Gotta tweet mid-play or ballet? Take a 'tweet seat'

Trying to appeal to younger audiences devoting increasing amounts of time to social networking, more performance groups are creating sections reserved for those who just can't do without their Twitter feeds.

"A Midsummer Night's Tweet"? "A Hashtag Named Desire"? "Jesus Christ Twitterstar"?

You can't help but wonder what sort of productions we'll begin seeing as more and more performance venues, theater companies, symphony orchestras, and the like begin experimenting with "tweet seats," sections reserved for audience members who just can't tear themselves away from their Twitter feeds.

As USA Today reported recently, though storied venues such as the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall still ask patrons to shut off their cell phones during shows, a growing number of performance spaces/companies are succumbing to the social-networking and smartphone crowd. They're providing special seating so patrons can send and receive tweets without their wiggling thumbs and glowing touch screens disturbing fellow event-goers.

Virginia's Richmond Shakespeare company introduces the Bard to the bird during a precursor to the cordoned-off tweet-seat idea.

Groups that have so far joined the tweet-seat fray include the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Cincinnati Symphony, and Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, N.C. Jennifer Tepper, director of promotions for the current Broadway run of "Godspell," told USA Today that tweet seats are in the works for that production as well.

And though there aren't tweet seats at the Kennedy Center just yet, it may only be a matter of time: No less an institution than Kennedy Center house band the National Symphony Orchestra got started with Twitter way back in 2009, when it tweeted live commentary during a performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony." (That was at Virginia's Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts, which lists innovation as a core value.)

Live footnotes, live liner notes
As the National Symphony/Wolf Trap example suggests, Twitter and tweet seats aren't necessarily about making it easy for people to swap the latest gossip on Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore as some boring, strange-talking guy named Hamlet flounces about in tights way up there in front of the footlights. It's often about encouraging real-time, performance-related, Twitter-enabled discussions. And the venues or companies themselves are often participating in the tweeting.

The Virginia-based Richmond Shakespeare company provided one example of the discussion model during a production of "Antony and Cleopatra" last year, when it offered up a forerunner of the tweet-seat idea: a social-media night entitled TweetFromYourSeat. At the event, audience members could "text, tweet, and blog about a show's themes, language, costumes--you name it. In context in real time."

And in a comment on a story published by theater blog 2AMt, Travis Bedard, artistic director of Austin, Texas-based theater group Cambiare Productions, provided perspective on company-penned tweets when he gave a big thumbs-up to the Chicago-based New Leaf Theatre company, which arranged a Twitter-powered add-on to a 2010 performance of the play "The Man Who Was Thursday."

"With both the author and a designer on Twitter during the show," Bedard wrote, "it served as a sort of Director's Commentary version of the show that really added something and would have been interesting for repeat audiences."

Of course, one can imagine that such digital annotations could get distracting to first-time audiences--perhaps interfering with their emotional connection to a piece, not to mention their ability to simply follow along with a storyline (or a melody). But tweeted footnotes might also add to the experience.

Cincinnati Symphony Associate Conductor Robert Trevino helped out with the tweets during a Cincy Symphony performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 last month. The tweet-team messages above arrived about a minute apart. To read them in order, start at the bottom.

Conductor Emil de Cou told USA Today prior to the Wolf Trap performance of the "Pastoral Symphony" that he had penned a Twitter script that could be followed during a performance "to help people know what is happening at that time and what the references are and what you imagine Beethoven meant in the music."

"It's kind of like the conductor is whispering in your ear during a great piece of music," de Cou said, "telling you what I'm thinking of and what the composer was thinking of that [you] otherwise wouldn't know." And he added that "if you have a tweet come up every two minutes and you read roughly 140 [characters], you are still engaged." An example of one of de Cou's tweets is a note letting listeners know that in measure 13, Beethoven is using the orchestra to create a symphonic homage to the "sound of rattling carriage wheels."

It's not much of a stretch to go from that sort of "DVD extra" or "liner note" approach to a vision of performance pieces that go whole hog and incorporate tweets into their very structure.

As Cambiare Productions' Bedard wrote on 2AMt:

 

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?...

 

How well can the playwright and director control that?

 

How well indeed? Naturally, that remains to be seen. Theater director Kate Powers wrote on 2AMt that though she supports experimentation, she also worries about trendiness winning out.

"I know there are plays in development as I type that were written with a Twittered audience in mind," Powers wrote, "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."

This response from the Cincy Symphony's tweet team to a tweet by an audience member demonstrates the back-and-forth that goes on between the team and its tweet-seat fans. It also shows how Twitter might help create a unique personal experience for a concert-goer. ("Jaws" here is of course a reference to the famous theme music from the Spielberg shark epic.)

But conductor de Cou seems to view the new Twitter-fueled developments as a welcome shot of inspiration. He told USA Today that "it's fun to bring something that is spontaneous and new to a symphony concert. Shaking it up and thinking 'new' helps us on stage too."

And regardless of whether our next Beckett will pen "Waiting for #Godot" or "Krapp's Last Tweet," it seems clear that performance companies and groups are serious about grabbing at least a chunk of the time that potential audiences are increasingly devoting to Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and, of course, Twitter. (As Forbes reports, National Endowment for the Arts stats show that attendance at classical concerts is down by at least a third for the young set, especially those under age 24.)

De Cou again: "The main goal is to get new audiences and young audiences interested.... We have to use what is relevant to make it more fun and interesting."

 

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