The App's The Thing: Shakespeare, Rebooted

The world's most famous playwright was a media theorist, says the co-creator of a new "Tempest" app for iPad, Notre Dame professor Elliott Visconsi. Here he explains how you re-create the bard for the iOS age.

Today the lofty Times Literary Supplement--“the leading international forum for literary culture”--will run an unusual advertisement: It's for an iPad app. The app, “The Tempest,” is essentially an enhanced e-book version of the Shakespeare play. (You know, the one with Prospero, Miranda, the island.) It’s loaded with features--including an audiobook version read by professional actors, inline commentary from Shakespeare scholars, and social tools for your class or study group--and is available from the iTunes store for $9.99. Fast Company spoke with Elliott Visconsi, a Notre Dame professor of English and one of the app’s makers, to find out how a university can be like a venture capital firm and why Shakespeare is more fun than "Angry Birds."

FAST COMPANY: First, full disclosure to our readers: many years before you became an iOS entrepreneur, you were my English professor. When did you decide the bard needed rebooting?

ELLIOTT VISCONSI: A little more than a year ago. I saw that the iPad transformed the way the humanities was delivered to students and to the general public, and the tools that it makes available to foster collaboration and conversation. I started to educate myself as best I could about mobile technology, in and out of education, and about what was happening in the publishing industry. I saw this as a way to reach a potential global audience, and to bring an experience of Shakespeare that was serious, unpatronizing, exciting, and accessible. Shakespeare is the ideal writer to do this, because the texts are so full of challenging nuance and complexity, but they’re also texts where a 10-year-old kid can see a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and be tickled.

The app allows you to comment on the text and share notes with friends, classmates, or your teacher. I’m sometimes skeptical, though, that everything needs to be made more “fun and social.”

I share your skepticism: do you really need to play "Angry Birds" with someone looking over your shoulder on the other side of the country? But the humanities have always been social. They’ve always been about conversations across time and space, whether with friends in dorm rooms, or with an author who died over 400 years ago, or with a group of scholars. It’s about having a conversation, arguing with the text and with others. That is, I think, at the heart of the liberal arts. And that kind of collaboration, conversation, interpretation--social reading rather than reading in a vacuum--is well suited to mobile devices.

Shakespeare is old. The iPad is new. I feel a kind of cognitive dissonance here--and I’m not even an academic. Did you encounter resistance among colleagues, including any of the ones who added some commentary for your app?

It’s been very well received by faculty. Sometimes they would turn in their commentary well ahead of deadline--which I will tell you, is a shocking thing for any academic to do. We approached some faculty who we thought would just immediately say, “Never.” We gave them the device, said “Just try it, read it, see how you like it.” And they were persuaded. The device goes a long way. It’s a magic book.

Was that a reason why you’ve begun with The Tempest? Prospero the magician...

Good observation, David.

Thank you, Professor Visconsi.

No. We chose The Tempest because it’s a play with an enormously interesting performance history. It’s a play that we loved, with amazing, beautiful poetry. And it’s a play that has much to say about the literary object, the role of the theater, the role of media. It’s a play that has thematic resonance with the core questions of media change and the role of the book in intellectual life.

How so?

For instance, Prospero’s famous “Our revels now are ended” speech is a reflection on the evanescence of theater. On how there’s something fundamentally impermanent about intellectual activity, performance, and the literary object itself. There’s something very melancholy about that passage, and some scholars have interpreted it as Shakespeare’s valedictory, his taking leave of his craft. When Prospero says, “I drown my book”--his spell book--some interpret it as Shakespeare saying, “I give up my status as a playwright.”

So similarly, the iPad is drowning books? We do read a lot about the death of the book.

I don’t think books are going away. The new forms cannibalize some of the market share of the older forms, but books will not vanish outright.

Back when you taught me Paradise Lost, I never would have guessed you’d have a later act as an app-maker. Can you explain a bit about how an academic manages to become an entrepreneur?

It was enabled in my case by visionary support of the VP of research at Notre Dame, who listened to my idea and was willing to put in some seed money. I had to educate myself about where my rights were, where the university’s rights were, and what the benefits of doing this as a commercial startup would be. If we had been working on a grant basis, the time scale would not be possible; we would not be launched by now.

So you basically treated the university as a VC firm?

The university invested time and cash but also a contribution in kind in the form of development. In return for that the university took an equity position in the company. They’re essentially a seed investor in the company.

With equity roughly apportioned as it would be in Silicon Valley?

Correct, that’s roughly correct. This is very uncommon because most universities don’t have a lot of discretionary capital to contribute in this way. I don’t think this could have happened at more than a dozen universities. We were very lucky.

The old line is “publish or perish”--I didn’t know that app publishing counted.

My business partner Katherine Rowe and I both have tenure, so there was relatively little risk in terms of the promotional question. But we were sensitive to that: we didn’t want to ask junior faculty to spend too much time on the project, if it might not advance them professionally. But I think that is changing rapidly: universities are increasingly understanding how important digital scholarship is.

Last question: what would Shakespeare think of the app?

He would love it.

He’d probably scratch the screen with his quill.

It would be an ink-stained iPad. We didn’t want this to be stuffy and formal. We wanted this to be an adventure. The humanities are fun. Shakespeare is fun.

As fun as "Angry Birds"?

More fun. Except for the bomb birds, those are the best.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd make a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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