Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, November 5, 2010

Live-Tweeting at the Playhouse

On October 21, I did something that made the arts marketer in me sing and the director in me cringe: I live-tweeted a performance of The Sunset Limited at SF Playhouse.

Before you throw tomatoes at me (or pat me on the back), allow me to qualify: I was participating in the Playhouse Pluggers night, which is a designated performance for tweeters to plug away on their little portable electronic devices. One performance of each SF Playhouse show is "set aside," as it were, for volunteer "pluggers" to take over the back row of the theatre (where they won't disrupt other patrons) and tweet to their hearts' content.

In spite of being somewhat of a Twitter outsider,* I decided to participate primarily as a follow-up to an article that my Theatre Bay Area colleague Clay Lord wrote about technology in theatre (or perhaps more accurately, theatre in technology). For those of you interested (and you should all be interested because this is a seriously brilliant article), you can read it here. In it, Clay brings up the topic of texting (or tweeting) during performances as one of the most controversial intersections of theatre and technology, citing that 93% of Bay Area theatregoers polled were against texting during a play. The reactions, according to Clay, "ranged from 'Awful, the height of rudeness,' to 'Obnoxious!' to 'Those people should be hung by their toenails and allowed to die in the town square.'" While I find public toenail hanging highly repulsive, I must admit that my first reaction to the idea of a "tweet night" at the theatre was not entirely positive. I'm all for creative marketing and artistic experimentation, but (as a relative Twitter outsider) the idea of live-tweeting a performance seemed lame or distracting at best and obnoxious or disrespectful at worst.

Nonetheless, I did my duty as a Theatre Bay Area representative, got dinner with my non-tweeting guest (every experiment needs a good "control" subject), and tweeted The Sunset Limited-inspired haikus in preparation for the tweet marathon that was to come. From the moment I arrived at the Playhouse, I felt like I was in some sort of VIP club. SF Playhouse is very conscientious about making its pluggers feel as welcome as possible by doing two things: telling us not to censor ourselves and giving us free wine.

The most exciting part of my experience as a live-tweeter (aside from the wine) was the community of pluggers of which I was a part. There was @anthoknees, a theatre aficionado and actor who learned of the program through a friend and jumped at the opportunity for free theatre tickets. There was comedian @aliciadattner, artistic director of The Illuminated Theatre @jonathanwbender, theatre afficionado and second-time plugger @n_a_k, and plugger veteran @scottragle who had participated in every plugger's night since its inception back in March. Though I was a bit intimidated by the experienced tweeters and their shiny new iPhones, I was immediately accepted by them (even with my sad little Blackberry that had been overhauled hours earlier so as to run a functional Twitter app).

"I just tweet my thoughts," said Anthony Williams (@anthoknees), sensing my hesitation during the last few minutes before the show started. "It's sort of like breathing. Things just come to you and you share them."

As a chronic over-thinker, as someone who likes to plan out everything I put down in writing, then re-read it a few dozen times before I publish it, this new way of viewing (and responding to) theatre is pretty radical. The lights went down in the theatre and I gave myself a little pep talk, something to the effect of "OK, brain, you've served me pretty well so far, but please please please find something more interesting to tweet about than 'actor 2 crosses stage left.'"

While I had many reservations going into the experience, these concerns were quickly alleviated. Because what happened almost immediately is that, when the lights came up on the show, we entered into a fast-paced, on-topic, continually evolving conversation about the play (all typed, of course). Since I was watching my co-conspirators twitter their musings on the show while I was watching the show, I picked up on quite a few details that I might have missed otherwise. It was surprisingly exciting to have the instant gratification of tweeting an observation of the play and having that observation validated instantly by a community of alert, insightful theatregoers. I bonded with this group of strangers more than I have ever done at a theatre performance, even during post-show schmoozy-type parties. With so many theatre companies touting mission statements that declare a desire to bring people together through art, this is a pretty significant accomplishment in itself. Though I am usually a very attentive theatergoer, I don't believe I have ever engaged so fully with a play. I was so mentally exhausted by the end of the play from 90 straight minutes of watching, analyzing, reading and responding to all aspects of the play that all I wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.

On the other hand, I must say that my experience of the art itself suffered. Because I was engaged with so many different forms, I missed some key plot points, pivotal shifts in the power dynamics and even a "happy accident"--when one of the actors (I'm assuming) mistakenly knocked over a glass of water, I found out about it first through the tweets of my peers and only looked up in time to see Carl Lumbly cleaning up the wreckage. In fact, I left the production feeling that I would need to see it again in order to get a complete sense of the artistic choices that were made by the actors, director and playwright.

Ultimately, it strikes me that the debate over Twitter in theatre is a symptom of larger conversation that theatres are either avoiding or jumping into head-first: how do we remain relevant when the ways in which people engage with art (and each other) are changing? I very much doubt that allowing people to text during a play is the ultimate solution (not that it's claiming to be, or that there is one be-all-end-all solution) and it certainly isn't right for all theatres. But it is an interesting tool to remind us to reexamine the ways in which we as artists and/or forward-thinking arts administrators can use technology to our advantage rather than avoiding it altogether.

What are you (either on the artistic or the marketing/admin side of things) doing to engage with this issue?

Information about the SF Playhouse Pluggers program can be found here. To read the pluggers' live-tweets of The Sunset Limited, visit here. To read my posts exclusively (eegads!) go here and scroll down to October 21.

*I never said I wasn't biased. I mean, I actually find the concept of Twitter to be pretty cool, but every time I try to use it (ok, the half-dozen-or-so times I've tried to use it), something goes awry and I get that horrible whale-being-held-up-by-birds-that-must-possess-superbird-strength-because-they're-really-tiny-and-that-whale-is-huge. And I want to hate the whale because it's telling me that I can't do what I want to do, but then I discover that it's called the "Fail Whale" which is so obnoxiously cute that I can't muster more than a vague sense of disapproval for the whale. And then I just end up feeling guilty for disapproving of a whale that is clearly being stolen by a flock of evil supergenius birds on steroids that are probably going to conduct painful scientific experiments on the poor, unsuspecting whale. I could really go on and on about the emotional turmoil caused by my encounters with that silly, complicated whale but I have a blog post to get back to.

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At November 5, 2010 at 1:29 PM , Blogger Alex GH said...

Elana I like your thoughts! I wrote a response, you should tell me what you think:

At November 9, 2010 at 12:41 PM , Blogger Beryl said...

I think it's an intriguing debate that's happening here. Twitter is the newest and quickest temperature-gauge out there for what people are thinking; trouble is it's usually a very individual experience (only the individual who's typing it and the few that follow the individual know what's being typed--unless you're right there and can read it over their shoulder.)

When I went with you to West Side Story I totally tweeted at intermission, praising how well they stuck to the original choreography, but I could have just as easily been typing "@douchbag OMG U r so kul LMAO!!!!!" you know? I mean. Well, you can't have a Big Brother of Theatre house managers, watching over all that's being typed on phones. That's why it's so awesome that this theatre tries to embrace it--actively uses it and makes the users, in effect, that much more aware of this privilege.

I just don't think it would work in any situation outside of a controlled "Reserved Tweeting Section" setup. NOT that I don't love Twitter and use it myself regularly, but I think Twitter and Theatre are at odds with one-another: the whole point of theatre is to create a live, shared experience--not just amongst the audience but between those performing and those watching (this is why it's elitist, I guess). And Twitter, in its physical realization, is a singular experience; it's just you typing away, staring at your keypad. And yes, you might be responding to someone else, but probably that someone else is not sitting next to you, normally, during a play, but miles away--that conversation ultimately turns off the integral part of the brain Theatre needs to survive (the interactive part). It's like a battle between social mediums (like theater, live sports, festivals) and social media (facebook, twitter, blogger).

Sorry, I got a bit off on a rant there. But, it really is interesting stuff.


At November 9, 2010 at 5:18 PM , Blogger Elana said...

Beryl, I can't imagine this working without being heavily controlled, either (at least not unless tweeting were more explicitly incorporated into the play itself). I think what made my experience special while live-tweeting was not so much that I got to tweet during a show but that I was tweeting during a show *with strangers who were tweeting about the same experience while sitting next to me.* It thus became more about the sense of community and the ability to have a conversation about the play with theatregoing strangers (without disturbing the performance) than about telling my internet-friends "OMG this play is grt 4 realz."

It is because of this element of my live-tweeting experience that I can't quite agree with your statement that Twitter and theatre are inherently at odds with one another. I actually think that they share quite a bit in common. Theatre is a live, communal experience and so is Twitter--that's part of what makes it so compelling. Unlike with a blog post, on Twitter we get updates on our friends' activities while they are happening and can respond to them in real time. Twitter is a community of people in a (virtual) space, communicating with one another. Of course, Twitter is mediated through a computer (or cell phone) screen whereas traditional theatre generally occurs in one physical space, but as Clay's article(linked above) explores, even that popular conception of theatre is being challenged by our culture's increasing reliance on social media. As Clay mentions, The Royal Shakespeare Company in England set out to do a five-week "production" of Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow that took place exclusively on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube (yes, it sounds a little lame but I'm told it was actually quite compelling).

That being said, I wonder if it would be possible to more fully integrate the social media aspect of live-tweeting with the focus-driven process of watching a play. As I was in the theatre, struggling to concentrate on both the play and on the small keys on my Blackberry, I was thinking how much of a difference just being able to type on a full-sized keyboard might make in allowing me to focus more fully on the play while still sharing thoughts via Twitter. I wonder what would happen if (in a world of unlimited arts funding, of course) theatres embraced the community-building potential of social media by providing a designated row with keyboards and small, unobtrusive computer screens connected directly to Twitter, so that you could see (and follow) the people who are also live-tweeting the show on more user-friendly systems.

Alex, when you say that this is primarily an issue of class and audience composition, do you mean that people who use social media (and who would take advantage of the opportunity to tweet during a show) tend to be younger and poorer, or that the opportunity to tweet during a show excludes people who are too poor to have phones with easy tweeting/texting capabilities? Or something else altogether?

I agree (to some extent) with your point that tweeting during a show "ultimately can't help but elevate the Twitter-world above the real one you're a part of" or--even if it doesn't elevate the Twitter-world above the world of the play, at the very least it splits the focus between the Twitter-world and the world of the play. But I wonder, as I mentioned to Beryl above, whether there aren't practical ways to lessen this problem of split-focus. I also wonder whether there are other creative ways out there to address the audience's hunger to connect and share experiences, whether or not these creative solutions include social media at all.

Any thoughts?

At November 9, 2010 at 11:18 PM , Blogger Beryl said...

Honestly, the first thing that popped into my head when I read Such Tweet Sorrow was this:

That, and also your idea of a row of keyboards lined up with a large overhead screen displaying all current online responses sounds intriguing, but also a little oppressive. Kind of like how the new SF Cal Academy of Sciences building feels to me--ultra moderne, sleak and hyper technologically friendly--like the Mac Store of kids' museums--but loosing something of the quirky tenderness of it's old, slower self in the process.

I'm curious what this would then do to the performers in the theater during a show with this Ultra Pro-Twitter setup--would they in this scenario know what was being tweeted about them? Could they tweet back? "I KNOW I forgot my line, alright? Jesus," or "It's a Sunday night performance and I'm just waiting for Monday so I can SLEEP." Haha. Awesome.

While I see your point that Twitter is a community, I still think that the community of the audience within a theatre house itself at the moment OF the play being performed, have a unique experience of knowing that yes, thirty people to my right and thirty people to my left and forty behind me are hearing and/or watching the same thing; I can hear that person's snoring behind me and another person is crinkling their program because we all agree that no one needs a re-adaptation of Snakes On A Plane, The Musical.* When it comes to Twitter, yes, it is a constantly flowing shared community of sorts, but it's syphoned off, dissected and moving at a much more rapid rate; kind of like a community that has ADHD. Plus, isn't like 90% of communication non-verbal? Where does that leave an actor struggling to complete a beat when they can't even be sure it's going to come across in a Tweet?**

I think I've gone off on a tangent. But, those are my thoughts. Thanks Elana for bringing up such an intriguing topic. And Thank YOU TBA for hosting a place to have a discussion in the first place.


*Can we MAKE Snakes On A Plane The Musical?
**Do my arguments loose validity if they rhyme?

At November 9, 2010 at 11:50 PM , Blogger Alex GH said...

Regarding class, most American theater is produced for and attended by college-educated older white people. The only way college-educated American white people can justify the horrendous suffering their profligate lifestyle inflicts on the developing world is by avoiding troubling thoughts and dehumanizing the people around them. Twitter as a device to discuss plays, instead of the human voice, is a symptom of this profound disconnect from reality.

Not that every play has to be about the depths of human misery--we also need reasons to get out of bed and be happy. However I think the disconnection and isolation you want to solve is a product of our society and needs to be dealt with on that level. Twitter is a way to do that--with a device you bring in a community of friends. But at the end of the day you've still bought tickets to a play that didn't speak to you, given money to a telecommunications company for the privilege of talking to people, and used a fancy electronic device that was built in China in conditions we don't like to talk about.

This is why I do free shows at my house. We need to start educating audiences now if we want professional theater to become relevant again.

At November 10, 2010 at 1:29 PM , Blogger Jonathan said...

Well, Twitter is a form of communication, like talking face-to-face, or talking on the phone, or sending letters or anything else. It's no more or less real, although it functions differently and is useful for different things. I don't think technology blinds us to the plight of people halfway across the world--in fact I'm pretty sure that we care more about the plight of people halfway across the world than at any other time in history, and most of that is because of technology and the connections it gives us to them.

Social Media is often used as a whipping boy for people who like to talk about how face-to-face interaction is dying and we're becoming a nation of hermits, sitting in front of our screens, given only the illusion of connection. I think this is false on two levels: one, because studies show that people who use social media are in fact MORE likely to spend time in public and semi-public places interacting socially face-to-face, and two, because technologically assisted connection is still real connection. It can't replace face-to-face connection, but then, it was never intended to.

Similarly, and to bring this back to theatre, tweeting doesn't replace the live connection inherent in a performance, but I think it can supplement and enhance it. Elana, it seems like a lot of the tension you felt came from a sense of obligation to consistently tweet throughout the show. That makes sense, because you were there in a special section at a special event set aside for tweeting. Perhaps there's a way to better integrate it so that people can tweet when they want to but not feel that they HAVE to keep up with the conversation. Probably my ideal relationship to twitter and performance would be to tweet immediately before the show, during intermission and immediately after, but spend at least most of my time during the performance looking at the stage.

At November 11, 2010 at 4:54 PM , Blogger Jonathan said...

I've been thinking about this, and I've come to the conclusion that even shows that discourage tweeting during the performance should have a sign in the lobby that let's people know the show's official hashtag so they can tweet about it during intermission and after curtain call.

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