Improving theater articles on Wikipedia through student assignments

At Brooklyn College, students in Dr. Amy Hughes’ Theater History course learn about drama and theatrical production from Ancient Greece to the present. Over the course of two terms, they develop knowledge about plays, artists, and aesthetic styles that they can utilize in their careers as directors, designers, managers, and critics.

Ashley Birdsell
Ashley Birdsell

Ashley Birdsell, a Performing Arts Management MFA student, was one of the students who took the course, which now includes a Wikipedia assignment during both terms. She was happy to be working on another Wikipedia project after expanding Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost in the fall of 2013.

“Overall, I felt much more empowered and effective as a Wikipedia contributor this semester,” Ashley says. “I held myself to a schedule and accomplished a significant amount. These projects have been eye-opening, educational, and fun. Wikipedia writing and editing is a skill I will carry with me throughout the remaining course of my scholarship and beyond, and I look forward to making more wiki contributions in the future.”

For this term’s assignment, Ashley chose to work on the concept musical article, which she identified as “a start-class article with minimal information and very little in the way of reputable citations.” She has been a musical theatre performer since her childhood and deeply enjoys many of the musicals classified as concept musicals.

“This was the first time I actively learned or thought about what a concept musical truly is, and its impact on musical theatre as a whole,” she says. “In fact, I directed a production of Avenue Q in the spring of 2013 without ever realizing it was indeed a concept musical!”

After evaluating the existing version of the article, Ashley realized the breadth of scholarship and history that she wanted to add.

“The definition proved to be the most challenging portion to write, as there is no one agreed-upon meaning,” Ashley says. “I decided to consider the evolution of the term ‘concept musical’ (from the phrase ‘conceived by,’ first used in relation to Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line), and the first use of the term ‘concept musical’ by a critic (in a review of Zorba by The New York Times writer Martin Gottfried). I was thus able to trace the evolution of the term’s meaning and the staging/structural characteristics evident in concept musicals. This allowed me to craft a well-rounded definition that took multiple viewpoints into consideration.”

After expanding the definition section, Ashley focused on creating a robust historical context and writing a critical interpretations section because she wanted the article to reflect the concept musical’s place in the wider history of theater. For that reason, she says, “I may indeed continue working on my article over the summer—I would be especially interested to include sections dedicated to Lloyd Webber and Prince, in order to better compare and contrast their contributions against Sondheim’s.”

Not only did Ashley learn about the topic; she also learned about Wikipedia.

“This was an incredibly fun assignment thanks to my interest in the topic, and I feel as if I have truly learned and made a difference in the world’s sum of knowledge,” Ashley says. “I no longer take Wikipedia for granted, as I now have a true understanding of the hard work and dedication that goes into each article.”

Jami Mathewson
Program Manager


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