A lesson I used in my 6th grade theater class which I am revising for my 8th grade writing class is centered on the crossroads Charlie Chaplin faced when sound forever altered our experiences at the movies.
The genius of Charlie Chaplin is as obvious and well-documented a truth as any in the history of entertainment. One need only spend five minutes in front of a Chaplin film to be charmed by his talent.
Once sound lodged itself into the film industry, Chaplin's ability to adapt and change in the midst of film's rapidly changing technology is nothing short of astonishing. It is what separates the artists from those who "merely" work in an art whether that be film, music, writing, dance, et al.
As a story teller, Chaplin understood visual and physical artistic nuance so well, that he could tell a narrative with length and breadth and scope and humor. Born into silent film, his persona, The Tramp, worked brilliantly in silent film. Asking my students to speculate the challenges a writer, an artist, or any performer would have to tackle in the face of such drastic technological change has been one of my favorite exercises in my career.
After showing my students several different scenes with the silent Tramp (one of my favorites pits Chaplin stuck in a lion's cage) I ask them:
a) how would The Tramp be the same/different with sound?
b) would the artist have been able to create the The Tramp if sound existed all along?
c) using The Tramp, in what ways can show how the limited/silent technology of the time inspired the artist to create the persona and consistently build stories around him?
d) can we locate similar crossroads in recent history?
e) my 8th grade students might be a little young but the history behind Napster and the struggles of the music industry certainly apply here.
f) Hollywood would also step in and offer that they too are struggling to adapt--with film streaming to all of our devices, are we seeing a slow death of the movie theater? or will there always be a place for the large Hollywood movie theater? (was there always a place for The Tramp?)
g) How do we know which changes will forever alter how we do business or create, and are there ever any changes, especially in technology, that writers, artists, business people, educators, parents, young people...can ever afford to ignore?
When technology changes it provides new opportunities for performers, but it also poses great personal questions for artists who have built a career (and a financial fortune) within the scope of a very specific set of rules. When technology changes, the rules and possibilities are altered.
While we can study and discuss how Chaplin did adapt and grow to certain degree, that is not the purpose of my lesson--I want to illustrate the crossroads, and I want my students to think about it. I want them to write about what Chaplin must have faced, and speaking to a more immediate concern I want them to speculate about the world around us.
How is technology altering the rules and possibilities of writing, story telling, and art today?
Certainly, the introduction and growing comfort with self-publishing (especially e-books) is apropos to the lesson at hand. Even publishers, such as Penguin's Book Country, are trying to adapt to the changing climate of story telling...all due to technology. At Book Country aspiring authors can self-publish online through Penguin.
On a more successful and teen-friendly level, the discovery and rise of performer Justin Bieber on YouTube certainly provides a fresh example of how technology is laying everything at our feet that Chaplin faced--when technology changes, the rules and possibilities are altered.