hACkT, the summer school with a difference!

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hACkT 2.0 was a blast! Check back in 2018 for news of upcoming dates.

Over the first five days of August the Creative Learning and Talent team ran hACkT, a summer school with a difference for 25 young people aged 11-16 years. hACkT allowed young people to explore drama, physical theatre and dance through computer game design, coding and tactile technologies.

The idea for the summer school came from a conversation a year ago with Teaboy Games; the realisation that when video game designers create new games and apps they use the same language as theatre makers do. Both talk about stories and narratives, what characters do and how to create sets and stages for the action to happen on, and the experience for the audience. So, with that in mind the Creative Learning and Talent team set about creating a programme that brought both theatre and technology together… and hACkT was born.

hACkT allowed young people to explore technology through creativity. Rather than limiting the use of computing and technology to science labs and engineering workshops we explored, tested and played in the Studio Theatre at the Mercury. Through choreography we constructed lines of code; physical movement was interpreted with robotics and animatronics; and we approached theatrical experiences through game design methodology.

Leading the activities, we had four amazing facilitators – Dave Norton, our own Youth Theatre practitioner and technology educator/enthusiast; Frazer Merrick, artistic director of Teaboy Games, a local mobile app design company; Hayley Ryan, a contemporary choreographer and physical theatre specialist and Julia Hardy, BBC Radio 1’s gaming and tech presenter.

The first three days consisted of multiple workshops introducing the young people to Makey Makeys, Sonic Pi, Scratch, Arduinos, script writing, drama games, choreography and robotics. By the end of the day on Wednesday the group had to bring all the learning together in order to create an experience for an audience for the Friday afternoon.

What would it be? A presentation? No. A demonstration? No. A play in a week? No.

It was a fully immersive, fully interactive theatre experience… The Mercury Theatre became M.1.6, a secret agent and spy training facility in the heart of Colchester!

Over the next day and a half, the 25 young people used code to create the theme tune to Mission Impossible; servo motors and Scratch to create an alien shooting gallery; robotics to create a maze; and foil pressure pads and a laser to create an interactive assault course. With support from the Mercury’s theatre technicians, UV lights, LED spot lights and smoke machines added atmosphere and turned corridors and dressing rooms into Men in Black/Crystal Maze/Mission Impossible themed sets for our young people to act as secret agents training the new recruits (a 50 strong audience of parents and invited guests!) Amazingly all the young people remained in character for over an hour as the audience weaved through scenarios and took part in the activities.

It was brilliant to see young people guarding doors and greeting members of theatre staff as an authoritative ‘agent’ – they totally owned the space and the experience for the audience. It was all their own work; fuelled by their collective imagination, they took ownership of the technology and used it to realise a singular creative experience. They pushed the limits of the theatre, they took risks with technology and they acted confidently without scripts or notes.

What amazed me afterwards were the comments from both the young people and the parents. One parent drove their child 70 miles a day to come to the summer school because “there is nothing like this anywhere else.” One participant told me that it was the “best summer school experience ever” and many of the others asked if it would be happening again next year.

hACkT proved that emergent technologies, computer science and the arts should not be separated (in fact, they complement one another), and that skills, confidence and creativity make for a valuable and worthwhile experience… will we be doing hACkT again? I certainly hope so!

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