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(Interview with Jack Wolcott, continued)
JRW: Initially I thought the computer would revolutionize theatre technology, and especially theatrical design. I also had a vaguely formed notion that the computer might play some kind of role in teaching. But I'm happy to say I never had a clearly defined goal the entire time I have worked with computers, beyond that of exploring the potential of the device and sharing my findings. Goals have a way of ending the journey once they are attained, and I think the journey is everything. Each challenge that we met, each problem solved, showed the way to the next challenge. Along the way, I believe my exploration excited and encouraged others. "What can we do with this thing?" was always the question I posed. My students seem to thrive on this approach: it gave them great latitude in which to experiment and to learn.
You asked about the "first attempts". There were actually two first attempts, the attempts made with the TRS-80 and then, after 1984, the attempts made with the IBM PC's. With the TRS-80, two routes were explored, administrative and educational. We built a cart on which the computer, its monitor and a huge dot-matrix printer were installed. During the day, secretaries could wheel this cart from office to office as needed. At night, the computer cart was made available to graduate students and undergraduates, who took it to their work room and chained it to a pipe so it wouldn't get stolen. A great deal of word processing was done, but several students took advantage of a data base program we had installed, and began using this capability in their research. The TRS-80 was not a "user friendly" machine. Many students found learning how best to use this computer was just too time-consuming to be worthwhile. Still, the use-log reflected between 15 and 18 hours a day of combined secretarial and student use, five and often six days a week.
In 1984, the IBM Corporation initiated the Advanced Education Project, making available millions of dollars worth of hardware, software and technical support to universities. This marked the second "first attempt." Professor Richard Devon, the University of Washington's theatrical lighting designer and I approached IBM with a proposition: "Give us a computer and we will see how it can be employed in the theatre arts." We were encouraged in our solicitation of IBM by Dr.Sue-Ellen Case who, like I, imagined in the computer the future of theatre research and production, and by Eugene Burke, a doctoral candidate with a strong background in theatre technology and a somewhat abstract interest in computing.
Most of the remainder of the faculty in our discipline were indifferent to our venture, and many thought it a waste of time. Faculty from other disciplines, especially those in the sciences, behaved as though the uninitiated had dared set foot in the sacred precinct. I felt rather like Oedipus at Colonus. Student interest in our pursuit of an IBM computer ran high, however, although most could not imagine a use for the machine beyond word processing and database development.