Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tweet Seats - Just Another Realignment in Shrinking Arts Coverage

In this morning's Boston Globe, an article appeared which has Facebook on fire with condemnation.

Apparently, some theater companies are trying to find ways to assimilate the lifestreaming creative class into the quiet of the performance hall. Or at least that is one way you can read the article.

Indeed, the outrage in the comments following the Globe piece, and on Facebook, focuses on the  obvious potential disturbance of lighted smartphones and the accompanying tapping sounds on touch screens or keypads. The technological barbarians, it would seem from reading these statements, are at the gate! And theater organizations, beaten down by a seige-like convergence of dying older subscribers and disinterested younger demographics, appear to be willing to hand over the keys.

However, it seems that what this story is really about is the continuing decline of arts journalism and theater coverage. Finding the normal conduits of reviews and advertising in the Arts and Entertainment sections of traditional mainstream media outlets shrinking, an arts organization might imagine that the prospect of anybody who can bring a "following" of 10,000 people or more would be enticing. The official twitter account of the Boston Globe Arts Section has only 4,808 followers.

For instance, a desired demographic for many theater companies in Boston might include people who read Slate, Salon, Huffington Post...Gawker? Try finding consistent coverage of local theater at those addresses.

Twitter can solve that problem to a certain extent in that the service hits the desired demographic and can function simultaneously at a local and global level. Though a new problem arises in the fact that the feed quickly consigns tweets, providing that they aren't posted on a blog or some other location, to the archives. Twitter's search function only gives results from a certain time period anyway. The term "yesterday's newspaper" was never as relevant as it is today.

Theater companies are, of course, trying to exercise control of the situation. The authorized tweeters will most likely be hand-picked to provide the type of tweets the Globe used as examples from the Palm Bay Orchestra production of Madame Butterfly: “Cio-cio san is telling it like it is! #pbobutterfly’’  This is the type of thing that many theater companies might tweet themselves, some already do.

Some companies, like the Boston Ballet and the Huntington are taking a reasonable path, which mirrors the way many theater companies approached us bloggers "way back" in like 2005, or so.

I don't think we have too much to fear from glowing screens for now. Although I should say that I have already encountered several smartphone-sized incidents of the "indiglo effect" over the past year or so.  Now that fewer patrons are wearing watches,  a particularly long performance produces larger illuminations when a restless theatergoer needs to check the time.


Ian Thal said...

I remember the bad old days when mobile devices were just beginning to become popular, and announcements to turn off one's device were not yet common place, when there was this guy who was always bound to not only be called in the middle of a poetry reading, but would actually answer his call while still seated.

In the case of popular theatre theatre forms like commedia (the sort of potentially interactive work that I often do)-- mobile devices aren't a problem-- but I really do not want to be distracted by the indiglo effect when I'm trying to watch some Shakespeare, Brecht or bharatanatyam.

Meg said...

Nice post, Art.

I think my overall concern is less "How are we going to keep these people from disturbing me?" and more "How can someone fully experience the live performance they are attending if they are too busy checking the pulse of their response during it?"

I am full faith that companies that want to do this can find ways to shield the rest of the audience from these folks and their glowing screens - at least at first (as the convention becomes more established, it will probably be harder).

I am much more concerned, however, as someone who makes art and who challenges her audience to have the patience and focus to tackle challenging plays, that the very construct of tweeting while the performance is going on will only encourage audience members to split their focus even more. We work very hard to pull our audiences into a different awareness when they are in our theatre - how does that gel with having those same audience members continually pulling themselves out of that awareness to report back to the outside world.

If the moment is so amazing that you need to talk about it, you will remember it after the performance. I promise. If you don't, you probably didn't need to talk about it in the first place...

Ian Thal said...

Agreed, Meg. But as an audience member who specifically attends your theatre because I want to be fully engaged with your shows, I don't want anyone interfering with that connection at all-- it's not just for my sake as an audience member, but it's disrespectful of everyone who worked on the show.

Esther said...

If I wanted to be on Twitter or checking Facebook I wouldn't be going to the movies or theatre. I mean, I'm at a play or a movie because I want to be there and see what's on the stage or screen. What would be the point of sitting there in the dark, glued to my smart phone?

Thomas Garvey said...

So . . . why can't people tweet about how great the performance was AFTER the performance . . ? Why does it have to happen DURING the performance? Really - why? I'm serious. What is it about the young peoples that makes them want to continually drop out of their own lives? Why we haven't diagnosed this as a psychological disorder yet I've no idea.

But I suppose that's a question for another day. Right now, it seems obvious that the "real-time" nature of tweeting clearly contradicts (and destroys) the "real-time" nature of theatre. There's just no way around that. If you're tweeting, you're not having a theatrical experience. You're tweeting instead. Which is a boring thing to do, but hey - it's your life, go ahead and waste it. The problem here, however, is that you're treating the theatre - and the rest of us - the way you treat yourself, i.e., as fodder for some virtual talk show that you imagine is fabulous but which I'm sorry, doesn't really exist. No one is "following" you, not really - you're not popular, and what you have to say is not interesting. Indeed, it's often very stupid (the tweets the Globe cites are just painful to read). You won't begin writing smarter tweets, in fact, until you stop tweeting so much.

As for the death of western culture that all this portends - you know, I'm so used to the coming end that it hardly bothers me anymore. Sunsets can be beautiful, and anyway, I don't really want to be around for the long night that's coming, which I guess will be lit only by twitter screens. I'm only irritated by the millennial assholes who feel they can crash the funeral and tweet about it.

John said...

Call me old-fashioned, but can't people freaking wait to tweet until intermission? As an actor, I'm not about to repeat myself just in case someone in the audience missed what I said because they were tweeting about whatever brilliant thing happened a few seconds earlier. Are our attention spans so short?

Ian Thal said...

By the way, Tom's #tweetseats are hilarious.

Thomas Garvey said...

Thanks Ian! Btw, Didi and Gogo are STILL by that friggin' tree! ;-)