When the lights go down, most performance venues instruct patrons to turn off their cellphones. Some, however, are encouraging audience members to turn their cellphones on.
A growing number of playhouses and concert halls are designating special sections of seats as "tweet seats," where theater, symphony, opera, and ballet patrons are allowed -- and encouraged -- to use their smartphones or tablets to discuss the event on social networks. These organizations are finding that integrating social networking into performances is a significant PR and marketing draw. (What better way to run a word-of-mouth marketing campaign than to encourage designated customers to tweet about your service -- with your own branded hashtags -- as they are experiencing it?)
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra started offering tweet seats in September. "We've had some repeat visits from people who came to the tweet seats," says Chris Pinelo, vice president of communication for the CSO. "I think they really enjoyed the process, too, and having that interaction with audience members."
Some companies participate in and moderate the Twitter discussion live, offering commentary to enrich the performance experience while making it more accessible to neophytes. "Basically, it functions like interactive program notes," Pinelo says of the CSO's in-performance Twitter efforts. "So you have an assistant or associate conductor backstage giving some insights into the music you're experiencing, and then you're able to respond, and it's a digital conversation."
Tweet seats are typically found in the back rows, to prevent performers and non-tweeting audience members from being distracted. (After all, live tweeting a performance is not for everyone.) However, that hasn't stopped some fashionably technophobic communitarians from pooh-poohing the whole idea. (The "People should be able to turn off their phones for two hours" option in a Washington Post reader poll about the seats was a highly popular one.)
"Their texting thumbs were moving faster than the violinist's fingers," one scandalized sexagenarian complained about the tweeters she observed at a November 4 CSO concert. "They would occasionally nudge each other and read what the other person had up on his or her screen. They didn't even look up to applaud at the end of each selection."
Debate over obligatory versus earned applause aside, the backlash against the seats is reminiscent of opera elitists' initial resistance to subtitling. (Heavens forbid a unilinguist be able to understand what's being sung!)
Tweet seats are certainly not appropriate in every case. Glowing smartphone screens -- even if relegated to the back of the house -- may interfere with some lighting designs. In more intimate spaces, they may distract performers or fellow patrons, regardless of location. And, of course, tweet seaters should be discouraged from posting spoilers.
Still, upon dismissing the tedious boohooing of those technophobes curmudgeonly about all things cellphone, there is yet serious artistic potential (PR and marketing considerations aside) for tweet seats and similar social media integration efforts in performance art.
With some off-Broadway plays already going "transmedia," directly including the audience in new media performance art experiences is hardly revolutionary. Epic theatre (a theatrical movement nearly 90 years old) liberally employs fourth wall-breaking techniques to enhance audience perception while allowing social or political undertones to stand out. In the mid and late 20th century, Augusto Boal developed Theatre of the Oppressed to integrate what he saw as isolated audiences into performances as "spectactors" -- forcing them to confront social oppression head-on (instead of passively feeling catharsis).
Cellphones in theatres are typically associated with rudeness. However, from the view of the conscientious performance artist, it is hard to criticize an engagement effort that helps remove barriers, bring people together, and spur potentially global discussion. Indeed, bringing Twitter to theatrical performances has been hailed as "a democratisation of art."
Insofar as they serve artistic objectives of idea-sharing and social change, tweet seats and similar social media efforts have real value.
Just don't leave your ringer on.
— Joe Stanganelli is an attorney and communications consultant. He is also a playwright and former professional actor, director, and producer. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.