Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Irritating habits of theatre audience members. To tweet or not to tweet?

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

As a writer, avid promoter of theatre and reviewer I find the use of Twitter to be of enormous value in spreading the news of a successful production minutes after the show. Equally it can be utilised as a means of drawing attention to my considered review or blog post. Imagine a scenario where tweeting from your mobile was allowed during the actual show. All those little screens lit up in the dark whilst the play was actually being performed. Ay there's the rub!

Some while back now I was invited to be a Tweet Seater in my capacity as a reviewer at Nottingham Playhouse. I don't have a modern mobile phone so I took along my tablet for internet access. Even as the days before the press night loomed I started to have reservations about sitting at the back of the auditorium tweeting my views live once it dawned on me what was involved. On the night I was seated with two other reviewers in special seats tucked away from the main body of the audience. I began to feel increasingly nervous about audience reactions to my screen lighting up in the darkened theatre. A tablet screen is much larger than a mobile screen.

As luck would have it I couldn't get access to the internet and so the proverbial glow worm of my screen remained in the dark. The two other reviewers were able to silently tweet away however. I started to consider how I felt in my capacity of reviewer where I normally give my full attention to the story unfolding on the stage. This notion that tweeting micro reviews as the play happened live felt decidedly wrong. I felt very distracted and disengaged with the play even though wasn't actually able to tweet. I believe the opposite is supposed to happen and that one's appreciation is heightened. I'm not sure I buy into that one.

At the interval two old lady members of the audience made their way across the back wall seating and pointedly asked the 'seat tweeters' what they were doing having their mobiles on during the play. The young women politely answered that they had been asked by the Playhouse to try out this new approach to theatrical promotion. The old ladies were not happy and proposed to complain to the management.

In October 2014 Daily Telegraph journalist Rupert Christiansen wrote a highly critical piece about 'tweet seating' a phenomenon that appears to have come from the USA. It was instigated to help flagging audience sales for plays that were not star led or big popular musicals. He considered the tweeters as sad souls who can't spend a second away from their smart phones for a nano-second and who want to send their Twitter followers a blow by blow account of the progress of the show. Further, he considered this as another 'concession to barbarity' and further evidence of a catastrophic decline in the etiquette of audience behaviour.

The reality of disengaged and disruptive behaviour at the theatre isn't a new phenomenon. There have been records of disruption in theatres through the ages, including actual fights taking place between audience members. However, for the last fifteen years, on top of people talking during the show and rustling their crackling bloody sweet papers, the mobile phone has added to the frustrations of genuine theatre lovers who go to be entertained and escape. Kev Castle, a fellow reviewer in Nottingham recently reported his disgust at five mobiles going off in the course of an hour during a new studio based one man show. One male member of the audience even answered their phone mid performance and loudly exclaimed “ I'm at some play. It'll be over soon. I'll call you back!” Imagine tweeting a mid show tweet about that! You would feel equally complicit and equally rude.

Even as far back as 2009 The Guardian's Ruth Jamieson was asking if we should be tweeting during a performance. She had the opinion that is was OK as long as there are no spoilers. My opinion is that whilst there may be eleven characters trying to tell a story on the stage should you be trying to distil theatrical intent into a Twitter led one hundred and forty character opinion? The use of mobile phones in the auditorium isn't just a young generational thing either. I have seen little rectangular beacons light up from all ages as people check their latest emails and such. Where is the respect for the play and the performers?

Apparently, by encouraging guests to discreetly tweet during live performances the venue can gain valuable exposure and marketing and by this token they claim to be able to bring in new younger audiences. Does this not then alienate, more appreciative, traditionally engaged audiences? Is it just sad gimmick that will eventually run its course? Could there be a certain cache in being chosen to be in a tweet seat during any performance? Opinions on a tweet please @PhilLowe7 #tweetseatopinion

Originally published in Sardines Magazine Issue 26 under the title 'Distracting tweets and Rustling sweets.'

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