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Does Twitter Belong in the Theater?

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The debate on the recent phenomenon of having "Tweet Seats" for live theater performances, plus insight from a Broadway producer.

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The Providence Performing Arts Center recently made news for allowing 10 to 20 "Tweet Seats" in the back of the audience, where patrons can post their 140-character thoughts and feelings about the show in real time.

Although stories of Tweet Seats have been recently bustling on the Internet, this phenomenon, which so blatantly denies the very commonplace notion of turning off one's cellphone before a play, has been in practice since Twitter began to gain its mainstream mass appeal. In 2009, the Broadway revival of Godspell, for example, chose 15 of its most dutiful Twitter followers and gave them free Tweet Seats, with the condition that they live tweet the show, non-stop, with a special hash tag. This continued throughout the run, which closed last June.

The idea is to draw tech-savvy crowds to the theater, to engage younger generations, to unite the tradition of live theater with the information chaos of Twitter. But will Tweet Seats really entice new theater goers with the marriage of old school art and new school connectivity? Or will this kill the sanctity of live theater? As an actor, Twitter user, and avid theater-goer myself, I can see both cases, so I decided to explore the issue.

In Praise of Tweet Seats.

Opinions on the topic have been heavily circulating the Internet, but let's look at a practical response to the Tweet Seats.

I exchanged e-mails with Ken Davenport, the producer of Godspell, as well as Chinglish, Oleanna, Speed-the-Plow, Blithe Spirit, and You're Welcome America, to ask him if he found the introduction of social media useful (check out Ken's blog here). The Tweet Seats at the 2009 revival were an experiment, and Davenport was impressed, claiming the Twitter presence was a valuable addition to the run, and saying, "Godspell was virtually performed to places all over the world." The company's work and the audience's enjoyment of it was spread to people who couldn't be there for the show.

But what about the distraction of all those illuminated cellphones and fast-moving thumbs? Were there any interruptions or complaints? "Not a one," says Davenport. "I personally stood at the theater doors as people left and asked them if they noticed any activity. Not one person even knew we held a Twitter night. It took planning or care to make sure that it wasn't distracting, but it worked." I also spoke with P.J. Prokop, the Marketing Director of the Providence Performing Arts Center, and she said the Tweet Seats are located in the back of the orchestra section where the Tweeters will not disturb the rest of the audience.

Said one Providence Performing Arts Center theater tweeter -- Kirsten DiChiappari of Rhode Island -- to the press, "It's kind of a way to tease people back to support the live arts, the real arts, the original arts. I feel like once they go, they'll go again."

For her, the Tweet Seat is a hook, a marketing ploy that benefits the production and the theater in general by simply drawing in more people. The Providence Performing Arts Center will offer Tweet Seats through the rest of the year and will then take stock of the marketing ploy's effects. Other theaters, such as Boston's Huntington Theater, will host a so-called "Twittermission," a kind of "ask the artists" forum, which is able to be democratic and rapid due to Twitter.

Please Silence All Cellphones and Other Noise-Making Devices.

In an article from April 2012, Eric Limer, a contributing editor for Gizmodo, called Tweet Seats the new smoking section of theaters, a place where not everyone will want to sit, especially those aggravated by smoke -- or now, glowing screens. In his comparison, both sections, smoking and tweeting, cater to addictive clientele: Smoking sections allowed those addicted to nicotine to get their fix, while tweeting sections make it so that information-addicted Twitterholics don't have to take too long a break from their own fix of their Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, Samsung (PINK:SSNLF) Galaxy, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android, or whatever their preferred method for information consumption. A study last year, conducted by Wilhelm Hofmann of Chicago University's Booth Business School, found that the urge to tweet may be harder to resist than the urge to drink or smoke. Limer suggests that the Tweet Seats serve the marketing of a production, but also, the addictive needs of some more extreme tweeters in the audience.

A few people, like Curt Hopkins of Ars Technica, have written on the topic with outright dissent, saying, "It is an operatically stupid idea." He is both a theater and Twitter enthusiast, but sees the Tweet Seats phenomenon as worthless and potentially damaging. The real problem with the theater, he writes, are business people who are resistant to change, who only embrace change once that resistance is overcome by the whole mainstream of the theater industry. He cedes that social networking can engage the public and help communication between the audience and the production, but ultimately, will not draw new crowds. According to Hopkins, only daring, original works that engage our sense of wonder will do that.

Interestingly, Hopkins' argument mirrors a similar philosophy in publishing that favors original, quality journalism -- not search engine optimization (SEO) tricks -- as the only route to keeping publishing alive. The Internet, with search engines and social networks, allows us tools to optimize our viewership without original or quality content. The question is, should we exploit these tools? Are we cheapening the theater, or reporting, with Twitter seats and SEO tricks, respectively?

The debate is ongoing. Twitter can benefit live theater productions by providing free, quality marketing, and engaging a younger generation of audience members who are accustomed to constant social media, making the performance more personal and engrossing. The negative side of Tweet Seats rests more in the risk of distraction and in the way the practice defies the tradition of turning off all electronic devices and focusing one's attention solely on the theater company's work.

As an actor, I know that theater, as with all art, becomes stagnant and lifeless when it rests on outdated traditions that actors and audience members no longer relate to; utmost in the practice of quality theater is engagement, the spirited involvement of all parties involved to create a moving experience. Perhaps Twitter will become a legitimate part of that process as our culture continues coming to terms with the involved role technology plays in our lives, or perhaps small glowing screens and the stage simply shouldn't mix.

Tweet me your opinion at @JoshWolonick or @Minyanville.

No positions in stocks mentioned.
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