Berkeley Rep’s online Dig In program offers free theater education
By Lou Fancher
The Berkeley Rep School of Theatre recently launched Dig In, a new digital initiative for students and young adults in schools and campus communities throughout Northern California. The program makes available a highly interactive, no-cost, digital theater banquet that includes two essential elements working in tandem, its Digital Library and Virtual Stage.
The Digital Library holds high-quality recordings of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s professionally filmed performances, selected from recent repertory with an eye to aligning directly with California Core Curriculum and CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) Standards.
In addition to production films, students using the curriculum materials can explore related play programs, resource guides, interviews and join interactive challenges on social media while creating original material in a virtual theater space. The Berkeley Rep’s previous productions in the library are “Goddess,” “Sanctuary City,” “the ripple, the wave that carried me home” (sic), and “Wuthering Heights.” Upcoming productions in the library will be this spring’s “Clyde’s” and “Cambodian Rock Band.”
Dig In’s Virtual Stage platform is where the most dynamic, exciting action happens. Dylan Russell is the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre’s associate director. She says the content generated and career paths explored on the Virtual Stage may lead to the real-time seed-planting of future generations of playwrights, actors, directors, production designers, audiences, financial supporters and more.
Students on the virtual stage will individually or collaboratively create original stories, music, videos, dances, visual art, poetry, essays and theater pieces that on a digital platform will invite sharing and encourage response or challenges from other participants.
“The two most vital things of Dig In are having a core tool box you share with students as a technical skill base,” Russell says. “In that, I along with other instructors are teaching them improvisation, physical and vocal characterization, text analysis and more.
“The second thing is unlocking a student’s creativity and their stories. Storytelling and listening are foundational. Why? Because we’re in a moment in time when people are not listening deeply to each other. If we can share, have the capacity to listen to someone who’s different or whose ideas you don’t agree with and interact, we can come together in a place of respect.”
Exactly what captures a student or young adult’s interest varies and is sometimes unexpected or even intangible. Flexibility is built into every part of the program’s design, and the curriculum that determines the tools used — by teachers as well as students — allows versatility and choice in the directions pursued. As each natural interaction develops and fosters new possibilities, the program will also seek to encompass updates.
“It can be a student (in) K through 8, in college, someone who has a day job, a home-schooled student or something else,” says Russell, “but Dig In has to offer something that makes the student say, ‘I want to learn that. I want to understand.’ And I would love to see cross-continental creativity. We’d get new artists creating things that will fill our lives with joy, new wonder, questions and beauty.”
For example, Russell notes that “Cambodian Rock Band,” a production soon to be in the Digital Library, could inspire an East Bay student to create a music video. Shared online internationally, a student in Cambodia may see it and suggest collaborating on a project. Diversity, adaptability and innovation are inherent on the Virtual Stage, she emphasized.
More abstractly, Russell says embracing new digital technology meets young people at the nexus of their interests. The Virtual Stage, when entered, resembles a theater lobby, with play posters that Russell and other facilitators can easily change. Going into the theater, uploaded video can make a student seem to be sitting in the audience.
While some students will choose to interact by writing adaptations and monologues later or creating visual art in response to a production, the program will allow clips of people talking in real time to be interpreted within the original projection.
Undoubtedly, a key element of the program is the price point. The materials, curriculum guides, videos and all the add-ons that have been developed are available at no cost during the launch phase. Planning and implementing the program was funded within existing budgets.
Russell said she and other people involved in designing Dig In worked closely with students and educators for six months to determine the most efficacious and attractive features and content. To keep the project going long-term without fees will likely require continued support and perhaps additional grants.
About the breadth of access, Russell says that in addition to students in K-12 public or private schools, colleges and universities, Dig In invites participation from school clubs, campus community groups, home-schoolers and others.
“It means is that all you have to have is an adult to facilitate it,” she said.
By the end of May, the digital lessons will be complete — including a section Russell is fired-up about that will teach students working to create an adaptation of how to “crack the code” on a production.
“How do past productions inform or what do they suggest about the form of the adaptations? How does a student’s voice open up a new voice for the story or a specific character?”
Russell’s expertise and decades of experience as a director, teaching artist, new play developer and community engagement specialist means she is, as she put it, “a person who creates things that don’t exist.”
Asking what nonexistent thing she would like to add to Dig In next is impossible to resist.
“We’re already working on it. We’ve just received permissions from the creatives involved in (the play) ‘Clyde’s’ to share it within the incarceration systems. We’re working on introducing two pilot projects using ‘Cambodian Rock Band.’ I can’t tell you more right now, but it’s happening and coming soon.”