Are mystery tweets selling theatre seats?Date: 30 March 2012
Sick of theatre companies with 'digital diarrhoea' who use Twitter every five seconds, churning out tweets that say "Come see this AMAZING show at insert venue here at our TOTALLY-nearly-not-quite-nowhere-near sold-out 7.30pm performance"?
You're not the only one. It's a common complaint of West End and Edinburgh Fringe theatregoers alike, in an age when even octogenarians like Rupert Murdoch have taken to the 'Twittersphere'.
It's utterly boring - and just plain annoying. All of which could make it seem unlikely someone would buy a ticket to a show before they knew what it was about, purely because they'd seen a weird tweet or a friend hype it up on Facebook.
But that's exactly what's happening in pockets of the arts world. Where social networks are manipulated well, they're like Microsoft Word (of Mouth) 2.0 - the HTML town crier of the 21st century.
The power of social media to inspire and connect people is obvious to anyone keeping half an eye on the news over the last 12 months: tweeters and bloggers took on a new status during the London riots last Autumn and the Arab Spring in early 2011; whether it was co-ordinating clean-up efforts or broadcasting challenges to state tyranny. While in Syria, demonstrations and protests are still being co-ordinated through Facebook.
A digital dream come true?
For theatre marketing departments, social media must seem like a dream come true: an instant connection with potential fans. The crucial bums-on-seats are only a mouse-click away.
Teaser campaigns are nothing new in the advertising world. But social media is letting some companies set the tone and mystery of a piece before their audience has even set foot in the theatre.
It's a tactic perfected by Secret Cinema, the film-come-live-performance-theatre club which doesn't tell you what you'll be watching when you buy a ticket online, instead offering clues via emails and hints via Twitter.
Their tweets are peppered with links to smoky photographs or strange, related music clips on YouTube.
These are elusive, poetic, even downright weird:
Conjuring up "intrigue" with a well-judged video clip or a string of tweets is valuable, says Dan Edwards, artistic director of Leicester-based company Citizen598 who have more than 500 followers and recently used Twitter responses from followers to create a play in 24 hours.
While it's a "great marketing tool," he says, "it's about developing intrigue before you're doing it, sending out little crumbs before the performance."
One of the videos they posted online to promote a show about growing up and adulthood, was of a young boy dressed as Freddie Mercury singing "We Are The Champions". "It wasn't in the show but it just gave a flavour, an essence of what it could be about."
Growing a social media community can successfully sell tickets, adds Edwards (who tweets at @CitizenDan). He points to Citizen598's first date of its Spring tour show in Leicester, MAN which sold out in the venue five weeks "before a poster or a flyer had actually gone to press. I think that was down to social networking."
Social media in storytelling
"The very nature of tweets being very brief creates mystery automatically because you have to be quite enigmatic, to get your message across," says Felix Mortimer, founder and co-artistic director of theatre firm RETZ, which is taking over an empty shop space not far from Old Street for the next six months.
Their show "O Brave New World" is shaped around Shakespeare's The Tempest, with performances changing each month to focus on different characters.
For RETZ, "the story continues online," as its YouTube channel blurb says, and we can watch Ferdinand washed ashore in a deserted, almost post-apocalyptic island or Prospero in an 80s-style computer control room talking to A.R.I.E.L. - a neat interpretation of Shakespeare's spirit that is - aptly - straight out of science fiction.
Perhaps creating mystery with social media is an attempt to claw back a bit of mystique and drama in a world where fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Big Brother and blow-by-blow accounts of bathroom and eating habits on Twitter are becoming the endlessly tedious norm.
But not everyone is convinced, yet
Immersive theatre practitioners Punchdrunk, known for pushing theatrical boundaries for audiences' experience, have a beautiful website which you navigate around a bit like a video game, crossing an evocative moorland and clicking on a building in the distance to zoom in on a Victorian schoolroom.
But, says Felix Barrett, the company's artistic director, they have deliberately "shunned" social media so far.
By his reckoning, "it's an atmospheric void." Though there's scope for creating mystery, he's not sure how inventive you can be with "conventional methods" of using Facebook: "There's always been a slightly generic twist because it's so ubiquitous."
But he says Punchdrunk has been experimenting with social media because "the idea itself is exciting."
Looking at Twitter on an Andriod phone. Photo credit: Johan Larsson on Flickr
Though we shouldn't expect anything from this too soon, whatever research and development they've been working on, it's bound to be a little bit mad, intense, and almost certainly turn on its head the audience's expectations.
Perhaps there's a whole new frontier for social media theatre, coming to a laptop screen near you.
For now, theatre companies need to avoid one big pitfall, warns Dan Edwards - instead of whetting audience's appetite, you can spoil it.
Without taking care, "we could give it all away... Then there would be no curiosity left."
- Vicky Ellis