‘Shakespeare and Saddlebags’, an interactive story app
The following is a guest post by the creator of Shakespeare and Saddlebags. We will be publishing a review of the app shortly.
As the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death approached, the Gingersnap team knew we wanted to mark the occasion by creating one of our unique story-apps that can be personalised and shared with members of the family. So we set about writing and animating a brand new interactive adventure for iPads.
At Gingersnap, we’ve already developed a reputation for taking a left-field approach to subjects in our portfolio. (Our animation style has been compared to Horrible Histories meets Monty Python.) But taking on Shakespeare presented some unusual challenges.
For those unfamiliar with the Gingersnap format, our stories feature a grown-up (usually a Mum, Dad, Gran or Grandad) who magically appear as a animated character on screen (thanks to a little bit of app wizardry using the inbuilt camera). The grown-up then takes a leading role in the story, calling on the child to help them out.
We’re always careful that the appearance of this ‘familiar face’ does not to skew the factual material in the stories that we’re telling. This was particularly important when approaching a subject as august as Shakespeare’s plays.
We know that children love to see their parents or grandparents in our stories, and that it increases their engagement with subjects that they would normally shy away from, but how could we do this with ‘The Bard’?
We wanted to ensure that the story had broad appeal, and was accessible for our target age group of 5-9. In consultation with our local school teachers, we identified a number of key outcomes for Key Stage 2 pupils:
- Be familiar with some of Shakespeare’s plays and characters
- Appreciate how the characters in a play are brought to life through performance
- Understand that the text is a script, which is brought to life in a performance
We considered attempting to retell A midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Tempest, but were concerned about doing them justice with all the constraints an interactive story-app carries.
Then, through the course of our research, we stumbled across a relatively little known fact, which was quickly corroborated in a rare book How Shakespeare Won the West by Helene Wickham Koon (1989). It transpires that during the Californian Gold Rush there was upsurge in interest in Shakespeare amongst the prospectors, as entrepreneurial theatre companies decided to chance their luck putting on shows to entertain the gold diggers.
There was already a strong appetite for Shakespearean theatre amongst the East Coast elite after the New York impresarios lured over a number of British actors and started to cultivate a theatre scene to rival London. However, it was the have-a-go troubadours who followed the Gold Trail, that really helped popularise Shakespeare in West Coast America.
Shakespeare’s plays, set against the backdrop of the Wild West provided us with the perfect narrative, hopefully appealing to both boys and girls, whilst giving us enough scope to integrate our own fictitious ‘grown-up’ character into the mix. So was born Shakespeare & Saddlebags, and the Mirabel Players, a rather dysfunctional theatre troupe traveling from town to town, performing the plays they knew by heart, aiming to strike it rich with gold lavished upon them by appreciative gold-diggers.
We took the decision to focus the learning aspects of the app on the interactive interludes, while letting the narrative focus on the theatre troupe, and the Wild West. The first interactive challenge is to get the actor’s costumes ready for a performance of The Tempest. And by completing the mini-game our young, digitally savvy users are introduced to some of the play’s key characters, and discover a little about their backstories.
Next comes the performance, where the children then find themselves in charge of coordinating the sound effects for the opening storm. Using traditional methods of creating sound effects employed during this period, cannonballs are rolled, dried peas are poured onto metal, and cymbals are crashed. However, it all goes horribly wrong and the Mirabel Players have to get out of town fast.
But all is not lost. As they wander across the inhospitable mountain landscape, the actors befriend some rather incredulous prospectors, panning for gold in a nearby stream. The company offers to put on an impromptu performance of Macbeth around the campfire, and they use the pretence of collecting the ingredients of the witches’ spell as a way to conjure up a wholesome stew.
Rested and refreshed, the troupe then head for Nevada City, having heard tales of gold being thrown onto the stage after a good performance. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is selected as the play to perform, and your Nan (or Grandad, Mum or Dad) is cast in the role of Bottom.
Suffice to say, the audience fall about laughing when the donkey-headed thespian appears on stage, and in user-testing, this is also the moment when the children start shrieking with delight too! (There’s no doubt in our mind, that Shakespeare’s genius at mixing the ridiculous with the profound, really can engage kids today, just as it did during the Gold Rush or indeed his own lifetime… and that’s something we would like to expand on in the future.)
As the story-app reaches its grand finale, gold is showered onto the stage by the appreciative audience, fame is found, and hopefully a little learning has been imparted along the way.
Initial appraisal from parents (and teachers) has been very positive, and we are looking forward to sharing the app to a wider audience.
You can download the app for free on the Apple App Store, and create your own personalised version of the story. If you then want to save and send your story, there is a small in-app purchase to cover production and distribution costs.
If you would like any further information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org