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Stratford Festival online tool helps you read along with Shakespeare

A new online tool from the Stratford Festival called Performance Plus combines a video of the performance, the script from the play and tips from actors and directors on how to approach Shakespeare's King Lear.

Stratford Festival's Performance Plus combines video, interactive text and pro tips

Colm Feore (center) as King Lear in the 2014 production at the Stratford Festival. The Festival has now taken a film of a performance and combined it with the play's script as well as videos from the actors and director as part of a new teaching tool. (David Hou)

You are not alone if you think Shakespeare is hard to understand. 

The Stratford Festival, world-renowned for its performances of William Shakespeare's plays, is trying to make it easier with a new website that combines video, interactive text and insider tips from the director and performers.

The festival's education department worked with a company called Desire2Learn to create a website called Performance Plus. So far there is just one play, King Lear, but there is a wealth of information, the festival's executive director Anita Gaffney explained.

Interviews, performance and play combined

A matinee performance of King Lear, which appeared on the Stratford stage during the 2014 season, was filmed and in 2015, shown in theatres. That same film now appears on the Performance Plus website alongside the script from the play.

This is a screenshot of what part of the Stratford Festival's Performance Plus website looks like to users. (CBC News)

As the actors perform the play, their lines are highlighted in the script. The document also identifies selected words that users can hover over to get a definition in modern language of what Shakespeare meant when he wrote the lines 410 years ago.

As well, there are a number of breakout videos with interview from the actors and director.

"We put our minds to creating some educational material that would compliment the film," Gaffney said.

"I really like the interviews with the actors. I think it's really neat to hear about what they're thinking about or what their approach was to the play,"

"They interview a number of the actors about how to approach Shakespeare and I liked that. We've all studied Shakespeare in high school and we all have that experience of it being maybe a bit intimidating and here are these wonderfully accomplished actors telling you about how they got into Shakespeare and how they approach it."

'Speak it, breathe it, move it'

Those breakout videos include interviews with actors such as Colm Feore, Stephen Ouimette, Maev Beaty and director Antoni Cimolino.

In a video describing how to understand Shakespeare, Feore encourages students to read it aloud over and over again.

Actor Stephen Ouimette explains how people should approach a Shakespearean play if they're hesitant in one breakout video in the Stratford Festival's Performance Plus website. (CBC News)

"It's not about thinking, it's not an intellectual exercise. Leave that for later. Speak it, breathe it, move it, and then you will find yourself understanding it in ways you could never predict and it just suddenly becomes yours," Feore said.

Tools for teachers

The teaching tool also has lesson plans. Gaffney said the education department at the festival is made up of teachers and they're passing on their knowledge from having taught Shakespeare themselves.

"They're spending a lot of time in classrooms so they brought their perspective to it and added in some of the teaching tools they already use," she said.

"We feel that this just enhances all the stuff that we're already creating."

Gaffney said the next play they will work on as part of the Performance Plus project is Hamlet, which was filmed last season and will be released in theatres on April 24.

King John and Anthony and Cleopatra have also been filmed.

"Our aspiration is to shoot the entire Shakespeare canon from the festival stage over the next 10 years," she said.

The festival will, however, work on those plays that are most studied in school first for the Performance Plus project.

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