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Pull Quotes: 2Twt or Not 2Twt

07.14.10 | 10 Comments


CATEGORIES audiences, conversation starter, devised work, ideas, playwrights, pull quotes, rabble rousing, social media

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.

GWYDION SUILEBHAN

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.

But…

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.

Gwydion Suilebhan is a playwright and a member of the board of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @Gwydions

KATE POWERS

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 Powers is a New York based director and a volunteer facilitator with Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Follow her on Twitter: @DirectorKate

TRAVIS BEDARD

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.

Latest posts by 2amt on Twitter (see all)

  • http://twitter.com/Gwydions Gwydion Suilebhan

    How is it possible that I agree with myself AND with my other two esteemed colleagues? Is the controversy we all experienced on Twitter when this conversation began really no controversy at all?

  • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

    Surprise, surprise.

    I think it's that we're all “never say never” types in the end. And we recognize that it might be suitable for some works and not others.

    Of course, it's a lot easier to express that in more than 140 characters at a time…

  • http://twitter.com/Dramagirl Kate Foy

    Last night a Sydney theatre journalist live-tweeted the current production of West Side Story from backstage. Like others, I followed his commentary, joined in from time to time – they were rather witty but also caught the flavour of his experience of the show – but I also listened, following along to a recording of the show. This is one way that diverse audiences spread around the world can enjoy another (virtual community) theatre experience. Note, Darryl was not IN the audience, but backstage and I believe at one time in the SM box, so no distraction for fellow patrons … which it seems from my observations of commentary here and elsewhere, seems to be one of the key problems to live-tweeting a show. Oh and yes, pooh pooh to that sacred theatre space thing. What a misnomer!

    Cheers you lot! Good to chat from a day ahead of you and thousands of miles away! :-)

  • http://blog.CambiareProductions.com Travis Bedard

    In terms of non-show involved tweeting I have to say that New Leaf Theatre's (Chicago) The Man Who Was Thursday was the high water mark for me. Again – not audience tweeting but show staff tweeting outside the audience bowl.

    With both the author and a designer on Twitter during the show it served as a sort of Directors Commentary version of the show that really added something and would have been interesting for repeat audiences.

  • Steve

    It seems like the bigger question is: What do we want the role of the audience to be? For most theatre, that role is a passive one. You experience, you (preferably) enjoy, you digest, you talk about it on the way home and (hopefully) for days after. Then maybe you Twitter/Facebook/blog about it.

    As an audience member, though, I love shows that recognize that I'm not just a bunch of sensory receptors set on automatic. I love productions that engage me, not just in a passive emotional way, but in an intellectual and physical way (though, the “We need a volunteer from the audience” gimmick makes me want to run screaming).

    I was lucky enough to experience Taylor Mac's “The Lily's Revenge” at Here Arts last fall. Five acts, three intermissions, six hours long. If it were traditional sit-in-your-seats-and-inhale-the-story theatre, the audience would have died. But the production did everything possible to make the audience a part of the production, including (but hardly limited to) an on-stage dance party for anyone who wanted to join. During the first two intermissions, audience were asked to not use their cell phones at all, but were invited to wander the theatre, go into the dressing rooms, visit and talk with the actors. During the third intermission we were instructed to not talk to avoid living people and just blog/tweet/and Facebook the hell out of the show.

    The show really did succeed in creating a temporary community that included actors and audience. And because I had been an active participant, the six hours flew by. And I felt I had far more at stake in the resolution of the play than I would have if I was just sitting in the dark.

    Yeah, I hate those glowing cell phone screens blinding me during shows and I wish it were socially acceptable to just kick somebody in the back of the head for that. But I just can't help thinking that, if he were around, Brecht would be loving the f@#k out of this.

  • http://phrasemongers.wordpress.com/ Aaron Andersen

    Couple thoughts:

    Many people against live tweeting appear to me to have a bias for being emotionally swept away. And while that is great, and while it is something I want in the theater, too, it simply isn't the experience for every audience member or every play. Critics taking notes all night obviously have the same distraction issues that somebody would have live tweeting. Some people just favor their rational intellect over emotion while watching. They might benefit from the ability to converse with each other, even if they are just Waldorf and Statler.

    On the other hand, typing on a tiny little keyboard and shoehorning thoughts into 140 characters might be a great exercise in brevity and manual dexterity, but it also slows you down. Who can tweet as fast as they think?

    Further, whenever this question comes up, I feel like everybody is making one assumption that is probably way off base. Everybody seems to assume that the people who have their screens in front of their eyes every few minutes are only going to be tweeting/posting about the show onstage. That's delusional. Twitter, FB, etc trade on distraction. You can bet your hashtag that some or many of those live-tweeters are going to be distracted by things that have nothing to do with why they put their eyes on the screen in the first place. What their friends are doing, where they will go for dinner, another Old Spice video linked to by a coworker, etc… It is silly to pretend this won't happen.

  • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

    Yes, that was fantastic, the equivalent of a DVD extra. (And even more amazing when you realize that Mr. Keenan wasn't merely tweeting from outside the audience but from another theatre entirely while running sound for another show. That's high wire brilliance right there. We expect no less from #nickkeenanwebninja.)

    It played well for one who's seen the show, one who's thinking of seeing it, or even those of us who had no chance to see it but were interested in their process. But yes, it was outside of the audience bowl, it wasn't a distraction for anyone watching or performing the show.

  • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

    I've been known to live-tweet during tv shows. Most award shows will find me on Twitter, hanging out with my tv critic friends and making snarky comments. And I know how many little details I miss while I'm tweeting.

    It sure is nice to get emotionally swept away, and a great production can do that. Patrick Stewart in the Tempest in Central Park did that–by the end, when he cut his mic and did the final speech, the entire outside world fell away and the city fell still and quiet. (That didn't work as well when they transferred it to an indoor theatre later that winter. Go figure.) But no, that's not going to happen most of the time.

    Still, I do expect that when I pay X number of dollars to see something, it should be interesting enough to hold my attention. (Also, doesn't always happen. But I still pay attention anyway.) And really, if I can't put down the iPhone for 90 minutes and give my full attention to the story on stage, that's not good.

    Of course, if a show invites that kind of interactivity or is designed for that, that's another thing entirely. I've considered ideas for scripts that could incorporate that, it's part of being creative and wanting to try new toys.

    But tweeting during live theatre in general? It's not a matter of sacred spaces or emotionally rewarding tidal waves. It's simply being able to stop, smell the roses and enjoy them for myself. I can tell my followers about the roses later. The followers aren't going anywhere, neither are the roses.

  • http://www.cindymariejenkins.wordpress.com Cindy Marie Jenkins

    If there is a devoted row to live-tweeting in the back, I think it will only embrace an audience who is now interested in giving their own take on life in general. They will also engage people outside of your regular audience who might then go to your theater. People spend ridiculous amounts to see a movie in 3d that wasn't even shot in 3d; I would pay more money for a ticket if I could live-tweet it.There are many shows that I just want to see, and some that I would love to live-tweet and expand their audience. I now follow and will see some productions when I travel b/c I caught their live-tweeting time-line.

    Just find an area that wouldn't disturb the other patrons any more than those patrons' cell phones ringing or vibrating during the show.

  • Jwhitespunner

    I’d be interested to hear more on this topic from student based audiences. We have a university in our town and we’d love to encourage more of the students to come on down to our place and have some fun at live theatre. If they feel they need to text their friends while watching the show, I don’t really care, I’ve maybe found a new audience member who will want to come back because the theatre wasn’t that stuffy after all, and oh by the way I enjoyed the show. I’ll admit I’m not sure yet how to deal with the other 90% of our audience who would probably become apoplectic at the thought.


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