Tweeting at the Theatre? Really?

Mobile Phones are usually seen as a taboo object at the theatre.  Increasingly theatre auditoriums have come up with ways to warn us about the disruption they cause.  At the moment just echoing a ring-tone around the auditorium, as they do in the cinema, generally gets the message across.  One of the most ingenious examples of this recently was at the Coliseum, where the first percussionist politely played his xylophone to the tune of a well-known and unbelievably annoying ring-tone.    Everyone gets the point: don’t let your phone disrupt the production.

But increasingly as modern technology develops, and more and more of the population are welded to the latest must-have handset, mobile phones and live media devices are hard to escape.  Front line avant-garde theatre troupes have found brilliantly creative ways to interweave modern networking into their practice.  Coney is the obvious example: they build their moving and quirky productions through texts, phone calls and emails with their ‘audience’.  Famously shrouded in mystery, they use the anonymity of cyber space to subversively create real-life connections.  To say anymore about this would undermine their craft: check them out, they are fantastic.

But what of the more traditional theatre companies, which primarily rely on a quiet and seated audience to experience their work?  The clever people at Theatre Royal Stratford East have become the first of such companies to develop a strategy to embrace fast paced modern communication: unveiling a ‘tweetzone‘.  Basically, audience members who are seated in their upper circle of the auditorium will have access to free WiFi so they can tweet away their thoughts and feelings in real-time.  I’m intrigued.

Stratford East has a long and prestigious history of reaching out to its surrounding communities and audience. Their artistic director from 1953 Joan Littlewood, and her left-wing troupe the Theatre Workshop,  is the stuff of theatre legend; they lived commune-style due to the lack of funding in order to create ground breaking new work.   It was Joan who first directed  Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children in Britain in 1955, and helped develop and champion what is now termed ‘Theatre in Education’ with the Stratford local community.  Stratford East, in the unveiling of their new twitter scheme, directly reference Joan Littlewood: this scheme aims to give a power and a voice to the community watching the action on stage that usually sits in silence.

But how far can an audience have a useful discussion about the work on stage using just 140 letters per tweet, and doing this all whilst the stage action itself is happening?  My most recent experience of tweeting and theatre came last week, when the BBC televised The Royal Ballet’s recent production Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandI took part in a ‘live-tweet’ along to get a feel for the experience, using the hash-tag #aliceintwitterland.

Despite having seen this ballet in rehearsal and on the stage I still found it difficult to balance my gaze between the television and my computer screen.  Theatre on TV does give you an added advantage in this respect: the camera directs you to the action rather than having to decide yourself what to concentrate on, yet still it was difficult to follow.  Some of the best parts of the ballet, including most of Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, were lost to me as I was tap-tapping away at my tweets.  The unadulterated gaze of the spectator, usually taken as a given, was not present in those who were tweeting along to the performance.

Much of the tweeting between people descended into general cooing over the prettiness of the piece.  Criticism or questions were rarer, but when raised did promote some conversations between certain people.  But tweeting does capture fleeting thoughts which can be lost in analysis of after-show talk.  I found it hard to articulate a lot of my thoughts in the small space required, and really felt like wanting a longer chat in person with the people I was tweeting with at the end of the show.  And critiquing work during the show can lead to some other tricky questions: surely you must see the piece as a whole to respond to it effectively?  Does this time pressure encourage snappy articulate thinking or limit thought-out response? Usually I do not try to articulate a response to a production until hours, sometimes days or weeks, after I have seen it.   It asks you to think about the production, react and articulate, which can be immensely empowering but also can completely undermine the concentrated emotional effect during the piece.

What worked best for Alice was when the choreography referenced other ballets: there was a flutter of tweets which remarked on the parallels with The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty.  Some of the referencing I hadn’t spotted and it was really interesting pick up on this during the performance itself rather than in retrospect.

Useful to producers will be the overarching trends which the twitter feeds may reveal.  ‘Worm-polling’ has recently become popular in politics to chart the ups and downs of audience reactions in real-time throughout a speech or debate, and in many ways this is theatre replicating the system.  Tweeting exposes exactly what parts of the production are best-received or worst-received.  But the fact that all tweeters can see the reactions of others in real-time too could inevitably skew reactions.

Tweeting live in the auditorium at Stratford will no doubt be a different experience to tweeting in front of the TV screen. I wonder if the dramaturgical decisions in the up-coming productions will take into account this potential change of concentration in their audience.  This brings into play some fascinating questions: can a production be ‘understood’ if your nose is buried elsewhere at key moments?  Does this matter?  Is there inherent meaning in a production anyway, or is meaning necessarily constructed by the onlooker? Will real-time interaction between audience members add depth to the experience?  More worryingly, if the tweeting is resolutely negative, the on-stage team would be able to see in real-time this information. But unlike printed reviews tweeting is fleeting: gone in a moment, unlikely to have a very long life expectancy unless it is particularly pertinent to the wider tweeting population.

I can’t wait to see how this system is received , how it informs the productions produced, and the wider policy of Stratford East.  Thinking back to Joan Littlewood’s legacy, there is something slightly Brechtian about the new scheme.  Could Twitter help move the audience towards a state like that termed the alienation effect / Verfremdungseffekt by Brecht?  The effect “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer.” (Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964) 91.)  Of course, a consciously critical observer for Brecht was a specifically socialist critical observer, whereas I suspect that Twitter feeds, like the blog-o-sphere in general, will be flooded with an array of observant reactions with a plethora of political leanings and interpretations.  Whatever, Stratford East should be proud of their new scheme.  It allows experimentation without disruption to the majority of the auditorium, and will create some fascinating insights into contemporary theatre spectatorship.  See you at the tweetdeck!


12 thoughts on “Tweeting at the Theatre? Really?

  1. Very interesting post. We are also intrigued by the tweetzone initiative. The worry, of course, is that something like this could fuel our collective ADD even further. Or are we already doomed as a multitasking society?

  2. It’s the peculiar mixture of references that really add resonance and conversations that distract you and pull you out of the flow of the performance that I find particularly fascinating about this phenomena. And I am further intrigued by the way many participants of these live tweets of arts events describe the desire to continue the conversation with the strangers they’ve tweeted with. It seems to create a true gestalt community… always one of the goals of a work of performance, but rarely an achievable one.

    Thanks for your candid reactions to the new live tweeting phenomenon. I think we will all be feeling our way through this thorny tangle of attractions and distractions for some years to come.

  3. Having put the above blog on LinkedIn, there was a really fruitful discussion about tweeting and live theatre. Below are some of the comments:

    Foteini Galanopoulou • It’s worth embracing this (especially if one can’t always stop audiences using their mobiles while the show is on) and giving it a try. The results for both the theatre practice and audiences’ reactions will surely be interesting (will this broaden access/remove barriers to theatre or create more?!). Looking forward to “watching this space”!

  4. Trevelyan Wright • Not theatre but at our digital arts festival this year, DATfest, we ran a special showing of The Social Network with a live twitterfall on a big screen to the side. Seen as very successful.

  5. Elspeth Murray – This is a really interesting one for me.

    One the one hand, I work on the production side with Puppet State Theatre Co and am occasionally the bitch in the control booth who calls on front of house staff to tap smart phone users on the shoulder and ask them politely to quit it.

    On the other hand,
    a) as a writer I have long enjoyed responding to a live performance (more often music or dance rather than text-based work) by scribbling in a notebook (which can be done fairly discreetly without creating light & often without looking away from the stage) and have sometimes created poems from that and/or shared my impressions with the performers
    b) as a tweeter who likes to share good stuff I see and engage in dialogue about the arts I do think there should *sometimes* be provision for tweeters – a bit like the Theatre Royal Stratford East have done on condition that it’s in a distinctly separate section at the back of dark auditoriums where it doesn’t bother folks.

    Issues I think are important to consider include:
    * what events are suitable for this – and why

    * rules of engagement: advertising the event hash tag, keeping the device noise down, if and when it’s suitable to display the live tweets – and how and where

    * whether some people would choose to sit in the wifi zone and be online without any connection to the performance or the tweet stream

    * concerns about loss of audience focus among those tweeting and those who know there are people back there who are Up To Something

    * what performers think about this – and how much their views are considered in the decision to do this

    It’s got potential to be done well in a way that enhances the experience for the tweeters and the non-tweeters as well as giving companies a reach to a wider audience. But it also has scope for diluting the live experience, pissing audiences off and sending out messy messages about an event that aren’t in the best interests of the artists.

    PS If you haven’t seen this case where a San Antonio cinema turned a disgruntled, banned texter’s voicemail message into a pre-movie please-switch-your-phones-off trailer, you really must. It’s great!

  6. Ashley Smith Hammond • Thanks Elspeth for a really thoughtful post.

    After reading the thread above as well as the blog post referenced in the question I thought I’d throw in a link to a story that was recently on NPR (public radio in the USA) about watching television with Twitter It fits in this discussion because the author shows how his experience of using Twitter in this way increases the feeling of both ‘liveness’ of a broadcast event, which is different from the experience Christine describes tweeting about something prerecorded. It also gave the NPR journalist a peek behind the scenes granting him access to specialist insider knowledge. We know that our audiences love this insider feeling if we can offer it to them, which is part of the potential that I can see with supporting a TweetZone.

    Also, based on my experience webcasting live events I know that the conversations in the chatroom can be really valuable (though there is no guarantee of this by any means!). It gives audiences the chance to whisper to their neighbours without being too disruptive. Many of them will use this opportunity to demonstrate their own knowledge and point out further relevant information in real time.

    Finally, as a frequent audience member myself I do think there are some situations in which I’d like to participate in a wider conversation about a performance in real time. Not every show, not every time but it would be well worth experimenting more with this.

  7. Foteini Galanopoulou • Just read this, posted to another group here: Thought it could be of interest to this discussion too. It takes the issue beyond tweeting, to using this to invite audiences to participate (eg. Twitter Opera – Royal Opera House) and gives further similar examples. Check it out in case you haven’t come across this already.

  8. Thank you very much for everyone’s input: there are a whole host of fascinating questions to follow up!

    Trevelyan – sounds like a great project. And I love the fact that the tweeting was so self-consciously used a social media in a showing of a film which interrogates the whole idea of social media!

    Elspeth – Your point re. rules of engagement is really interesting as there is no clear ‘etiquette’ at the moment for mobile phone use in traditional live performances spaces. I was at a youth performance at the Royal Opera House at the weekend and a small fight broke out between one parent who was using his phone (albeit discreetly) to text and another, probably more regular, audience member who thought this was the epitome of rudeness. Modern culture is changing at a huge pace: we need to find a way to creating spaces which allow innovation without disenfranchising the more traditional audiences.

    Ashley – you make a brilliant point about ‘liveness’ and how, in my blog, the ballet I was tweeting at was not live. Tweeting at a live event changes the stakes a little bit, as it has a (small) possibility of changing an outcome or capturing something unrepeatable.

    I have also been thinking about how twitter can market or relay performances through feeds of those at a performance. I watched over twitter the first performance of Glyndebourne’s Die Meistersinger last month and it made me desperate to see the show. I felt I was somehow missing the action, yet still complicit in the event as it unfolded.

    Patrick – many thanks for the Man Bartlett link. I think the way it makes the spectator complicit in the action brings up really interesting political and philosophical questions, particularly about technology and its potential to allow anonymity and therefore sometimes robs people of a social conscience.

    Foteini – thank you for mentioning the subject tweeting to create the artistic product, like ROH’s twitter opera – which takes the idea of ‘interactivity’ to a whole new level. The twitter opera created (which I was lucky enough to see) was a bit silly and a bit flat. But who says that in the right hands we can’t create something of artistic merit from such material? Twitter feeds as libretto might work brilliantly in a more deconstructed non-narrative opera.

    There is so much to talk about here! Thank you again for such great comments – I am researching a PhD in audiences at the moment so may get in contact to ask if I might ‘cite’ you. I look forward to seeing how twitter and theatre progresses …


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