Digital Actors' Parts: An Interactive Tool for Learning Shakespeare's Plays

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Laura Estill

    Texas A&M University

  2. 2. Luis Meneses

    Texas A&M University

Work text
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In the early modern period, rather than having access to a full-text play, actors learned their lines using “Actors’ parts,” hastily handwritten documents that provided them with only their cues and lines. Traditionally, today’s actors learn their lines from full-text plays, without any computer assistance. Digital Actors’ Parts (DAP) is an online environment that both mimics and enhances the early modern acting experience in order to facilitate actors learning their lines. DAP is the first project to give users an interactive experience with an early-modern-inspired “actor’s part,” which encourages both active reading and memorization, in turn leading to a better understanding of the texts themselves.

In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Walter Ong theorized that we were in a “second orality” based on the “use of writing and print” and considered how memorization worked in oral and written circumstances;Digital Actor’s Parts allows us to consider memory as it relates to online technologies. In Shakespeare studies, the function of memory has been an important area of study for years, as scholars debate whether certain texts are “memorially reconstructed,” that is, printed from actors’ memories rather than a playwright’s written text. Our tool argues for the importance of understanding memorization when it comes to cognition and the comprehension of literary and theatrical works. DAP will not only provide expert scholars with a platform for reconsidering memory specifically as it relates to Shakespeare, it will also offer a tool that will be of use for beginners and professionals both in the classroom and the theatre.

As the most prominent figure in English theatre, Shakespeare’s plays have been encoded multiple times; digital Shakespeare projects abound. Unlike most single-source projects, Digital Actors’ Parts brings together open-access data from multiple sources, including the encoded texts from the MLA Committee on the New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Texts, the Internet Shakespeare Editions, and Open Source Shakespeare. Our project is designed to incorporate new data from these sources, because, forinstance, the MLA and Folger Digital Texts are still encoding Shakespeare’s works and have not yet released their complete data-set. These online Shakespearean texts are as diverse as the original printed editions. By building on existing Shakespearean projects, DAP is not limited to a single copy-text, so an actor or director could choose either the folio or quarto version of, for instance, King Lear.

Digital Actors’ Parts helps students, researchers, and theatre practitioners learn lines by allowing them to select a Shakespearean play, edition, and character from a pre-populated dropdown menu. The users are then presented with their first cue and the ability to type in their line(s). Users will also be able to ask for prompts: their first word, first line, or entire speech. By entering the text of their speeches and checking what they have typed, users receive a score depending on their accuracy. This feature makes Shakespeare’s text interactive in a way beyond most digital editions. The accuracy score allows for the potential gamification of becoming a Shakespearean actor, which will especially promote student learning. In the classroom, DAP encourages students and teachers to memorize and perform Shakespeare’s language, that is, to engage with it beyond simply reading. This online tool makes it easy to transition from, as the saying goes, the page to the stage.

Although Shakespeare’s plays continue to be popular both online and in the theatre, most digital tools for the study of Shakespeare are aimed at literary scholars, teachers, and K-12 students. The intended audience of Digital Actors’ Parts also includes theatre professionals (actors, directors, dramaturgs): indeed, this is not simply a digital humanities project, but also a digital fine arts endeavor.

Digital Actor’s Parts is currently a work in progress. The prototype for DAP runs on an instance of the framework. is a Python web framework that is both simple and powerful. We chose to use this framework because it allows rapid prototyping allowing us to concentrate on the specific features that we need to implement. On the other hand, the plays that we are utilizing are encoded and distributed in different formats. For example: The plays from Folger Digital Texts are encoded in TEI-compliant XML, MLA’s are encoded only in XML, and the materials from Open Source Shakespeare are bundled in a Microsoft Access database. Therefore, before being displayed through the interface, the plays must be harvested from their original institutional repositories, parsed, transformed using XSL Transformations and stored into a database. The accuracy scores and metadata for the individual user records are maintained and stored in a using a separate table structure. Figure 1 shows a prototype of the user interface.

Fig. 1: Prototype of the user interface for Digital Actors’ Parts.

Unlike other online memorization tools such as Memorizer and Memorize Now, this project does not require users to first input the text they memorize—which could be a particularly fraught process for texts as complicated as Shakespeare.Digital Actors’ Parts, furthermore, is ideal to help users memorizing all of a character’s lines (and not just a single speech) as it delivers the appropriate cues, unlike existing tools. The automatically-generated accuracy score, another feature other programs lack, can add elements of fun and competition as users strive for mastery of Shakespeare’s text.

In its first iteration, Digital Actors’ Parts relies on a modern web browser to deliver its content and experience. For future releases, we hope to implement an application for mobile devices. This app will allow users to expand the possibilities of interaction by taking DAP to the rehearsal space, theater, or experimenting with entirely new locations. Having this tool in hand will encourage earlier inclusion of blocking and business in the rehearsal process and will also be useful for active classroom learning.

In 2014, Shakespeare 450 will mark the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with performances, workshops, and lectures. We envision Digital Actors’ Parts participating in this global celebration by making it easier for performance troupes from amateur to professional to take part in staging Shakespeare’s plays around the world. In “To the Memory of my Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare,” Ben Jonson famously declared that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”:DAP is part of the larger movement bringing Shakespeare into the twenty-first century with new digital resources and tool. DAP will help us understand how we engage with Shakespeare’s works in the most fundamental ways and will allow us to theorize memory as it relates not simply to orality or written texts, but also to innovative, interactive, digital tools.

Ultimately, Digital Actors’ Parts capitalizes on the proliferation of open-source Shakespeare texts, offering one answer to the question of “where do we go from here?” with digital projects. This project goes beyond aggregation by suggesting one way these texts can be fruitfully combined. While offering a valuable rehearsal tool in itself, DAP also encourages further research on Shakespeare’s works, the digital practice of combining multiple corpora, and interactive online learning methods.

Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts, Oxford: OUP, 2007.

Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London & New York: Methuen, 1982, 136. See also esp. 57-68.

On “memorial reconstruction” and the function of memory in Shakespearean texts, see Laurie Maguire, Shakespeare’s Suspect Texts: The ‘Bad’ Quartos and their Contexts, Cambridge: CUP, 1996 and Paul Werstine’s work, especially “A Century of ‘Bad’ Shakespeare Quartos” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999): 310-33.

MLA New Variorium Shakespeare encoding: Folger Digital Texts: The Internet Shakespeare Editions: Open-Source Shakespeare:

Memorizer: Memorize Now:

Shakespeare 450:

Ben Jonson, “To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare’s first folio (1623). Facsimile:

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO