The current pandemic has highlighted the valuable role that online technologies can play in delivering and enriching learning for young people of all ages.  Felicity Brown, a second-year DPhil student, reports on her role in the creation of an innovative and award-winning AI-based learning tool called WillPlay, which aims to engage more young people with the work of Shakespeare – and all via their mobile phones.  

Click here to explore WillPlay 

Felicity Brown
Felicity Brown

"I met Rachael Hodge, another DPhil student who works on early modern drama, at the first Oxford University seminar I attended. We discussed the challenge of getting young people engaged with Shakespearean drama and concluded that a combination of swearing, leather jackets and dance music was not the only way to achieve ‘relevance’.

I should point out here that, although I’m just finishing the second year of a DPhil on sixteenth-century drama at Jesus College, I haven’t always loved Shakespeare. I found his language intimidating and confusing as a teenager and decided it wasn’t for me. It was only when I began teaching Romeo and Juliet to secondary school students that I realised how much I’d been missing.  My students’ enthusiasm for the bard inspired me to ‘join the party’ and my experience very much directed the thinking behind that first chat with Rachael.

To truly involve teenagers today, we wanted to find a way to recapture the immersive, interactive experience enjoyed by 16th-century playgoers. In the rowdy theatres of early-modern London, actors had to compete for attention with hawkers, balladeers and even flamboyant audience members sitting on the stage. Rapid turnover gave performances a spontaneous quality, and if audiences didn’t like what they were seeing, they intervened.

Professor Abigail Williams, the Humanities Division’s Knowledge Exchange Champion, gave us our chance to start recreating this experience for a modern audience by introducing us to To Play For, a creative technology company that develops interactive stories on its proprietary AI-powered platform, Charisma.ai. Under Abby’s guidance, we began reimagining Shakespeare using the familiar language of social media. WillPlay was born.

A year later, thanks to NESTA’s Alternarratives shortlist award, our WillPlay prototype, Romeo & Juliet, is live on the BBC Taster website. It’s a new learning tool that adapts, alters and modernises Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers for teenage readers. Bringing together our favourite aspects of different social media platforms, WillPlay allows readers to adopt different character avatars and chat their way through the action, experiencing the story as it was first intended: as a form of play! If we are lucky enough to win the Alternarratives final prize (£15,000) we will not only to be able to perfect Romeo & Juliet, but also to write Macbeth (and maybe even The Tempest).

It was through the insight and enthusiasm of young people who had had none of my privileges that I finally found a passion for Shakespeare. Now, thanks to Abby and Rachael, I’ve contributed to something that we hope can help a new generation access and enjoy Shakespeare, all from the comfort of their own phones!"

Explore the WillPlay take on Romeo & Juliet here.