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The Globe and Mail

Shakespeare meets karaoke on interactive website

Actor Joe Bucci (L), Artistic Director Michael Kelly and Actor Kaleb Alexander of Shakespeare in Action rehearse at Central Commerce Collegiate in Toronto on January 28th, 2011.

Ian Willms for the Globe and Mail/ian willms The Globe and Mail

Two households of stage performance, nothing alike in dignity, meet in the classroom, where we lay our scene. Together, the highest form of theatre, Shakespeare, and the lowest form, karaoke, are the basis of a new interactive website for teachers and students.

Shakespeare in Action, a Toronto-based theatre company that has been performing in schools for more than 20 years, will launch its virtual lab of Bard-themed activities Thursday. It includes an interactive program in which students are inserted into the scene of a play by reading the lines for the role of Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet, and the like, as they scroll along a computer monitor. Students will also be able to play Shakespeare mad libs, inserting new verbs and nouns into the nearly 500-year-old scripts, or practise eloquent insults such as, 'Thou churlish fat-kidneyed codpiece.'

For more than a century educators have been looking for ways to make Shakespeare accessible, to get students to break through the wandering apostrophes and stuffy pronouns of Elizabethan English to the universal language of love, revenge, adventure and heartache. The theatre company's new website attempts to fill that need and its creators are making it available free.

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More than 130 teachers and students across the country have already registered, including Joelene Strueby, an English and drama teacher at Miller Comprehensive High School in Regina, Sask. She says teachers are eager for affordable and creative ways to introduce Shakespeare, and believes that computers are a student-friendly tool.

"The fact that they're trying to adapt to a medium that students are familiar with, with technology, is definitely helping out the English teacher," she said.

Most of the aids available to teachers exploring Shakespeare take a straightforward approach to translating Elizabethan English. Edith Nesbit, the 19th century author of The Railway Children, rewrote many of Mr. Shakespeare's plays for children. More recently, the BBC invited students in Britain to submit 60-second video interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.

In Shakespeare karaoke students can deliver their own interpretation of, 'To be, or not to be ...' or the guaranteed crowd-pleaser, 'Oh Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?' Trained actors play out the other roles on the computer monitor, while the students' lines flash beneath them.

Michael Kelly founded Shakespeare in Action 23 years ago in hopes of getting teachers to employ more active methods when they introduce the most famous playwright in the English language.

"There's great potential because everybody understands ideas of love and pain and revenge. Those are universal things," said Mr. Kelly. "My big vision of how we were going to change everything didn't really work; everyone's still teaching Shakespeare the way they always did."

As a not-for-profit reaching out to cash-strapped schools, there wasn't much money for travel so Mr. Kelly decided that a virtual lab was his best chance for reaching classrooms across the country. The site took five years to develop.

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"I produced this with absolutely no money. I asked these actors if they would volunteer their time and there was nothing in it for them," he said. "We all believe in the value of Shakespeare for young people. It engages the spirit and the mind, and what a great thing that is."

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