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2,500 years of theatre with one click of the mouse

{{youtube:medium:left|lUPSNqt06mM, Richard Palmer's online, interactive book presents a visual history of theatre}}

With 50 years of teaching experience, William & Mary Theatre Professor Richard Palmer knows a little something about evolving with the times. He wrote his first book by hand and typed subsequent tomes on a PC Junior before finally getting “an adult computer,” he said.

When it came time to write his new textbook – a survey spanning 2,500 years of theatre history – he decided it was, once again, time to change in order to meet the needs of his students. The result: an online, interactive book that gives students a chance to dig deeper into the topics that interest them with just a couple clicks of the mouse.

“It’s not quite a video game, but it has some of the qualities of a video game,” Palmer said.

Published by the National Social Science Press earlier this year, Theatre: a Visual History not only offers information on the evolution of theatre, but it also contains embedded videos, photos and links to additional resources.

“The book functions basically online with the advantage that we can access this wonderful wealth of material that’s now on the Web – recordings, videos, encyclopedic entries – the kinds of things that students do anyway,” Palmer said. “This provides some direction for them so hopefully they can avoid the messy stuff, the inaccurate material, and get to the material that’s useful and visual and vivid.”

Palmer decided to pursue an online format for the book for a variety of reasons, including his concern about the increasing cost of textbooks.

“I didn’t feel that I could assign my own books to my own students because they are so expensive. … So, I tried to do something that was as rich visually and in terms of intellectual resources as any book you can buy, but was much less expensive and hopefully, much more interesting to use,” he said.

The online format is a natural fit for modern-day students who are used to the interactive environment of the Internet and professors who are used to students using computers in the classroom, Palmer noted.

He began teaching the full text in the spring 2014 semester as part of a theatre history course and has been impressed so far with what the format has allowed him to do in the classroom, he said.

“Now it’s very easy for me to reference something in the book and have them go to it, or project it on a screen,” Palmer said. “I can go into the classroom and bring up a short film clip, and then that will be an object of discussion for us, so it’s a whole different kind of dynamic for us between the textbook and the classroom.”

Along with its online format, another unique aspect of the book is how it is arranged. Instead of looking at the history chronologically – starting with Greek theatre and ending with the modern era – chapters are arranged topically. For instance, one chapter focuses on music, while another looks at lighting and yet another examines costuming.

That arrangement allows students to look at the theatre laterally, comparing aspects of Western theatre to those of Asian or African theatre without the restraints of chronology.

“One of the things it does, I hope, is emphasize the relevance of history to contemporary theatre,” he said. “We really see where things are coming from and what they are indebted to and what they repeat and how things have changed by doing it that way.”

Though the book serves as an introductory overview to theatre history, Palmer hopes that its interactive capabilities will allow students to delve more deeply into the topics that they find interesting.

“It’s a kind of cafeteria, if you will, of details, so the book presents things on a summary level and then you click and go to something that develops that theme in much more detail,” he said. “Within that, further links help you go into even further detail, so you don’t expect the students to mine everything, but it’s there for them.”

Although Palmer still admires printed books, “you can do things with a media-based book that you can’t do with a print book,” he said.

“I really do think that for those of us who are teaching areas that have a lot of visual or auditory material, not just print-based, a web-based book clearly is a resource that is going to be expanded and explored in the future. It just opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”