Just yesterday I quoted Michael Billington saying of One Man Two Guvnors that the play “appeals to that appetite for the interactive that is all around us today. I have a theory that audiences have got slightly sick of sitting in the dark for two-and-a-half hours being ignored by the actors.”
And, it seems, audiences are also increasingly sick of sitting in the dark for two-and-a-half hours without being connected to the world as well as the stage: despite the constant reminders for people to turn off mobile phones before a performance begins, hardly a performance passes anywhere without one always going off. (The other week at a fringe theatre in North East London, I experienced a press night first: the phone that went off belonged to the lighting and sound operator!)
But more distractingly, they’re also in constant use, it seems, to film and photograph performances, send and receive text messages, and nowadays tweet, too. The other day Hadley Fraser, currently starring in the West End as Javert in Les Miserables, tweeted, “Someone very brazenly filming the show this evening. Aside from the ethical/legal question, why wouldn’t you just watch the damn show?” As he went on to ask, why would that person “choose to come to a live event and obstruct their own chances of experiencing and (possibly) enjoying it to its intended extent. Call it self-sabotage, I guess.”
Perhaps, I replied to him, we need a bit more of Patti LuPone-like interventions, stopping the show and screaming, “Who do you think you are?” Hadley in turn said, “The thought did cross my mind. But ‘Stars’ seemed an inappropriate moment to channel Patti. Our FOH staff swiftly swooped on the offender once it was noticed.”
Text messaging has been an old nuisance — as long ago as 2002, on the first night of Sam Mendes’s farewell production as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, there was constant disruption from someone sending and receiving texts (with the beeps of the incoming alerts to the offender’s replies jolting those seated near him), and when he was confronted afterwards by one of my colleagues, replying “Chekhov is robust enough to withstand the intrusion.” The more astonishing fact was that the offender was identified as Michael Colgan, artistic director of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, as I previously wrote here.
Then came the age of the Blackberry, and people became addicted to checking their e-mail throughout a show — including, at one press night, the guest of a fellow critic seated on the centre aisle. And now we’re in the age of Twitter, and far from objecting to its use, theatres seem to be actively embracing it. Stratford East’s Theatre Royal pioneered a ‘Tweet Zone’ ages ago, from where they encourage audiences to tweet their reactions even while the show is unfolding; and in America, orchestras as well as theatres are promoting it regularly now.
As a blog in the LA Times put it, “Perhaps the most unexpected thing about “tweet seats” is that they exist. Perhaps the second-most-unexpected thing about them is that they appear to be a growing trend. A tweet seat is a seat in a theater that has been approved by the theater for use by someone who would like to tweet a performance. Whip out your cellphone and start tweeting at a rock show and nobody will notice — the rest of audience is probably shooting cellphone pictures anyway. But try that at the opera and you’ll be glared at, unless you are in a tweet seat.”
In a feature in USA Today, Rick Dildine, the executive director for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is quoted saying that these seats have “become a national trend” and he goes on, “Coast to coast, theaters are experimenting with how to use ‘tweet seats’ effectively. The arts are evolving right now, they are participatory. … Social media is a tool we rely on, and we have been unafraid to experiment with it.”
At Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Chris Pinelo, CSO vice president for communication, also welcomed its use, saying, “”It was great to see how people were reacting to the orchestra, reacting to the conduct and, frankly, reacting to the insights happening backstage.” And one tweeter is quoted saying, “Tweeting the CSO’s performance was like attending a members-only social event in the midst of a traditionally formal setting. I could communicate openly about my reactions to the music, musicians and conductor — without speaking a word. Plus, I had the opportunity to engage others, and get their reactions to the performance.”
But why on earth do you need to? Can’t it wait till afterwards, once you’ve actually seen, heard and absorbed the performance itself, instead of engaging with what’s on your smartphone screen? As one non-tweeting audience member sitting nearby observed (and was no doubt distracted by), “Their texting thumbs were moving faster than the violinist’s fingers. They would occasionally nudge each other and read what the other person had up on his or her screen. They didn’t even look up to applaud at the end of each selection. The fact that they were watching their handheld devices, they missed out on what was happening on the stage.”