Designated ‘tweet seats’ are apparently trending in American theatres, and are now creeping across the Pond. Ally Lodge takes a look at the pros and cons.

On 6 March 2012, The Guardian published an online poll asking its readers to agree or disagree with the idea of ‘tweet seats’ in a theatre. Tweet seats are a designated section of seats away from the bulk of the audience where social media fanatics can sit on Twitter throughout the performance without disturbing anyone else (supposedly). Apparently it is becoming a big thing in America, and it is starting to appear in some British theatres too.

What ‘tweet seats’ essentially mean is that a portion of the audience will have full use of their mobiles throughout a show. While I am an avid supporter of the use of social media, and am especially keen to see theatres trying new ideas to boost audiences, I have one main problem with these tweet seats: can someone truly concentrate on a production while their attention is flitting between the stage and their phone? I have tried tweeting and texting while my TV is on the background and most of the time I zone out from the TV while I concentrate on what I am typing. I consider myself a relatively normal person in terms of my ability to concentrate; therefore I am sure I am not alone in this. If an audience member is tweeting, s/he may miss crucial parts of dialogue, or a significant gesture or action, or an impressive dance move. Even if there are some miracle multi-taskers out there who can tweet while paying full attention with both eyes and ears to the stage, their minds cannot be absorbed in the play, and they will inevitably miss out on some of the atmosphere. Without allowing themselves to be fully involved in the show, are they really doing it full justice and giving it the attention and appreciation that the cast/crew desire and (hopefully) deserve? Even if a tweeter is tweeting something positive about the production, there is an innate rudeness embedded in the act of being occupied with one’s phone while someone else is speaking/performing right in front of you.

However, despite being very much against this idea, I was keen to try and see it from the other point of view and see if it could actually be beneficial for theatres. Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, implemented a Tweet Zone in April 2011, and their artistic director, Kerry Michael, was kind enough to answer some of my questions:

 

What were your reasons for introducing a Tweet Zone?

Theatre Royal Stratford East has always looked at new ways of making connections between
the work on stage and the audience. We are a people’s theatre. We are all about our audience experiencing great work.

Do you think tweeting during a show is any different than if people tweeted during the interval or afterwards?

Yes. Twitter is time-sensitive: it’s about an immediate response to something.

Whereabouts in the auditorium are the tweet seats?

They are located in the upper circle, or, if we are in our studio format, the back row.

Have people got involved with it?

Yes. Numbers vary with the type of show and audience demographic. We live-stream our post show discussions and Twitter is very busy during these times with people interacting from all
over the world. Sometimes it’s from people watching online and sometimes it’s from those in the auditorium who want to ask a question or place a comment anonymously for whatever reason.

How do you prevent people recording and/or taking photos if they have their phones out all the time?

We can’t prevent that anyway at the best of times. There are lots of bootleg videos of our or other people’s shows online.

Are you concerned that people are not paying full attention to the show?

The show has to demand your attention. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t deserve your attention. The tweets will either enhance your engagement or distract from it – if it’s the latter, it’s probably not a great show.

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Unfortunately I remain uncertain. I am fine with Twitter playing a role in post-show discussions. Talking about a play is an interactive experience and communication between theatres, companies and public should be encouraged at such events. But post-show discussions are different from an actual play/musical. Stratford East’s Tweet Zone was launched at a performance of Funk It Up About Nothin’, and the audience’s tweets were available backstage so the cast could interact with the audience during the actual show. The idea of audience/cast interaction is fantastic and should definitely be encouraged in theatres – it’s simply the obsession with immediacy that I have the issue with.

Use a show’s interval to encourage chatting on Twitter. Or even the gap between house opening and show starting. Play a live stream on any TV screens in the theatre lobby/bar/auditorium. Better yet, have the performers visit people at the bar/lobby. Encourage face to face conversation. Have an optional pre-show or post-show discussion and use Twitter then. Find new ways to get people absorbed in the moment they’re in; get them back in the here-and-now, make them forget about their virtual friends/followers who really cannot wait for an hour or two to find out how good a production is. Perhaps some people do still see theatre as ‘old-fashioned’; but how can anyone hear about a hip hop version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and think it sounds like a quaint old-fashioned evening? Yes, use social media as much as possible; it is a key publicity tool and a great way forward for theatres; many, including Stratford East and the National Theatre of Scotland, have effectively used it. But using it effectively and ensuring it permeates quite literally every single area of the theatre does not quite seem to be the solution. Let people give the show their full attention. Encourage people to give the show their full attention. Theatre needs to be experienced in the theatre. Not on Twitter.

Upon closure of the The Guardian’s poll, 10.2% were for and 89.8% against.

 

Ally Lodge

Image credit – Ally Lodge