It should be clear that we at 2amt like Twitter just fine. But where do you draw the line? After this story about how some theatres in Australia are using Twitter during performances, an idea that some theatres are trying in the U.S., the question started flying around the #2amt hashtag. Here are a couple of opinions on where–or if–we should draw the line.
Feel free to chime in with comments and join the conversation.
Let me say off the bat: as a general rule, I don’t think audience members should be Tweeting during most performances, at least not until some new technology would let them do so without affecting the experience of non-Tweeting theatergoers. (Those bright cell phone screens in a dark house? Wretched.) A good production of a good play will reward focused attention every time, and Tweeting undoubtedly diminishes one’s attention for what’s on stage.
It’s a fallacy to assume that theatergoers are entirely passive/receptive when they’re sitting in their seats. Our attention ebbs and flows throughout a performance. We start composing the things we want to say to our fellow patrons during intermission half an hour beforehand, for example, or a particular line of dialogue sends us spinning off into thoughts about Aunt DeeDee’s health struggles, or somebody’s performance makes us cringe and regret coming. Until now, we haven’t had a way to channel those thoughts into public expressions. We set them aside in our minds, as much as possible, and refocus on the story (although to be fair, many theatrical traditions allow audience members to shout, comment on the action, boo, hiss, and so on). Now, however, we have Twitter… and perhaps a safe place for those random thoughts to go.
Assume for a moment that we could overcome the problem of cell phone screens distracting other theatergoers and decomposing the sacred space. Would it still be problematic for audience members to Tweet what they were thinking? One might argue that they’d be better off not Tweeting and just paying more attention… but if they were only hurting themselves, should we stop them? And is it not possible – possible, anyway – that by Tweeting those thoughts, we’d be getting them out of our heads and making focused attention MORE achievable?
Let’s imagine a different scenario: a play that was devised to incorporate audience Tweets into its storytelling. The model here was established by (I think) Tim O’Reilly, noted Web 2.0 guru; at his conferences, attendees Tweet like mad… and a feed of their Tweets is projected behind the speaker at the podium for everyone to read and follow (and for non-attendees to follow as well). The experience – I’m speaking personally here – is demanding, but effective. It is definitely possible – especially for those of us who’ve lived in the Web 2.0 generation for several years now – to understand both the speaker and the Twitter feed. Nothing is lost; the speech is enhanced by the ambient intimacy and hive mind of one’s fellow attendees. Social norms generally prevent bad behavior – nobody wants to look like an ass by Tweeting anything adolescent – and rarely are thoughts on-screen duplicative: once someone has Tweeted what you’re thinking, you don’t need to.
Clearly the repercussions of this scenario need to be more fully understood… but what if they were tried, if only as a test, in the theater? Not as part of a production of Death of a Salesman, mind you – though that might be interesting, too – but as part of a play particularly written to incorporate the device. I recently learned of at least one playwright who has tried it (Max Sparber’s NSFW), and if others haven’t already, they certainly will soon. I’ve been thinking about incorporating a Twitter feed into a devised piece myself; just give me time.
Again, all of this isn’t to say that in-show Tweeting should become the dominant mode, but that there’s room to experiment… and that in doing so we might attract a younger generation of theatergoers who are accustomed to multi-tasking and (more importantly) who don’t assume their voices should be silenced as soon as they walk into a theater. As long as it isn’t a gimmick, but an inherent part of the story being told, why wouldn’t it work? And might we not discover an entirely new art form – Twee-ater – in the process? That would be grand.
To tweet or not to tweet seems like the merest birth pang of a question that opens onto several more, like so many threads in the Twitterstream: when to tweet, with whom, while perched where? Should theatres invite their audiences to tweet during performances? Should theatres tweet at their audiences in flagrante delicto? I offer a resounding “maybe.”
If we are aiming to transform our audiences, to move them, to challenge them to consider some aspect of their emotional lives, the political situation or the world afresh, mightn’t we want to strive for conditions slightly better than trying to watch YouTube while inputting data into Excel? If one is tweeting, which is right up there with texting, how fully can one devote one’s self to the journey of the play? The studies about the dangers of attempting to drive and text proliferate. I am not suggesting that tweeting and watching theatre are on a par with driving and texting; I am suggesting that tweeting takes one’s attention away from whatever the second activity is, to some degree. Sure, there are plays that don’t require full activation of the brain pan or one’s emotional core and, alas, some that don’t deserve it, but we don’t want to start with that proposition; we only resignedly discover that along the way. I cannot tweet and carry on a conversation with a live person in the same room without missing a little something or feeling as if I have taken a small detour from completing my thought. Many of my colleagues say that they can happily tweet without being distracted, without limiting their availability to being swept along by the story, and if that is true for them, I am impressed. Skeptical but impressed.
So what are we talking about? Are we talking about allowing / inviting individual spectators to live tweet a performance event? Are we talking about the theatre offering would-be tweeters a special seating section where the blue glow of their devices will distract the rest of the audience less, but possibly mar the effect of a well-considered black out? Are venues going to release a stream of tweets throughout the performance to enlighten, clarify and enrich the performance? Are auditors going to tweet and are the actors going to respond?
Wolftrap, amongst others, has had success creating a ‘keep your device on’ section of the lawn and tweeting a virtual pop-up video of information as varied as biographical details of the composer and analysis of particular measures or the significance of the arrival of the horn section into the piece. As someone who is not particularly literate in symphonic music, I can see the value of this, particularly at an outdoor venue, where the lighting is not a component of the storytelling. Yet even while I see the utility of it, and might enjoy the info, my experience of the concert would be altered by it. I might benefit from the deeper understanding of the horn section, but I am less likely to engage emotionally with the music while I am busy reading my tweets. As Stoppard helpfully says, “If the answers are at the back of the book, I can wait.”
I love Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: when I am in the pit, I want to get swept up into the tent revival euphoria that Bruce creates; I don’t want a tweet explaining the derivation of a Tenth Avenue freezeout (Bruce made it up; even he doesn’t know what the hell it is.)
I can imagine a similar set-up at an outdoor Shakespeare festival (indeed, I just received an invitation to ‘tweet from my seat’ at Richmond Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra, using the regrettable but perhaps inevitable hashtag #TonyandCleo10), where arcane words, historical references and allusions might be tweeted during the performance. Sort of pre-show discussion in progress. Again, if you are reading a tweet about the director’s concept, about the meaning of squeaking Cleopatras, or the anachronism implicit in “cut my lace, Charmian,” can you possibly be available to get swept along on the breathless journey of the play? I want to be engaged, I want to be moved, at the very least, I want to be told a good story. In the theatre, we struggle as it is to accomplish these aims. Is tweeting helping to tell the story or is it diluting the auditor’s attention? The jury is too busy tweeting about the deliberations to let us know the verdict thus far.
If we are talking about engaging the audience anew with Twitter, I am all for it. As long as it is in service to the storytelling. I know there are plays in development as I type that were written with a Twittered audience in mind, and if it supports or enriches the storytelling in a new play, then I say, “go play, boy, play.” I am urging thoughtful consideration, though; if we throw devices at our stages without care, we are creating gimmickry and not better storytelling. If we don’t weight the gains tweeting might provide against the losses it may inflict; if we don’t think through what live tweeting means to that portion of the audience that doesn’t particularly want to listen to little tiny keys clicking, doesn’t want to see a hundred glowing squares afloat in the house, we are sacrificing our sacred space to a trend.
Kate Foy of Groundling stirred the pot on an otherwise slow Monday by asking around for thoughts on livetweeting in the theatre. An undistracted stream of theatre Twitter-ers chimed in. The arguments quickly broke down over poor audience members not having the silence and blackness they require, or the text not being honored. Lord that’s a boring conversation. If I have to hear one more person whine about candy unwrapping…
The conversation I want to have isn’t about how to shoehorn new technology into the theatre we already make. I have seen zero examples to date of instance of non-disruptive livetweeting. Existing plays weren’t created to be seen while commenting or participating, so adding on (or stapling on as I pejoratively phrased it on Twitter) is counter to the reasoning for presenting the show anyway.
But what can this technology enable for a playwright or deviser creating NEW work?
This is another possible tool on the utility belt for writers. It is indeed another entire plane of existence for characters.
Can extra-stage characters exist only in the Twitter-verse? Can the audience team up with one another for or against the stage characters?
What does the interaction between the sequestered, in-space audience and the free range Twitter audience look like?
How well can the playwright and director control that?
It’s hard to separate the personal from the hypothetical. It’s not easy to remove yourself from an equation when the whole point (really) is to figure out how you specifically can benefit from an innovation. The answer is, let’s figure out what we can do with that innovation first The stance that “I hate livetweeting the way it exists right now so I won’t even discuss what might be possible with it” is destructive to the conversation. This (or any) line of innovation might not be for you or even your brand of theatremaking, but that doesn’t render the conversation unworthy of having.
Travis Bedard is the artistic director of Cambiare Productions. He usually likes using the caps lock button. Follow him on Twitter: @travisbedard.