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Friday, January 20, 2012

To Tweet-Seat or not to Tweet-Seat

Frankenstein, Living Theatre, 1968.  Photo: Daniel Vittet

To some, it sounds like a sacrilege. To others, it sounds like a welcome relief for their itchy, iPhone-addicted fingers. The practice of allowing audience members to tweet during a performance—dubbed "tweet seats"—has been a cause of much debate in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and in performing arts community. Several theaters have recently set aside designated sections so that Twitter-loving audience members can tweet to their virtual heart’s content, and not disturb the people sitting next to them.

Now let us be clear that BAM does NOT condone this practice, although tweeting is encouraged during BAMcafé Live, our free music series on Friday and Saturday nights. But in the Howard Gilman Opera House and the Harvey Theater, cell phone usage is strictly verboten. Many of you are very familiar with this almighty voice:

Welcome to BAM by BAMorg

But it’s interesting to think about the history of modern theater and how norms of audience behavior and participation have evolved. During Shakespeare’s time, the famous Globe Theater was not unlike a circus, with spectators eating, drinking, playing cards, you name it. Robert Wilson encouraged audience members to get up and move around during the 1984 performance of Einstein on the Beach. The Living Theatre often incorporated audience participation as part of their performances, and audiences were regularly invited on stage. As seats themselves become optional and communication is not only solicited but becomes a part of the experience itself, couldn’t Twitter be incorporated as an interesting part of the mix?

Expectations of audience behavior also vary greatly depending on genre and context; tweeting during a live concert is very different from tweeting during the ballet. But perhaps it’s useful to recall Brecht here: when putting forth his manifesto for modern theater, he thought that the spectator should adopt an attitude of "smoking-and-watching" so that the performance could take on "the same fascinating reality as a boxing match."

Now we’re not sure what Bertolt Brecht would think of Twitter, but more importantly, what do you think of tweet seats? Do you think it’s a sign of the impending apocalypse? A new way to engage with live performance? Maybe both? Let us know in the comments—we want to hear from you!

—Cynthia Lugo

5 comments:

  1. NEVER NEVER NEVER may electronic devices be used inside the theatre. People who are tweeting are not paying attention to the performance, they're just aggrandizing themselves.

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  2. "Having a [tweeting] section in a [theater] is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool." - George Carlin (paraphrased)

    Tweet seats??! Definitely an apocalyptic precursor. An opera house is not a boxing arena, and a ballet is not a rock concert (usually). It's just a matter of fact that certain kinds of live performance require that all of your senses are present and focused on what is happening in front of you. You are not with the people sitting next to you, or the people on the internet, but you are with the performers and the characters and the music and your thoughts. As an audience member, you become a participant in the performance. Tweeting, or just knowing that there are hidden twits at the venue who are staring at their phones and spewing virtual commentary into the ether during peak moments, even if they are nearly silent about it and quarantined to a separate section, can still easily cause one to "break character" and thus ruin the experience.

    This kind of "multitasking" during a show not only demonstrates that one is not fully engaged, but it is usually also distracting, both to performers and to most audiences, and is therefore unwelcome. Unfortunately, twits are going to tweet whether or not you give them a toilet to tweet in, and such special treatment will certainly not be popular with the majority of potential ticket purchasers for most traditional types of performances. My opinion is that, if you want to allow (condone!) people to tweet during a performance, either let them pay extra for box seats to their Twitter stream, or let them use the restroom, and let's not alter the speech of the "almighty voice."

    On the other hand, there are some kinds of shows during which a tweeting section might be really cool. I can imagine some kinds of more experimental performance possibly becoming augmented by an alternate, complementary virtual experience, where the tweeters might influence what happens on the stage, and the performers (whether they are onstage or online-only) can perhaps interact with these audience members in the same way. The tweet seats would now become another kind of control booth in the theater, and the tweeters' commentary might be not only with their online followers, but also with fellow audience members and cast members alike, which might have their twitter handles listed in the program. In this way, tweet seats can actually enhance the performance for those who choose to sit there without detracting from the experience of less plugged-in showgoers.

    Ultimately, it is up to a venue's owners to decide whether a permanent section of their seating should be set aside to accommodate for the habits of their "alternately-engaged" audience members. And it is pp to audience members to decide whether it strikes a happy medium, a fair compromise, or a reluctant concession.

    (Note: I am in my twenties, have an active Twitter account, and even work for a tech company, if that makes a difference.)

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  3. If you're Tweeting (or texting or surfing the web) during a performance, you're not paying attention to the show. It's that simple. As someone who has been on stage, it's also incredibly rude.

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  4. As an artist using twitter in my work and my performances, I embrace the possibilities of using this phenomena during a performance as part of the work. On the other hand I would not be happy as an audience member or as a performer (in a show not using twitter) to be distracted by an audience member twitting and by the light generated from electronic devices.

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  5. There's a time and place for everything... and if you can't wait an hour or two to shout your opinion to the world, maybe you shouldn't be in the theater.

    That said, being in a pop concert is obviously totally different than an opera, so there are differing levels of acceptability between forms. I guess if you can stand in the aisles and dance, tweeting is okay. Otherwise, nope.

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