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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