Theatron 3 – Insubstantial Pageants’: learning about Renaissance drama in Second Life

Dramatic arts, E-Learning

Project summary

The ‘Insubstantial Pageants’: learning about Renaissance drama in Second Life project aims to  investigate creative enhanced undergraduate learning in the arts, supported by cascaded collaborative pedagogic staff enquiry and development.

In Semester 1 2008-9, the Insubstantial Pageants project will invite Level 2 and Level 3 undergraduates studying Renaissance drama on English and Theatre degree programmes at York St John to work experimentally in the virtual Globe Theatre, where they will have the opportunity to learn about Renaissance Drama in action by ‘performing’ and/or directing scenes from plays which they are currently studying. Level 3 dissertation students writing about Renaissance drama will be specifically invited to participate in the project, since such students can sometimes end up working in particularly solitary circumstances, consequently losing sight of the dramatic or interactive dimensions of texts studied. In the event that timetable constraints or technical issues restrict the amount of Second Life activity which can be undertaken in conjunction with taught modules, additional volunteer opportunities to engage with this project will be offered in Semester 2.

The project’s collaborative staff development dimension for academics will be rolled out through York St John’s C4C: Collaborating for Creativity Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning
Literature, Theatre, Media staff and C4C Fellows will be invited to explore proposed Second Life student learning activities relating to a familiar Shakespeare play, in order to (1) develop their awareness of the pedagogic potential of Second Life and (2) to advise on proposed project activities in relation to student learning.


The project will take account of relevant comparative production work in Second Life including in other media or disciplines e.g. Joe Bennett’s Second Life Music Studio developed for Popular Music students at Bath Spa university, and the extensive work in Art and Design taking place at Leeds Metropolitan University (symposium attended October 2007).

Aims and Objectives

This project aims to explore Second Life’s potential to offer students a 3D performative approach to, and understanding of Renaissance drama, bypassing the relative time, practical and/or cost constraints of live activities designed to achieve similar aims, such as practical drama sessions or theatre visits/ masterclasses with theatre practitioners. Virtual production possibilities can also potentially offer students equality of access and opportunity. This project is intended to be comparative in its explorations and findings. Comparative approaches will encompass staff/student experiences, virtual and live learning strategies, different plays wherever possible. Should time and resources allow, comparative approaches to period/contemporary production of Renaissance drama will be included.


Student learning
In order to develop greater insights into Renaissance drama, students will be encouraged to identify, explore comparatively and present interactively particular dramatic challenges or high points in each text. (Specific attention will be paid to dramatic conventions and issues of material culture, so that Second Life theatre experiences are more than ‘Sims in Shakespearean dress’).

Initially, students will be invited to work individually or collaboratively, according to personal preference, in order to assess learning opportunities. Thereafter students may be requested to work in different groupings to explore further options.
Attention will be paid to ways in which access to the virtual Globe might complement or even replace theatre visits, film screenings, production workshops, live performances. Usage, popularity and accessibility will be monitored.

Academic staff experience
Staff will be offered workshops and student research assistant advice in order to develop their understanding of and capacities in Second Life. Up to 50% of the project funding will be used for staff time, to buy out academic staff time where necessary and buy in student research assistant support as required. Interested colleagues will be a valuable sounding board and resource for the Project Director as the project develops, and hopefully generating further Second Life pedagogic projects.


The Insubstantial Pageants learning process at York St John will be evaluated through written commentary, focus group and discussion, with particular attention to the relative usefulness or possible limits of this learning mode for English or Performing Arts students.
Dialogue and links will be maintained throughout with Mark Childs, Project Leader, and other Theatron Project Team members, through attendance at face-to-face and inworld meetings.


The project leader will work with at least one academic colleague to develop the project. Project participants will offer a Master Class for interested colleagues, to share questions raised and expertise developed.
Project participants will be happy to present their findings at a relevant Subject Centre conference or equivalent, as required.
The Project Director will communicate and discuss findings with the National Teaching Fellow community and the CETL community.


In the longer term Second Life would seem to offer creative opportunities for students from different universities to collaborate and learn together; Insubstantial Pageants could in future be developed to engage with this option in relation to Renaissance Drama as time and resources might allow.


Gweno Williams is Professor of Creative Arts Education and Academic Head of C4C CETL at York St John University. Her teaching and research specialisms include investigating stagings and contemporary restagings of early modern drama. She was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2002, and has served as a National Teaching Fellow Mentor. A founder member of the International Margaret Cavendish Society, she was its elected President from 2003-6. She founded and runs the Margaret Cavendish Performance Project at York St John, to develop the first recorded stagings of Cavendish’s C17 plays. Her innovative DVD of these premier performances: Margaret Cavendish: Plays in Performance, published in 2005, won the Arts and Media Award of the international Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. She is new to Second Life.

Project contact

Gweno Williams

York St John University

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