Come and Meet Those Who Tweet (at the Theater)

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For years now, a war has been raging in the theater between purists and realists. It isn’t related to the work, although it is not unusual for battles in that arena to flare up regularly.

No, this war has to do with etiquette: what should and should not be acceptable comportment in places of public performance. Movie theaters fit into this discussion as well.

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As most New Yorkers know, a 2003 law made it illegal to use cell phones inside venues where public performances occur. So purists, you might say, won that battle (and you can read the text of the law here). Yet with social media increasingly integral to the way contemporary theater is being marketed, realists are set for the first time in years to gain the upper hand.

And they should.

Not that there aren’t casualties. In her monthly column in American Theatre magazine, Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Teresa Eyring weighed in on whether audiences should have access to electronic devices during performances — not to talk on their cell phones, which isn’t only rude but stupid, but to have quiet access to social media applications as part of their performance experience.

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Eyring writes about a town hall meeting held as part of the annual conference of the Association for Performing Arts Presenters last January, and how people “wrestled with the desire of audiences — predominantly but not exclusively younger ones — to be digitally and Internet-ically connected at all times.” The question: Should “audiences should be allowed, if not encouraged, to turn their cell phones on — to text, tweet, Foursquare and send Facebook updates during a show.” Certainly even the raising of the subject will cause purists to mobilize. Participants in the town hall, she wrote, “lamented the distraction of such devices for artists — and the loss for audiences themselves, who by using those devices forgo the opportunity to fully concentrate and reflect on the performance.”

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Realists counter, however, that in a multitasked world, concentrating and reflecting on performance does not preclude the ability to access external-world applications during their immersion in the performative experience. Consider this crude scenario: An actor delivers a powerful monologue, a game-changing moment in a play. A plausible impulse for the social media-swathed audience member is to share his or her feelings about the power of that moment with their network — that is, their friends, their peers, their Facebook friends, their family, their ganglia of social associations. There is something positive to be harnessed from this impulse (or, I guess, something negative, if the actor is awful). What is at issue is the least disruptive, most efficient, least intrusive, most intensive way to channel that impulse.

Eyring noted that purists are alarmed by the symbiosis — maybe a more accurate word is dependency — some people have with their mobiles: it means another slide away from traditional etiquette; it means the possibility of contending with bright LCD lights in darkened auditoriums.

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Realists, however, believe that there is nothing to be done about it — and they are probably right. This is why, Eyring says, some theater operators, managers and producers believe in “making accommodations for social media multi-taskers by creating special sections in their theaters for attendees who wish to keep their cell phones on.” The message here is antagonistic: “We accept your neurotic need to use a cell phone, send a text or tweet, but in deference to the dwindling number of seniors who fund our theater with their philanthropy, we’re going to physically separate you from everyone else, shaming you and positioning you in the eyes of everyone else as a social pariah. Enjoy the show.”

From a marketing point of view, this doesn’t exactly harness the positive possibilities of social media.

For one thing, it would brighter for the realists to determine which interactions with electronic applications serve as a net plus for the arts and which are critical to ban. Making a cell phone call inside a New York City live or movie theater needs to remain illegal, but, unlike the current law, it also needs enforcement provisions with teeth. In fact, the lack of an enforcement mechanism is the reason why Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the law in the first place (the City Council then overrode him by a vote of 40-9). I’ve never seen an usher make a citizens’ arrest or run to fetch a cop from the street; I see no sign that theater owners are prepared to create conditions under which the monitoring of banned behavior can be coupled with actual consequences for audience members who engage in that behavior.

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However, Eyring seems to understand that leveraging mobile devices intensifies audience engagement:

There are some real positives in this trend toward instant updates and reporting through Twitter and other social media. It creates a sense of real-time connectedness to people, conversations, events and performances that you might have been missing. It also promotes a sense of community and friendship with people you might not otherwise meet, which can lead to live interactions. Early this year, Trendwatching.com reported on a trend called Mass Mingling. “The more people date and network and Twitter and socialize online, the more likely they are to eventually meet up with friends and followers in the real world. Why? Because people actually enjoy interacting with other warm bodies, and will do so forever,” the site proclaimed. If true, this trend may well be leveraged for benefit of live theatre.

And therefore, realists are eventually going to beat the purists. They’re already making headway: two days ago, I was invited to attend a blog- and tweet-centric performance of the Off-Broadway show Fuerzabruta. In the most famous recent success story, the Broadway musical Next to Normal amassed more than a million followers on Twitter –1,078, 266 as of today. (Compare that to President Obama’s Twitter feed, with its 3,369,380 followers.) Back when there were only a cool half-million Next to Normal followers on Twitter, in May 2009, the show “performed” via Twitter — a series of tweets that did more for the show’s fan base than 30-second TV commercials ever could. Expect there to be more variations on this theme — not segregated Twitter sections that enshrine a separate-but-equal ideal, but Twitter-only performances that confer cool. Not only is that a better, more reality-based marketing approach, but it will force the purists to do the one thing they hate to do: concede territory.

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