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!