Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I cooked up Something Wicked as part of my graduate work at Northwestern University, where I’m currently a PhD candidate* in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama. My bio is in two parts: first, I explain how my career has led up to Something Wicked. Feel free to skip to the second part, a shorter, more traditional academic blurb.
Experimenting with Shakespeare’s plays as video games is an evolution of my work in live theatre. Before I came to Northwestern, I launched a Shakespeare project at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a restored blast furnace in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to splashy, full-length mainstage productions, we staged small-scale immersive “walking showcases” through the site’s drippy underground tunnels and cavernous machine rooms.
I set a handful of short scenes from a few of Shakespeare’s plays along a predetermined path, interspersed with refueling stations of wine and tiny bites crafted by a rising star in Birmingham’s exploding foodie scene. Guides led small groups of audience members along the path, offering plot exposition and historical tidbits about Sloss.
Lifting these familiar scenes out of the context of a full play and out of traditional theatrical architecture opened up a participation space for the audience, who were already prodded into a more active spectatorship by having few places to sit down. Patrons hissed at Richard III, gave up their drinks to Puck, and even spontaneously charged down the 50-yard Sloss cart path after Henry V, shouting “England, Harry, and Saint George!” Audience members regularly exclaimed that they’d never understood Shakespeare so well, they didn’t realize the plays were so fun, and they felt like they were part of the story.
Around the same time as the first walking showcase, I added an educational outreach to the project. Before going back to get my MFA at Columbia University, I was a classroom teacher. I’ve taught English in a traditional suburban public high school, in the IB program at a private school in Manhattan, and even (briefly) at a juvenile prison in the Bronx. Because I’ve been on the front lines of teaching Shakespeare’s plays to a range of students, I know the challenges the work poses for a contemporary classroom.
I wanted to see what would happen if I applied a few principles from the walking showcases to a classroom setting: brief scenes, limited rehearsal, and site-specificity. Two actors came with me to two local schools for a week-long Shakespeare workshop. But instead of performing for the students, we coached them to stage their own scenes from the plays they had just read, using only classroom resources.
The results were striking. After the workshop, in addition to significantly improved plot comprehension, students demonstrated much more robust critical thinking about the play. Most important to me, though, was the marked increase in affinity for Shakespeare’s drama. With neuroscientists now confirming that “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” finding a way to get students emotionally invested in the work is crucial to their learning.
As any theatre-maker can confirm, creating live theatre necessarily taps into the emotions. The adrenaline of applause, the time pressure of entrances, the risk of forgotten lines, and the thrill of temporarily inhabiting a personality or a world that isn’t yours are all intoxicating. But as theatre-makers can also confirm, live theatre does not scale.
Today’s schools are too lean on budget and time to afford regular week-long, in-school Shakespeare workshops led by experienced theatre folk. So I asked what elements of live theatre I could approximate to access the increased comprehension, critical thinking, and affinity I witnessed—but in a format scalable to students everywhere? Enter video games.
My program at Northwestern University is the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama (IPTD). From Jewish comediennes to Living Newspapers to stage portrayals of Native Americans, my colleagues work on radically different projects, each drawing on a range of academic fields to cultivate a deep understanding of a particular aspect of theatre. Because I’m interested in interactive spectatorship, one of the first seminars I took was about “serious games”—games that, while (hopefully) also fun to play, are designed first and foremost to teach or train. I had found my medium.
In the three years since my first quarter at Northwestern, alongside my traditional theatre seminars, I’ve taken courses in communication design, learning sciences, and entrepreneurship to workshop the concept for Something Wicked. I was selected for Northwestern’s Teaching Certificate Program, which sharpened my pedagogy in the classroom and in the design of a digital learning tool. I also won a Segal Design fellowship to spend a quarter prototyping Something Wicked with a theatre and a computer science mentor. Having friends in the prop shop came in extra handy when I borrowed a very realistic severed head to lean on as I gave my end-of-quarter research presentation to a studio full of engineers.
Thanks to my partnerships with the STEM side of campus, I’ve gotten valuable experience working on other digital projects. I was hired as the lead designer and project director for a downloadable pitch video curriculum, and I collaborated with MBA students to design a freemium-model online ecosystem for musicians. This coming year, I’ll be one of Northwestern’s Leadership Fellows, providing leadership coaching to undergraduates and honing my own leadership practices.
All of my work is characterized by stories, performance, education, innovation, and leading a team of creative collaborators. I’m excited to use my experience to bring Something Wicked to life.
Elizabeth Hunter is a PhD candidate in Northwestern University’s Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama. She is the recipient of a Mellon Classics Cluster Fellowship and the Northwestern Fellowship in Leadership, and she is also active in Northwestern’s Public Humanities Colloquium. Hunter has been commissioned to create projects for Northwestern’s Delta Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab and design studio, and she is designing an online ecosystem for musicians through the Farley Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. She received a Segal Design Research Council Fellowship to prototype Something Wicked, and she has a forthcoming publication in Shakespeare Bulletin.
Hunter earned an MFA in dramaturgy from Columbia University and a BA in English and psychology from the University of Michigan. While at Columbia, she created and directed the Sundays Under the Volcano script and music series, where celebrity performers included Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara and Nicole Burdette. After graduating from Columbia, she worked in the film business, both as a screenwriter and as the head of development for an independent film company in New York City.
She moved to Alabama to teach a screenwriting workshop, and then launched Muse of Fire: Shakespeare at Sloss, a Shakespeare project in a National Historic Landmark restored blast furnace in Birmingham, Alabama. During its six-year span, Muse of Fire staged mainstage productions and immersive, site-specific walking tours, as well as leading in-school workshops and a free community education series. For her work in theatre, Hunter was awarded the inaugural Pauline Ireland Grant to Individual Artists, administered by the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham. She helped pilot the Cultural Alliance’s artist-as-educator residency, and she was an adjunct professor of theatre at Samford University for three years before starting her PhD at Northwestern.
*“Candidate” means “done with everything but the dissertation.”