disc in order to print it off on another machine. Again a budget model can be bought for around £60- the "Apollo P1200" is a little workhorse. There is a wide range of image editing software, a lot of it comes free with a scanner or on the front cover of PC magazines. "Adobe Photoshop" is a very comprehensive package. "MGI Photosuite " works well and as a basic, easy to use programme, try "Microsoft Photoeditor". It's important that the programme you use is capable of saving images as either GIF files or JPEG files otherwise they are just too big.
If I had to buy one piece of equipment for a drama studio I would choose a computer even over lights or sound equipment. The PC is capable of providing a wide variety of effects. We'll start with sound. A good sound card in a PC can be linked to a set of decent speakers, these items costing no more than about £150, and this will provide good enough sound quality to cope with a large studio or medium size hall. Windows has its own media player that can cope with CDs and allows you to plug a microphone or other input into the sound card to record your own sound effects if you wish. I use a programme called "Gold Studio" which allows you to cut and edit sounds in order to make them easier to use. No more fiddling around with the record button on the tape recorder in order to get the bit you want. Each sound effect can be saved as a WAV. file and can then be played by the computer instantly when it is needed. Or ,if you want to be a little more sophisticated, it is possible to fit your computer with a CD recorder which will allow you to put all your sound effects onto a CD as separate tracks, much more flexible for touring performances as these CDs can be played in a portable CD player. Its amazing how bad old sound effect records now sound to a generation used to CD quality sound. Software will allow you to record from these old records and clean up the sound to get rid of that hiss and crackle. Here we are talking about a one off expenditure that can be used by many others in school and allows the dramatist to really improve the quality of their work. Students are able to create their own sound tracks easily and this can be used in conjunction with the Music department. I have experimented with students recording a spoken commentary and reading of poems to a series of photographs of the First World War as a G.C.S.E. Speaking and Listening assignment. For more on this see Key Stage 4 Resources.
We now come to my favourite piece of software for use in drama and that is "Powerpoint". This is presentation software that comes as part of Microsoft "Office". Once teachers become confident with ICT, I am sure that this programme will become the staple means of sharing information in the classroom and will replace OHPs and blackboards. It is a very flexible programme that allows you to put together a presentation of images, text , sound and video and you can control the way in which these pieces of information appear within the programme. To give you some idea of its potential, I have put our production photographs into a presentation along with information about the school's Drama policy. The presentation is set to run automatically on a loop and is then left on screen for parents to view at open evenings. The computer can be linked to a normal television screen if the graphics card is a modern one, which makes it easier for a large group to see it. If you go the whole hog and manage to put video clips into the presentation it becomes really impressive. The programme is so good that at our last open evening we discussed the possibility of dispensing with a formal address from the Senior Management and set up a Powerpoint presentation that would run at set times, followed by a question and answer session. It is obvious that the potential use of this programme in a drama presentation is exciting. My A' Level students have experimented with a mix of live action, static images and pre-recorded video. This can be especially useful with small groups as it allows them to extend the scope of what they are doing and be in two places at once. We have also tried actors on stage talking to pre recorded video clips. As long as the timing is well thought out it is very effective. This all stemmed from a production of "Oh What A Lovely War" that I did three years ago. At the time we used two slide projectors, one for the headlines and one for the images but had we used Powerpoint, it would have been far more effective. Had this equipment been available for Bertolt Brecht, I'm sure he would have been delighted with it. The opportunity to create irony through the juxtaposition of projected image with what is happening on stage is fascinating. There are issues here about the best way to project these images but I will address that later. Once you are familiar with the programme, I am sure that you will share my enthusiasm for its potential. It is worth buying an idiots guide to Powerpoint and spending a weekend at home trying things out. At a recent drama course, it was suggested that we experiment with slide projectors, projecting patterns onto the actors or the stage floor, much in the manner of Artaud. Powerpoint has a range of patterns and effects that can be put onto a slide and then projected and again, these can be auto timed and linked to sound effects, all within the one programme. This is why I would suggest you go for the computer rather than the lighting rig if it's one or the other. Indeed I have gone further than this and in my last production I used Powerpoint to provide all the scenery. Each location had its own image, either from a camera or scanned in from books or taken from the web. This can provide yet another useful link with the Art department who will be able to supply those who can use software for image editing or creating their own images. Two such useful programmes are "Bryce" and Painter". The former allows you to create photorealistic landscapes and the latter allows you to apply a range of paint techniques to an image as well as painting your own picture. Both are very complicated but you can ask students to work on them in the same way that you would work with students on costumes and set.
We now come to consider the problem of how to project your computer images on to the stage. The ideal answer is to buy a data projector which links to the computer and projects the image that is seen on screen by means of a powerful lamp onto whatever surface you wish. This is a balance between distance from the screen , size of image and brightness of the image. I built a large screen 12 feet by 8 feet using taughtly stretched, white sheeting over a frame. The whole thing cost £40 and the projector was situated behind the screen, out of sight of the audience and about 18 feet away. Back projection like this is the best way to position your equipment as the cable connecting the projector to the computer is very short and so the whole lot will be visible to the audience. Still, if Brecht didn't mind, you may not either. A laptop can be a good compromise but again the operator is visible. If it's just video from a VCR ,it's less of a problem because the phono cable can be much longer without losing the quality of the image. The drawback to these projectors is cost. For a decent one you are looking in the region of £2000, budget models are about £1500. These will go down over time but still represent a substantial investment. If you can persuade the school that it's a whole school piece of equipment then you might have a chance. Beware who uses it though as the lamps cost over a £100 to replace and pop just as easily as a standard lantern if knocked. Forget about hiring them, the cost is too prohibitive. You may be able to borrow one from your friendly university or business contact. At least you can get everything set up on the computer and then pick up the projector at the last minute. A cheaper alternative is to revert back to the trusty slide projector. For this to work you will have to do a little research with the yellow pages. There are firms that will take images prepared as a Powerpoint presentation and turn them into a set of slides. You will need to discuss what format the company expect s the material to be in and the cost ,but given enough time, this is a cheaper alternative.
The latest piece of equipment that I have found useful is a video editing system. This really does require a fast PC with plenty of storage. When we purchased this we worked to a budget of around £2,500. The system we bought is now completely obsolete after a year, but the point remains that it can do the job we bought it for and so there is no need to upgrade. A top of the range system will include: a massive hard drive for storage, the bigger the better, at least 14GB as video files take up a lot of space ; a fast SCSI controlled hard drive to run the operating system , this is very expensive but essential as if your hard drive is not fast enough , it results in skipped frames and poor quality ; a video capture card, these come at a variety of prices and include video editing software. We bought a "Miro Video DC30 plus" card that came with "Adobe Premiere v4." This has proved to be an excellent card with superb software but it is expensive at around £600. This has allowed us to transfer our video clips from a standard VCR or video camera onto hard disc as a AVI file which can then be edited in Adobe Premiere and used in Powerpoint. Premiere is a very complex programme and there are simpler and cheaper options available but the range of possible effects is staggering, even allowing the famous blue screen as used in Star Wars so that you can superimpose someone over a background. It allows multi camera angle editing and lets you add soundtracks and titles with ease. It's a bit like painting on video. Once you have mastered this there is nothing in the computing world that can phase you! I can honestly say that this equipment represents the most exciting innovation for drama practitioners since we started! An absolute must when working with these files is a CDR as the resultant files are huge. Seven minutes of quality video with stereo sound will be about 2.5GB. It is also worth noting that you can place video clips on CD at a slightly lower quality so that they can be watched by students. My eventual aim is to create a Powerpoint presentation consisting of a series of clips with accompanying study notes on various styles and genres.
Useful with reservations, after all you found this didn't you! There are separate issues for working with staff and students. As far as students are concerned, they can and do get completely lost in the sheer scope of the net and are likely to be wandering around looking at irrelevant material or checking their Hotmail account! As regards the worries about porn, most schools are using a service that screens out offensive sites ( this in itself can cause problems as I found out when A level students couldn't access information on Anarchism when researching Dario Fo ). In all the time I have been using the internet, I have never accessed pornogrophy. You can tell from a sites description in a search engine what the content is likely to be. Try typing "Role-play" in and you will see what I mean! The web can be used by drama students to research topics or elements of their character that are out of their experience. For example, my A level group were working on Music as a theme and decided to look at significant music in each decade from 1920 to 1960. These then were linked to significant ideas or attitudes in the decade that were influencing the music. The web allowed them to overcome the limitations of our library and find the necessary facts,images and music to put the piece together. The key is intelligent searching. Two useful techniques are a meta search engine called "Ask Jeeves" which searches all the major search engines and lists the most likely results, and a piece of software called "Web Ferret" ( available from PC Pro ) which does the same thing but gives up to 500 answers. Both of these allow you to be much more specific and save time. There are a lot of sites where images can be downloaded and used for scenery projection and there are also sites which provide pre -recorded sound effects which are paid for and then downloaded as a WAV file. Another useful aspect of the web is the ability to download a whole site complete with links and use it with students rather than them logging on. There is some fascinating and colourful stuff on Commedia Del Arte and it would be very easy to put together the best of it, save it on disc and let the students explore it off-line and work on activiies that you have designed for it. Much more interesting than work sheets! If you don't have the time to do the leg work, why not ask a student to search out decent sites, bookmark or download them for you so that you can check them out at your convenience. If you check out : Useful Sites, I've made a start and please feel free to add your own.