Jo Caird: Gr8 Show, Shame Re T'Tweeting
“Theatre Royal Stratford East is breaking all the rules of British theatregoing and embracing the digital age by inviting people to get out their smartphones and tweet during performances. There is a designated Tweet Zone fully equipped with WiFi available for every main stage performance and there’ll be no shushing from the ushers. Audience members are free to update their online communities with their thoughts on the show and the experience at the theatre whenever they want.”
The scheme, it turns out, has been running since March, but this is the first I've heard of it (how I missed it I don't know, perhaps I was too busy tweeting to stay properly informed), but better late than never, so here are my thoughts.
While I applaud the theatre's enthusiasm for using digital social media to reach out to new and existing audiences, I can't help but feel that Tweet Zone is one of those ideas that looks risky and exciting at first glance, but is actually hugely flawed, and ultimately not a good idea at all.
TRSE says that it is “breaking all the rules of British theatregoing” with the scheme, but it's not like those rules are arbitrary: they exist for a reason. We don't use our phones in the theatre – whether to text, talk or tweet – because to do so would be distracting for our fellow audience members and for the performers (I'm clearly not talking about shows like You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas / You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London that depend on or actively encourage audience participation via phone; that's a whole different story – and was the subject for a whole different blog in fact, back in March - again, see below).
The theatre would like to think that they've addressed this issue: when the scheme was first announced, the plan was that tweeting would only be allowed in the upper circle so as to avoid disturbing anyone. But I'm not convinced. The non-tweeting patrons sat in the upper circle (of which there surely must be some) will surely be distracted by people on their phones around them, and I don't believe that the cast won't be affected by having to play to an audience not entirely focused on the action, even if the tweeters are not actually visible from the stage. Actors are almost freakishly sensitive to the mood in the room, and it's not fair to allow anything to disturb that atmosphere for them.
Finally, we come to the tweeters themselves, those who, perversely enough, stand to lose most by taking part in the scheme. It can feel very exciting to share what you're seeing as you're seeing it and have people respond in real time (and I write from personal experience here), but 'live tweeting' by its very nature is a distracting act, forcing you to shift focus from whatever it is you're supposed to be engaging with and concentrate instead on articulating your thoughts and expressing them in fewer than 140 characters. The actors are up there doing their damnedest to keep you interested in the world they're creating, and you're immersed in an entirely different virtual universe instead. Your experience in the theatre can only suffer from such a scenario, and the experience of audiences and theatre-makers in general can only suffer from such practice becoming normalised: it's hard enough to get people to turn their phones off in the theatre as it is, without a scheme like this telling them it's okay to keep them switched on.
These issues are only exacerbated by a seating set-up such as that of A Clockwork Orange, which is performed with the audience on two sides, one bank of seating in what would be the backstage area of a traditional proscenium arch production, the other raised above the theatre's stalls. In this set-up, with the actors using the central aisles of both banks of seating for exits, entrances and additional playing space, every seat in the auditorium is fully exposed, visible to both audience and cast. The 'Tweet Zone' is located in the back row of the dress circle for this production, but anyone tweeting would, I'm sure, be distraction for all concerned.
Thankfully, there was no one on their phone at the performance on Tuesday. I hope for the sake of audiences and actors alike that my experience wasn't a press night anomaly and that the production (and all the other shows at the theatre) continues to be Twitter-free. Until after the show that is, when theatre-goers should whip out their phones and tell the world what they think.
Twitter has plenty to offer the world of theatre, but, except in the case of shows that use social media directly, it's best kept out of the auditorium.