Theatres embrace tweet seats

One of the last refuges from smartphones is now embracing the technology of instant communication

View from the tweet seats

Jeff Swinger/The Cincinnati Enquirer

From the reaction, you’d have thought a theatre was going to destroy the world. It was something even more controversial: the Tateuchi Center, a new theatre being built near Seattle, announced it was going to encourage cellphone use. Executive director John Haynes spoke proudly about his plan to allow texting and Twitter. What he got in response was a barrage of posts and emails that startled him—he hadn’t been expecting negative reaction. “Most of them were flame mail: ‘I hate texters, I hate cellphones, I hate people who talk on them.’ ”

For people who are ambivalent about smartphones, the theatre has been the last refuge, a place where their use is universally discouraged. Theatre stars like Patti LuPone have chided phone users. Earlier this year, New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert brought a symphony to a halt when a cellphone rang. But theatres, ballet companies and opera houses have been quietly opening their doors to tweeters and texters. It even arrived on Broadway Feb. 19, when a production of Godspell held a special performance with “tweet seats.” “The 18 of us chosen for this event were chosen because of our love for Godspell and for Twitter,” says Caryn Savitz, who live-tweeted the Biblical action.

This kind of talk alarms those who think there’s something special about an unconnected performance. “It goes against what going to the theatre is all about, which is to have a communal experience,” says John Karastamatis, director of communications for Mirvish Productions. But even as he speaks, theatres have to grapple with the question of how to deal with a world where instant communication is part of most people’s lives.

Today, phones are being used for everything except talking, and they’re increasingly a part of the way people watch things at home: TV shows have embraced the idea that viewers will tweet about shows as they watch them, in part because that’s the only reason to watch them live instead of recording them. Haynes is one of several people starting to argue that the blanket ban on phones in theatres is a relic of a decade ago, when phones were mostly used for talking and when people wrote about the experiences after, not right in the middle.

That’s why some places have been relaxing the cellphone bans, or finding ways to incorporate phone users. Some of the most aggressive users of tweet seats are orchestra halls; since most of the music is hundreds of years old, it helps to keep up with new technology to compensate. Meghan Berneking, communications assistant for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, explains that in tweet seats, located near the back of the hall, people can track reaction to the performance and read play-by-play information on Twitter from one of the associate conductors. “These provide a sort of real-time program-notes experience, and also gives Twitterers the opportunity to ask questions about the music,” she says.

For now, these tweeters need to be kept at the back of the theatre because of the light problem: the glow from a phone can be even more irritating than hearing it ring. But Haynes believes that technology will solve this problem and make it possible to put phone users anywhere in the house. In fact, he thinks the problem is a bit overstated even now, and so does Savitz, who says that at Godspell, “Our phones were dimly lit and well hidden, unseen by those around us.” All that’s required now, Haynes thinks, is the development of “an inexpensive piece of plastic film I can place over my iPhone that can polarize light,” and he’s confident this will be ready when the theatre opens as scheduled in 2014. “We’re in a hotbed of technological creativity here,” he says, “surrounded by Microsoft and 150 companies that spun off from Microsoft.”

If a day comes when phones no longer bother us, we’ll have to face a new question: does it still benefit the theatre to ban them? Some theatregoers have argued that tweet seats are hurting the tweeters themselves. A 60-year-old woman told USA Today that tweeters in Cincinnati “were watching their handheld devices, they missed out on what was happening on the stage.” And Karastamatis fears that if we encourage this, we’ll eventually discourage any kind of immersion in theatre. “If you’re isolating yourself, and you’re not involved in what’s happening, and you’re doing something everybody else is not doing, it defeats the purpose of going to the theatre.”

Haynes dismisses this kind of thinking as “a desire to control someone else’s behaviour.” It’s a viewpoint he considers old-fashioned and, worse, interfering. Bad manners, he says, consist solely of disturbing other people. “We will do everything we can to prevent that,” and the theatre will disallow phones if the performers demand it. “But I think that if they are not disturbing someone else, then you have no more right to complain about someone else’s texting than to complain that they’re wearing brown shoes. It’s not your business.”

This kind of laissez-faire approach to theatre etiquette is becoming more appealing because theatre owners, as always, see young people drifting away—and one of the things that may drive them away is the presence of too many old-fashioned rules. Haynes points to opera, where for many years there was an informal requirement that every audience member be as well-dressed as the orchestra players. Once it became all right to go to the opera wearing jeans, “all of a sudden young audiences started to go. It became a cool date night thing.” For the 64-year-old Haynes, texting is just as much a part of the modern experience as casual clothing, and people his own age just have to adjust. “I have absolutely no desire to text someone while I’m in a concert hall,” but his 15-year-old daughter is a born multitasker. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told her, ‘Put that down and pay attention to me,’ and she’s heard everything I said, everything that the TV said, she’s taking it all in. The fact that she’s not engaging me with her eyes doesn’t mean she’s not engaged.”

Karastamatis is skeptical young people can be enticed into the world of live performance by the opportunity to connect with the Internet: “You say, ‘Come to our theatre, you don’t have to watch our performance, you can just pay an admission price so you can tweet.’ That’s not a way to build an audience. People won’t come back because you let them tweet from their seats. People will only come back if they like what they see on stage.” Even some tweet seaters agree. Margaret Shaver had a great time at Godspell, but points out she and her fellow tweeters had seen the show before. “I would never suggest that a first-time attender be live tweeting from an event. It’s not an easy task to balance between the show and your phone. While thoughts come quickly, typing them out into a tweet takes time and your attention away from the show.”

But Berneking says that the tweet seats program has been a huge success in Cincinnati, and other halls and theatres have seen positive reaction even among tweeters experiencing a performance for the first time.

This kind of direct reaction may be a part of the way the smartphone generation expects to experience art. “It’s not like they’re going to put it aside at 18 because they’re adults,” Haynes says. Godspell tweeter Jordan Levine did miss several moments because he was tweeting, but overall found he was often concentrating harder on the show “knowing I had to relay my reactions and thoughts. Doing this allowed me to access the show in ways I hadn’t previously. I found myself immersed in the world of the musical and wanting to devour so much of it to better serve the Twitter community.”

Still, the idea of keeping the theatrical experience separate from the electronic experience may have continued appeal. There have been some attempts to crack down on phones in unwanted areas: actor Alec Baldwin was asked to leave a plane for refusing to finish his cellphone game, and the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. recommended a ban on phoning and driving. The theatre could just as easily be that kind of enclosed space, cut off from gadgetry, and for many people, that’s part of its appeal. “When you’re watching television,” Karastamatis says, “it’s an activity where distractions are part and parcel of the whole experience. Going to the theatre is a very different experience.”

Even Haynes says he was a little shaken by how passionate the opposition was to his phone-friendly theatre, and how many people online seemed to think it was a violation of what they loved about the form. But then he had a sudden realization that “it would be a mistake to take anything from the negative reaction except that there are a lot of people with access to a computer who have negative reactions to things.” Some things will always remain the same: theatres may welcome tweeters, cellphones may no longer bother the people next to them, but some people will always look down on the Internet.

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