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Joseph Paul Hill’s Midterm Proposals for Theatre Classroom Projects

Proposal 1: New York Theatre Student Rush Ticket Web-Based App

Introduction:

During any given semester, students enrolled in an undergraduate theatre course, whether Introduction to Theatre, Advanced Scenic Design, or World Theatre 1642 to the Present, will be required to attend a theatre performance and submit a review. The content and style of the review will change depending on the instructor and the course content, but one major component of the assignment remains the same: finding a production to attend. Many undergraduate students, especially the many non-theatre majors enrolled in Introduction to Theatre courses who have never seen a professional theatre production, are clueless to the number of options available to them. Since the 1996 Broadway production of Rent, almost all New York City theatres have implemented Rush ticket policies in order to make discounted tickets available to students and young adults with no additional processing fees, but no one has aggregated the Rush ticket information for Broadway and Off-Broadway (and even the few significant Off-Off) houses?

The proposed project will serve to make such information easily accessible to students who want to attend quality productions without paying full price. Additionally, the project will attempt to make use of students’ theatre reviews beyond a classroom assignment submitted only to an instructor for credit by making them publically accessible.

Personas:

Instructor Isabella: Isabella is an adjunct professor in the Department of Theatre and Speech at the City College of New York. This semester she is teaching Introduction to Theatre Arts and Black Drama USA Part 2. For both courses, she requires her students to attend a professional theatre production in New York City and write a performance review. Isabella has a good sense of which new productions might appeal to her non-major students, but she is unsure of which productions might be relevant for students in her African-American theatre history course. Conscious of her students’ financial constraints, which are very similar to her own as a graduate student in the Theatre Program at the Graduate Center, she wants to suggest affordable theatre options for her students.

Student Samuel: Samuel is a Theatre Major at Hunter College. For his scene design class, he needs to attend a theatre production and write a review critiquing the play’s design and analyzing how the design served both the playwright’s and the director’s concerns. Samuel has already seen most of the new plays on Broadway this season and isn’t inspired to write about any of their scenic designs. Two years ago he saw a production at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn that he really enjoyed, and St. Ann’s is hosting a new play next month that Samuel thinks will be an interesting production for his paper. He knows that St. Ann’s Warehouse offers student tickets, but he doesn’t know how to go about getting them since he can’t seem to locate the information on their website.

Student Simon: Simon is a psychology student at Brooklyn College who enrolled in Introduction to Theatre Arts to satisfy a general education requirement. His midterm writing assignment for the course is to attend a theatre performance and write a newspaper review that discusses the highs and lows of the production. Simon has never seen a play before, unless you count seeing his younger sister in a junior high drama show, which Simon does not. Simon’s teacher has offered a small amount of extra credit on the assignment if the students attend an Off-Broadway show, but Simon doesn’t know the difference between On- and Off-Broadway. He thinks he would like to see a musical, but he doesn’t know to go about seeing a list of all current productions.

Aspiring-Actress Alice: Alice sees as much New York theatre as she can between working at her survival job and going to non-union auditions. She received her BFA in Acting from Marymount Manhattan College three years ago and became very familiar with finding inexpensive ways to see Broadway productions. Since Alice is no longer a student, she’s ineligible for many Rush tickets, but since she is under the age of 35, she can still get Rush tickets at some theatres. Alice doesn’t have to work tomorrow morning and has time to go sit in line for a Rush ticket, but she doesn’t know which productions have performances tomorrow night that offer Youth Rush tickets instead of Student Rush tickets.

Use Case Scenario:

There are many websites—although none that utilize responsive web design—that have information about discounted tickets for various Broadway theatres, and there are various membership companies that charge handling fees for discounted tickets, but every venue and every show has different policies about discounted ticket information, and it’s often difficult to find the information online. Theatre students in the know have their go-to websites or applications, such as BroadwayForBrokePeople.com, TodayTix, or StudentRush.org, but initially finding these websites or apps is typically the result of a grueling Google search or a friend recommendation.

The new web-based app will have a responsive web design so that the content can be easily accessed from a laptop as a student plans out which show to Rush the following morning or from a cell phone as a student desperately tries to find an alternative show to Rush when all the Rush tickets for a particular show sell out. Unlike many ticket organizations, there will be no fees associated with the website because it is not offering ticket discounts that are not openly available to the public; rather, it is making already inexpensive theatre tickets easier to obtain. Because it provides information not easily accessible elsewhere, instructors, students, and avid theatregoers who find the application useful are likely to recommend it to their friends and colleagues. (Certainly all of the adjunct theatre professors associated with the Graduate Center’s Theatre Program would find it useful in their CUNY appointments.)

Full Fledged Version:

In the full version of the web-based app, interactivity is key. Theatre students and young theatregoers are both active communities, and the continued success of the application would require the input of individuals. Although students and non-students alike will be able to use the site anonymously, they will be encouraged to log in and contribute to the site under their username by updating production information, suggesting new shows and venues that are not currently part of the system, and, of course, submitting student reviews of shows they have seen.

The full version brings together information about obtaining Rush tickets for all Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres, as well as notable Off-Off-Broadway and university productions. Detailed information about obtaining a Rush ticket at each theatre will be integrated into a format that is easily searchable by event type, Rush ticket requirements, theatre location, and day of the week. Brief production information gleaned from theatre and/or production websites will appear alongside student-submitted reviews of productions. Information about the shows is secondary to ticket information, but many may find it useful. Ideally there would also be a thread of alerts each morning where Rush participants can share current information about Rush tickets, especially regarding availability, for that particular day. With enough traffic to the site, ideally theatre companies and venues will also seek to keep their own information up to date as good marketing and publicity.

WordPress has enough functionality that it would provide a good platform for a successful responsive web design that would also allow for user input, such as the posting of student reviews and day-of Rush information. WordPress plugins will also be useful for sorting information by custom fields to make sure that Rush information is accessible according to the desires of the users.

Any version of this project would require the compilation of pre-existing Rush information from various production and theatre websites. Boilerplate pages can be made in response to typical Rush scenarios including various weekly show schedules, box office hours, and ticket prices. Content updates from the project creators would undoubtedly need to continue until there is enough user activity to allow for community cooperation, so it would also be useful to chart out company seasons well in advance and to establish e-mail correspondence with the marketing teams of theatres who have limited runs.

The site should be developed concurrently with the accumulation of information, as new performance information can always be added once the site is functional. I imagine that designing a site for the ticket information alone (in addition to the information culling) will take a couple months given that multiple plugins will need to be tested extensively for their usefulness in sorting through the information. Adding user ability to post reviews and day-of Rush information should only take a couple weeks, but adding user ability to contribute to the information content of the site would likely require another couple months, as questions about user vandalism will have to be addressed and guarded against.

Minimally Viable Version:

The minimally viable product would have Rush ticket information available without user activity and contribution. Rather than provide Rush information for a near limitless number of New York theatres, the bare bones site would need to limit the scope primarily to Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres. Detailed information about obtaining a Rush ticket at each theatre would still be integrated into a format that is easily searchable by event type, Rush ticket requirements, theatre location, and day of the week, but production information will be limited to linking to a show’s official website.

WordPress and its plugins would undoubtedly be the best route for a minimally viable product, especially considering the need for responsive web design. Again, designing a site for the ticket information alone (in addition to the information culling) will take a couple months given that multiple plugins will need to be tested extensively for their usefulness in sorting through the information. The entire project should only take about three months to get up and running if there is no addition of user activity.

 

Proposal 2: Complex Theatrical Relations Web Visualization

Introduction:

Over the last two decades, Theatre Studies has been problematizing notions of a Western, male-dominated canon by increasingly stressing the intertextuality and interdisciplinarity of theatre as an art form. For undergraduate students, a key difficulty in studying theatre history is the necessary use of theatre history textbooks that separate theatrical developments, genres, and innovations both temporally and geographically, thereby encouraging canonization and periodization. The ability to represent the complexity of theatrical traditions and inspirations varies between theatre courses based on the object of study, whether determined by time (e.g. World Theatre to 1642) or location (e.g. Asian Theatre). However, in instructing students in the work of theatre historians, it becomes necessary for us to train students to find intertextual connections between seemingly disparate playwrights, producers, designers, theorists, theatres, plays, and artistic movements.

The proposed project will allow for a semester-long assignment where students create a visual web of relations and connections between the various people, places, events, and ideas presented during the course in order to visually depict the complexity of the theatrical art form and to disrupt (or demonstrate the need to continue problematizing) the dominance in theatre history by dead white men. The assignment would function comparably to an academic re-imagining of six degrees of separation

Personas:

Professor Penny: Penny is a tenured professor of theatre at Brooklyn College who is repeatedly scheduled to teach theatre history courses for both the department’s BA and MA programs. The department has decided to use Brockett and Hildy’s History of the Theatre—despite its serious shortcomings and obvious flaws—for all theatre history courses. Penny wants an assignment that will help make her students aware that theatre history textbooks parse out information based on external modes of categorization retroactively applied by theatre historians. Penny’s preferred style of instruction is lecture and discussion. She is not comfortable using technology in the classroom beyond showing video clips, but she wants some way for her students to visualize theatre trends apart from chronological ordering.

Adjunct Adam: Adam is an adjunct professor in the Drama Program at the College of Staten Island and has been assigned to teach a course on contemporary global theatre. Through his course, Adam wishes to convey what, where, why, and how theatre travels both trans- and internationally in the contemporary period and how that travel has changed since the pre-modern period. He wants to assign his students a project where they must select one global nation or geographic region and chart the movement of theatrical forms and texts both into and out of the area of focus. If all of the students’ assignments could be combined somehow into one larger project then perhaps the entire class could see visually how inter- of disconnected global theatre has become in the twenty-first century.

Graduate Student Greta: Greta is studying for her first examination in the Theatre Program at the Graduate Center. Because there is no provided reading list for the exam, Greta has been working through the prominent theatre history textbooks: Brockett and Hildy’s History of the Theatre; Wilson and Goldfarb’s Living Theatre; and Zarrilli, McConachie, Williams, and Sorgenfrei’s Theatre Histories. Before reading anything further, Greta wants to map her current knowledge in order to find the gaps in her general theatre history knowledge. Because her success in the oral component of the first exam will be dependent upon her ability to quickly associate theatre trends across time and space, she wants to create a visualization of her knowledge that visually represents a web of theatre terminology.

Use Case Scenario:

This project will design a web-based tool that will enable a course assignment in which students can input a series of related terms that will then be represented visually by linking terms with lines. Students will be able to collaborate on a single visual representation, with all of their connections or associations being added to the same visual web of terms. The assignment to create the visual representation becomes the impetus for further discussion or reflection, such as questioning any links that do not exist or examining the centrality of a particular term in the course. A professor may compare multiple webs from various classes in order to examine areas of student interest that may or may not have been covered extensively in a given course in order to update and expand curriculum away from a Western theatre canon. Ultimately the creation of a term web is a challenge for the students, daring them to find connections between seemingly disparate items in the field, such as musical writers Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kathakali Indian dance-drama, and Torelli’s chariot and pole system.

There is no particular relation of the project to theatre or theatre history courses per se other than the impetus for the project’s creation. Versatility in the website’s functionality will enable the assignment to be used for assignments in other disciplines or for individual purposes. If the tool is interdisciplinary, it may be linked to by websites such as TAPoR or Project Bamboo’s DiRT alongside other research tools for textual study, like Voyant Links and Wordle.

Full Fledged Version:

The full fledged version of this project will require the development of both a website and a web tool. The website will allow users to collaborate on a particular assignment, including the development of discussion threads for what sorts of information and connections are desirable in the visualization. The website will then allow for interaction with the web tool that will work to generate the text visualization. Thus, unlike most text analysis tools already available online at websites such as TAPoR, this visual representation should be able to adapt and change according to users’ desires. In setting up the assignment, an instructor or individual user would have options for how the connections are displayed visually. Does it make sense to plot points on a world map and see how different artistic cultures interact, or does it make sense to assemble an asymmetrical web of names, titles, and terms that progress in time historically with the earliest words being closest to the center of the system and branching outwards with the progression of time? The visual representation will dictate the possibilities of the project. Inputting a connection should require the two terms being connected as well as a reason for the link. There will be many predetermined links, such as “play written by,” “artist associated with,” “artist influenced by,” and “produced in theatre,” as well as the option for creating new links. Each of these links may then be briefly elaborated upon, such as adding a year, location, or other piece of data. Once the representation has been generated, users can continue to add information, i.e. additional connections, in order to continue changing the visualization.

A key feature of the visualization will be searchability. Rather than the end product being the text visualization itself, the information from the visualization may be extracted. For instance, if a student wanted to see all of the connections to a figure such as “Bertolt Brecht,” searching for the term would return all of the associated results, such as “Mei Lanfang,” “Berliner Ensemble,” and “Threepenny Opera,” as well a short detail about the link, meaning whichever link and additional information a user entered. Another desirable feature will be public access to finished, searchable visualizations. Thus, a student interested in learning more about German theatre since statehood might find a visualization from a course on German theatre in the twentieth century interesting for further reading and key ideas.

As mentioned briefly above, the web tool has no necessary limitation on its interdisciplinary potential, other than perhaps default links between items. If different visualizations are tagged appropriately, all theatre history or theatre-related connections could be aggregated into a single visualization that will continue to change as individual visualization assignments are added to the website. Such a visual might be of interest to those concerned with the state, content, and focus of the academic field.

WordPress might serve as a foundation for an interactive website where discussions about assignments or other related text visualizations could live. Two months should be enough time to have a website running that enables users to log in and discuss information and connections for their particular assignment or project. The tool itself, though, would require quite an extensive amount of work. Hopefully there is some not-yet-discovered open source code that has similar visualization capabilities. The tool would need to be created with a programming language, perhaps one such as Python, of which I have begun to learn. Research into and development of a user-friendly, adaptable tool would likely take six months. A multi-user visualization could then be created to test functionality before spending another month making the tool and website interdisciplinary.

Minimally Viable Version:

A minimally viable product would not have the flexibility of the full fledged version in determining different styles of representation. Likely, representation would be limited to line connections between terms. The visualization also would not have full searchability but would instead serve solely as a visual representation that links related terms. Instead of using the tool in association with a website that can be used to develop and host projects, the tool could be created as a stand-alone entity. Similar to web tools like Voyant Links and Wordle, which were previously mentioned, a stand-alone tool could allow for a certain amount of text to be written elsewhere in word processing program following particular language structures and then copied and pasted into a field that would translate the language into a text visualization.

As with the full project, the most time-consuming part of the project would be creating the tool. Python is perhaps not the best programming language for the tool, but it is the only one with which I have any familiarity. Still anticipating a six month period for the research and development of a mostly user-friendly tool, a bare bones project would not have the same interdisciplinary adaptability.

Futures Past Archive

Project Outline

The purpose of this project is to create a series of timelines that contrast the presentation of technology in fiction with real-world developments in science. The project, which will take the form of a web app or CMS, will be organized into broad areas of technological development such as lighter-than-air travel, nuclear power, and sound recording. On visiting the FPA, users will be presented with a series of images or glyphs, each of which will represent one of these areas. After selecting a category, users will be able to simultaneously view two timelines, one showing fiction or nonfiction works which imagined future developments in that area and another showing historical advances in that technology.

Purpose

The Futures Past Archive is designed primarily with teaching in mind, but may also be useful for researchers who wish to view broad trends in the relationship between speculative writing and real-world advances. As a teaching resource, the FPA will provide an accessible overview of the literature in a given speculative area, such as germ theory or telegraphy. These can serve as starting points for student research or inspire deeper examinations of the wider relationship between imagination and invention. Alternatively, the timelines presented in the FPA could suggest new ways of examining current discourses of technology, creativity, and invention.

Crowdsourcing

Ideally, the FPA will have a crowdsourced component where researchers will add to the various categories, possibly taking responsibility for a category and receiving attribution for its stewardship. However, a great deal of information will need to be present on the site before crowdsourcing becomes a possibility. For my categories, I will look to resources such as Wikipedia for lists, images, and other information on imaginative works and historical technological developments, which will constitute a kind of second-hand crowdsourcing. At this stage, the value of the project will lie primarily in the arrangement of the timelines and the “distant reading” component of the visualizations.

Minimal Viable Product

I intend to create the FPA using Flask, a web framework for Python. I will also use Javascript to create the timelines that will appear on each page. Initially, I will choose a small number of technologies (5-10) to present, and can expand the selection once those have been implemented. My MVP will have these components:

  1. A home page with stylized images of technological categories.
  2. Two timelines for each category.
  3. Information pages on the theoretical basis for the project.

To achieve this, I will need to scrape data from Wikipedia and other sources and store it in a structured way, and for this I will use Python and mySQL, respectively.

Larger Scale Project

Ultimately, I would like to see the Futures Past Archive benefit from the crowdsourcing efforts of scholars and enthusiasts of both science fiction and science writing. It may be too much to hope that contributors will congregate organically, but one way to begin small-scale crowd sourcing might be to reach out to domain experts in certain technologies, such as experts in the Victorian railway or the Napoleonic semaphore, and have them curate a category. These scholars would receive attribution on the site, and with some grant funding, the FPA might even be able to offer small honoraria for these efforts.

Eventually, I would like the FPA to be a comprehensive resource for the comparison of science fiction, speculative nonfiction, and real-world scientific developments. Such a comprehensive tool might give some insight into the relationship between scientific writing and scientific practice, or at the very least show the messy back-and-forth of cultural supposition and practical technological advancement. I would also like the FPA to be visually appealing, making it more attractive to students and the interested public rather than a small set of specialized historians and literary scholars.

Jeffrey’s project ideas: text manipulations

Here are some ideas I had for my project this semester.

  1. One idea would be to try to develop a way of visualizing the establishment of clichés over time—especially ones that originate in quotations from literary texts. It would be possible to track the histories of relatively short clichés using the Google Ngrams data set, although that would require Big Data-level computing. I could also do this on a smaller scale (and with a lot more flexibility) using the just-released EEBO-TCP corpus, which includes manually transcribed versions of over 25,000 early modern English books.
  1. I might try to do something with computerized outlining tools. The work that I’ve done so far is way on the complicated side, so in the spirit of this class it might be useful to try to come up with a minimal viable product. In an ordinary outline, one line might be indented beneath another for any number of reasons—it might expand on an idea, provide an example, give a possible counterargument, etc. By including symbols that make these relationships explicit, it is possible to manipulate the structure using a computer—something that can be used, for instance, to play around with different possible structures for a paper in an interactive way.
  1. I’ve been toying around with the idea of developing a programming environment specifically designed for working with texts. There was an attempt to create a programming language for humanists way back in 1970, but nothing this century as far as I know. We have mostly picked up general-purpose languages like Python. But some of the basic operations that we have to do in manipulating texts—stripping tags, parsing document structures, tokenizing—can be awkward in these systems, and it can be difficult to the user to tell whether these operations are working right with a particular body of text. It would be much easier to work in an environment with immediate feedback. Imagine having your code on one side of the screen and a visualization of a text on the other, with annotations that indicate how the text is being chopped up, and that change immediately when you change the code. This project would constitute a desktop application along with either an interpreter for a new programming language or a library for an existing one that includes functions for the interactive manipulation of texts.