Over the past week or so I have been near the center of exchanges about theatre and social media that feel alternately like discussions, vent sessions, and policy ponderings. Social media and theatre and the mix of both — discuss. And when you add in questions of the directionality of the media stream and who controls it you have an endlessly energized exchange — media in hands of creators, media in hands of theatre administration, media in the hands of audience members, media in hands of performers. The conversations going on at this very moment on these themes among dramaturgs and other theatre professionals are active on individual blogs (see Douglas McLennan’s 1/25/2012 post “Leading from Behind – We Need a Better Definition”), on the occasional discussion forum (see the LMDA listserv discussions), in the February 2012 issue of  American Theatre magazine, and elsewhere. I shall make no attempts to summarize that rapidly morphing discussion here. What I shall do is provide my own little story and recent experience, and parse that a bit. In this discussion as in all discussions that hit on philosophies of art (personal, professional) and perhaps suspicion of new tools and high emotions, details matter. So I offer a few.

I am a literature major who became a social science researcher who worked in court research for many years and morphed into a theatre researcher and dramaturg. I’ve been a pc user since 1983, and emailer since 1984 or so, at first through university accounts then through employer email accounts then free email hosts like Hotmail then gmail. I first read a play that tried (semi successfully) to incorporate projections-as-email-conversations between two characters as a script reader for one of several DC theatres in 2004. I continue to read on the page and see on various stages in the ensuing years as resident of DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and now New York City the creative challenges for playwrights and the design/creative/ research team attempting to incorporate the use of social media in theatre. Questions, challenges, hits and misses.

So I have the eye of a dramaturg observer, and am technologically experienced, and still openly acknowledge a lot of rough edges. And add to this years of observing individual playwrights and theatre productions (as production dramaturg, as script reader, as critic) as they attempt to bring email and instant messaging and Twitter communications onto the stage into the world of a play.

My active entry into Facebook (2008) was inspired and reinforced by my smart and funny theatre friends and colleagues who used the tool to build communities around their work and their companies, advertise and discuss individual works. Humor and community were my reward for playing in the Facebook playgroup. Twitter use arose similarly for me (2009) – sparked by my curiosity about how theatres were using the tool, and enhanced by humor and instant community. Twitter’s more open anyone-can-follow-anyone structure (unless an account is specially locked down) allows you to learn more about Merrill Markoe’s and Andy Borowitz’s fast and funny brains, for example, than would be possible in the real world. One can get lost in the somewhat messy sea of output in Twitter, but I do find community-level events (such as awards shows or the New York State legislative vote on gay marriage several months ago), organized through hashtag groupings (sometimes jokingly created, sometimes seriously inserted) introduce me to the fun of live tweeting and finding a community instantly, outside my immediate physical world.

Over the past few years I have also observed theatre marketing efforts that use Twitter in a range of ways. I first encountered the idea of a “tweet seat” as last minute notice of ticket availability by various theatre companies. Theatres tweet out news of last minute deals to a specific kind of potential patron – media savvy, quick on their feet (or with their fingers), with flexible theatre-going schedules. I took note. At the same time a different type of “tweet seat” experiment began in different theatres, reported as they occurred in discussion lists, involving audience members given permission to tweet during performances. The commentary I read (on line, in print) about these experiments ranged widely from support for “whatever brings people into the theatre” to concerns about how to control the mechanics and organization of such events to questions about whether this kind of in-the-moment audience interaction/processing has a place at all in the world of theatre. Discussion of the use of a smart phone as a tweeting tool in a darkened theatre can bring up for all of us the annoyance of the light ahead of us, tapping fingers beside us, all of which can distract an audience member from absolute focus on the theatre before her. Any and all of these themes and others seemed to emerge and conflate and enflame in tweet seat discussions.

When an opportunity to become a “tweet seat” participant observer and test out my reactions in the moment to an experiment using social media in a theatre performance, I pounced. I follow @PublicTheaterNY and observed publicity about a planned “tweet seat” event for Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) coming up just after the Under the Radar Festival in early January 2012. And on January 19, 2012 the Marketing Department of the Public Theater invited selected Twitter users to attend and “live tweet” a performance of Gob Squad’s Kitchen. Here’s a little summary of the sequence of events.

Playbill reports on our Tweet Seats: MT: @rss_playbill: Public Opens 1st Perf of Gob Squad’s Kitchen for Live-Tweeting bit.ly/tL4XgZ

I read the article. It feeds into my recent experiences an curiosity, and I am alert for further notifications from @PublicTheaterNY. I do not have to wait long.

Just a few more days to enter SYTYCT for a chance to live-tweet GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN! #kitchenlive #warhol bit.ly/vpz5Y6

Aha, the mechanics are now clear. I follow the instructions, through which you are led to a form (requesting name, a few facts, email, and your Twitter account name). And you are told to wait to hear if you’re selected. I don’t know what the selection process is, though one supposes there was at least a look at the Twitter feed of the folks applying.

Decided to try to get a ticket to tweet about Gob Squad doing Warhol. I think. We’ll see! @PublictheaterNY #kitchenlive

I enter this day, and tweet that fact, and my tweet is immediately acknowledged with a “good luck” by @PublicTheaterNY. The submission period ends several days later. I tracked two tweets in particular:

PublicTheaterNY The Public Theater
@HESherman Tweet Seat event is experiment for us – may not be satisfying for actors/audiences. We’ll see, it’s exciting to see what happens.

PublicTheaterNY The Public Theater
Also, last day 2 enter: Win Tweet Seats for GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN! Winners will live tweet 1st perf from special section! publictheater.wufoo.com/forms/m7x3s5/

Note that the question of who is served by the Tweet Seat experiment is already a topic of discussion. And it is clear here that the experiment is “for us” meaning the Theater generally or the Marketing Department in particular. The tone is experimental.

The contest is wrapped up and winners notified on 1/10/2011 with a Twitter Direct Message to check email. The contest is called here and a few places (including handouts in a kind of press pack the performance evening) “So You Think You Can Tweet: Gob Squad Edition”. The rest of the public process is regular reminders until the Tweet Seat event occurs. Refer to #kitchenlive hashtag for all tweets before, during, and after the guest tweeting on 1/19/2012.

PublicTheaterNY The Public Theater
Less than a week before the 1st perf of GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN! You will be able see live tweets from that show by following #KitchenLive.

PublicTheaterNY The Public Theater
First perf of GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN is tomorrow! Be sure to follow live tweets from our guest tweeters at #kitchenlive from 7:30pm to 10pm!

PublicTheaterNY The Public Theater
GOB SQUAD’S KITCHEN has arrived! Follow #kitchenlive for live tweets from guest tweeters for tonight ‘s first perf -7:30-10pm. #warhol

When we arrive on 1/19/2012 we are presented with a lanyard and laminated tab with our twitter name (see image at head of this blog post), our real name, and the TWEET SEAT SECTION designation . For some of the participants this quasi-review role is a new one and they comment on it among themselves. We are also handed a folder that includes a set of rules: silence cell phones, no calls during performance, lower brightness on phone, only tweet during performance, no photography – though this rule was modified when the performers gave their o.k. for photos before the performance began, to use the hashtag #kitchenlive, and to tweet at the level we wanted with no expectations. We are not informed beforehand in any formal way who the other Tweet Seat occupants will be or how many, though it is clear that many of the crowd know one another. I am older than most by several decades. It turns out there are 25 of us, some of whom brought guests. We alone as a group occupy the last three rows of the Newman Theater on the first floor of the Public Theater, across the lobby from Joe’s Pub. The Marketing folks are most gracious, thank us publicly and privately post event, and give us a free drink at a nearby bar to debrief.

Thanks to all our live-tweeters for capturing the first performance of GOB’S SQUAD KITCHEN. a fun night! #Warhol would approve #KitchenLive

So what do I make of this experience? I journal, I observe, I write up experiences in theatres with great frequency – for this blog and for other outlets. I would rather be in a rehearsal room or a theatre experiencing the wonders possible there than almost anywhere else on earth. And I found the personal experience as a participant in this partially controlled experiment to be a struggle with role strain. I acknowledge this is in part due to my desire to experience a play as an audience member who might review, therefore I want to be fully engaged and give myself over to the actors and designers and playwright, body and brain, in a way that is simply not possible when one pauses at regular intervals to tweet a reaction or a sensation that is in essence a note for deeper reflection at a later time. Any person attending such an event should expect to have a partial and “distanced” experience of the art before them.

2012-1-19 GS Kitchen Simon Emerges (photo by Martha Wade Steketee)

A tweet with the picture at left from midshow on 1/19/2012 captures a moment and a reflection to which I return in my formal critical notes on the show, based on both viewings. This was a rare pause and moment I by chance capture on the fly (eyes up and down and taking notes and trying to function, right and left brain together). I was fascinated to hear during the 1/25/2012 performance post show conversation one of the actors in fact references the Woody Allen film Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) as an inspiration for the group for this moment in the show.  This movie occurred to me immediately upon seeing the sequence captured in the image at the link below, and visible at left here.

Simon has gone to other side. Very purple rose of cairo. Others try entice him back. #kitchenlive yfrog.com/o0svjnj

What it was:
Well organized, sensitively structured effort by the Public Theater’s Marketing Department for 25 Twitter Users selected to observe and comment upon a partially improvised work involving projections, audience involvement, and evocation of some of Andy Warhol’s movies.

What it was not:
An artist-driven effort to inform their work directly or to provide information instantaneously fed to the actors. This experiment was not intended to integrate the audience reactions to the theatre creation in any meaningful way – though in this case one could imagine that it might have been perfectly Warholian to dedicate an additional screen somewhere to scrolling audience responses to what they were seeing.

What it all means:
This limited experiment illustrates that such theatre observers can be incorporated into an audience without disturbing other patrons. As a Twitter user in this reporting/experiencing role, I personally experienced deep role strain in attempting to observe and experience in my conventional audience role while simultaneously attempting to engage as a Twitter user consuming the same experience (observe and note and publically share fragments of thoughts in the moment). I returned to the show a few days later, taking up the Marketing Department’s offer to the Tweeters of another pair of seats as a kind of acknowledgment of our efforts during the experiment. I yearned for the repeat viewing. And serendipity rewarded me with a postshow conversation with actors and audience members that revealed more of the theatre makers’ art that I could have captured with one viewing, much less one during which I was Twitter-distracted.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 3, 2012)

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