marcus westbury

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Those in the #tweetseats just rattle your iPhones

August 13th, 2010 by marcus

WHAT is the etiquette for tweeting at the theatre, a concert or any other live performance? Should you do it at all? Or never? Should it be encouraged  even rewarded  or frowned upon? It may not have been the biggest arts story going around in the general community last week but, as you might expect, the concept of tweeting from the “tweetseats” has certainly been big on Twitter.

Twitter, the 140-character messaging system, is being embraced by many of Australia’s major arts companies, from Opera Australia to the Sydney Opera House to most major arts festivals.

Some have begun to encourage “tweeting” before, at interval and in some rare cases even during some of their shows. Some theatres are experimenting with reserved zones or sections where punters are encouraged to tweet live during the performances.

Depending on who you ask, it’s radical democratisation unleashing raw enthusiasm, genuine criticism and passion or the barbarians at the gate.

For many traditionalists, the concept is outrageous. The idea that such behaviour could pollute the hallowed halls of our cultural institutions is poisonously problematic. The notion of having less than 100 per cent of your audience’s attention is rude, offensive and disrespectful. The experience of a show is under threat from the glare of iPhone screens and tapping fingers.

Then there are those who argue that Twitter is a natural adjunct to watching a show. Live performance has always been to some extent about dialogue, conversation and social interaction.

In the age of “continuous partial attention”, extending that online is as natural as texting – or perhaps whispering to the person seated next to you.

The arts have much to gain from loosening up, getting with the 21st century and following the lead of many music festivals, conferences, gigs and events where live tweeting has become the norm. Changing times and ageing audiences necessitate some concessions to changing expectations.

I have some sympathies for both sides of the argument. Like most things, it’s probably not really an either/or question  it’s as much about etiquette as absolutes.

Reaching for the mobile in a one-person show in an intimate venue is genuinely rude. It is much less of an issue in the back row of a 2000-seat theatre.

Equally, some robust, engaging, rambunctious performances positively demand to be shouted about both digitally and physically, but an intimate reflection on grief and loss demands attention and reflection.

There is a lot to be gained from experimenting with audiences tweeting in real time. For many younger audiences, it pierces the barriers of intimidation that accompany many art forms. It brings a night at the theatre or the opera in line with a gig at a pub or a moment at a festival where firing off a quick “This is Greatest. Thing. Ever. You Must. See. This.” to 400 followers is as authentic an expression of praise as there can be. What better review could a company hope for?

Being able to tweet a bad experience can have a value for the audience if not the artist. Am I the only person who has has been trapped in shows that are so tediously awful that the opportunity to vent, interact or complain a little would be welcome relief?

At truly awful performances I have resorted to occupying myself with a mental game called “what sort of seizure would I need to fake to get out of here now?” That would have been more fun on twitter.

Beyond the marketing and technological fad, there is a powerful potential here. It is not simply about how connected audiences will respond to existing performances but how they might change the dynamics of performance itself.

Twitter provides a genuine opportunity for companies to discover what an audience is thinking right there in real time. I have spoken at quite a few lectures and conferences that were tweeted by the audience, and I found it uniquely challenging and validating to see people quoting, challenging, and critiquing my comments as I make them. As a director of festivals and events, I’ve found Twitter and Facebook comments written in the moment much more powerful than any review.

In an age of fragmented attention spans and continuous multi-tasking, perhaps the question is not: “How can performers demand the full attention of their audiences?” but: “How can performers adapt to the reality that they will no longer be able to expect it”?

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