I realize that I come very late to this issue, but I recently discovered that many theatrical venues are actually encouraging live tweeting of their performances, and have done so for many years. As someone who speaks professionally and encourages live tweeting, I feel somewhat conflicted about this. Granted, my speeches are more than just cultural events — or at least I would like to think so — but still, there are plenty of people in my audiences who are using their phones while I am on stage.
The key event was an article in the NY Times this week about the practice. As I said, it has been going on for many years. One of our local opera companies puts on an annual Twitter invitational performance, inviting social media influencers to attend a single performance gratis and tweet away during the show.
This is a growing trend, and theatrical companies in numerous cities such as San Francisco, Palm Beach and Sacramento have established a separate seating section in their auditoriums called tweet seats where folks are encouraged to use their phones during the performance. Some even have set up monitors in the lobby displaying the tweets during intermission. Again, this mirrors many conferences that I have been to where the collected live tweets are displayed for all to see. Part of my job as a reporter covering a conference is to live tweet the event. I have to admit that I get excited when I see my tweets are trending and liked by other attendees.
I think it is getting harder to make a distinction between live tweeting in certain venues — such as a ball game or a professional conference — and in others, which just makes the issue more complicated.
I asked a friend of mine who runs a New York theater company what he thinks of live tweeting and using devices during his performances. “This is a huge problem. People record our shows on their phones all the time, AND they are now offended that you ask them to turn OFF their phones. I pretty much felt like that was the end of civilization as I knew it.” My friend told me that he “actually has had to crawl down aisles to stop people from texting or recording.”
The Times story notes situations where many Broadway actors have taken the phones out of the hands of audience members or stopping the show to berate the phone’s owner. My friend echoes this with his own experiences.
There seem to be several issues here:
- Should cellphones and other devices be banned completely from live performances? It used to be that devices were banned as a distraction for the cast and other audience members, either because of the lit screen or because someone was actually on the phone during the show. But now that most phones have video cameras, it is a larger issue. An artist or theater company has a right to control their recorded performance.
- Should an artistic company encourage live tweeting? I kind of get it: especially for opera, its audience is aging rapidly, and having live tweeting is a way to show they are hip and relevant and seed interest in a younger crowd that may attend other shows. Of course, for those shows they might be forced to just watching and listening. My friend has further commentary: “To be honest, my only objection is the fact that a huge portion of the artistic process is reflection — that moment to think about what you really feel about something that was presented. A knee-jerk reaction isn’t enough. You need to pause and really connect to a feeling. As a frequent theatergoer, I’m not sure sometimes how I feel until the next day or several days later after I have seen a performance.” He makes a good point.
- Is this a problem just for the millennial generation? I think it is applicable to all ages. Our attention spans have gotten shorter, our focus is less in living in the moment and more about sharing it with our “audience” and “developing our brand.” Indeed, this is the plot line of a new novel I am reading (Follow Me, out in February).
I welcome your comments and thoughts about this.