Last week, I participated in a new grand experiment recently popping up in theatrical Petri dishes all over the country. I was a tweet seater. Or, I live tweeted Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) at The Public Theater.
It was the first time The Public offered seats to Twitter users for the purpose of sharing thoughts about a play in 140 characters or less. The designated tweeters sat in the last three rows to minimize disturbing other audience members, and the theater gave us a number of rules to observe during the performance: No phone calls, dim your screens, no photographs (this was lifted moments before curtain, and several people did tweet pictures). There’s been loads of debate over the usefulness of tweet seats on blogs, news organizations and, of course, Twitter. I figured I’d share my experience of The Public’s Great Tweet Seat Experiment, and encourage theaters and theater goers to continue contemplating this divisive topic.
When I heard The Public was offering its first ever live tweeted play, I wanted to join in. After applying for a spot, the marketing staff chose me as one of 25 participants. One of my main interests, beyond seeing The Gob Squad for the first time, is my work in transmedia and interactive art. I was very curious to observe the reaction of the audience, the tweet seaters, and those following the #kitchenlive hashtag at home. There seem to be two camps in the live tweeting of theatre – the passive and the interactive.
One debate point that arises regarding live theater tweeting is over “passive tweeting.” Passive tweeting was what I experienced at Gob Squad’s performance. The tweet seaters essentially called a play-by-play of the play. Anyone following the hashtag read thoughts like:
shimmeringcell: This is hilare/nuts. Even the Public ushers are cracking up.
msteketee: Middle screen blonde actress has now donned the Edie Sedgwick striped shirt. Yes.
And criticisms such as:
nikkipatin: Just like Sontag last week, the technology utilized is far more interesting than the performance itself.
People live tweet concerts and television all the time. From concerts, tweeters share pictures and video of singers on stage and drunk friends acting asinine. The difference between a play and a concert is, typically, there’s no plot. With television, a wider, communal experience occurs; whereas, with a play only a few handfuls of tweeters share mainly with friends and colleagues. Does tweeting a play really make a difference, and if so, who cares?
For me, at least a few people cared. Responses varied. Some energized followers jumped in:
jennyg29: @PublicTheaterNY @jdcarter Digging the hell out of this #kitchenlive experiment. Hurray #Transmedia!
Fellow tweet seaters conversed with me:
adamjohnfrank: @jdcarter #kitchenlive yea, the plastic bag over the head is kind of freaking me out…
Audience members at the show who weren’t live tweeting joined in the feed after the fact:
AKwritenow: @jdcarter @PublicTheaterNY I was unPREPARED for how awesome #GobSquad #kitchenlive was.
The strongest interaction of the night came when I suggested it would be great if our tweets interacted with the show, a friendly debate (with a user following the #kitchenlive feed from home) over passive and interactive live tweeting ensued:
jdcarter: I wish #tweetseats tweets interacted with #kitchenliive and affected the performance. Or they responded. #interactive
jennyg29: Agreed. RT @jdcarter: I wish #tweetseats tweets interacted with #kitchenliive and affected the performance. Or they responded. #interactive
dloehr: @jdcarter There’s not much point otherwise. (Course, tweets from outside might have an effect, too.) #kitchenlive
jdcarter: @dloehr really? You think? It’s not like live tweeting any other event? Interaction is nice, but not necessary. #tweetseats #kitchenlive
dloehr: @jdcarter No, it’s not like other events. But I’m not a fan of passive live tweeting of theatre. #tweetseats #kitchenlive
Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter Passive? As opposed to sitting in a theatre and NOT tweeting? That’s active?
dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Audience mood affects every performance. The only truly passive audience is deaf, blind & unconscious.
Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter YOU were the one who used the term “passive,” not me.
dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Sorry. Sitting without tweeting has often been called passive out here on twitter.
Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter I just don’t see how live-tweeting is less active. Maybe you don’t think you can engage in the work enough?
dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter We can–and should–make art that can incorporate this & truly involve audiences beyond the level of chatter.
Scamandalous: @dloehr @jdcarter That is interesting to me. I did think it was a unique experience livetweeting and reading others’ tweets though.
dloehr: @Scamandalous @jdcarter Livetweeting the tv, you can pause, rewind, etc. Theatre can’t do that, unless the show’s designed to use tweeting.
I resigned myself there’s two kinds of live tweeting and each has its place. I’ve always been a proponent of criticizing plays for what they are and not what we wish them to be. Like the play itself, we should examine live theatre tweeting for what it is. If there are two ways to live tweet an event – one where tweeters report and one where they interact – let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.
For me, as a theatre and transmedia artist, the most exciting artistic use of Twitter (or any social media for that matter) a production integrates tweets into the experience, either allowing the audience or user at home to interact with the show or characters/actors share personal updates integrated before, during or after the performance.
Some companies have integrated tweeting as part of the narrative. The Royal Shakespeare Company partnered with Muldark, a cross-platform production company. Together, they created Such Tweet Sorrow, a five week, improvised Twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Actors took roles of central characters in the tragedy, and they tweeted as the characters living in contemporary London. Also, Waterwell’s#9 explored “how we use technology and technology uses us,” according to their website. The company invited the audience to live tweet the show with the hashtag, #9. They LiveStreamed the play, and viewers at home engaged in the live tweeting experience. Waterwell pulled the hashtag stream and fed it real time onto video screens in the theatre, much like super titles, which has been suggested in this tweet seat debate. I participated through the LiveStream, and though it was fun to see my tweets pop up as some sort of “inner tweetologue” of the play, though they never fully interacted with the performance.
I asked The Public’s marketing director, Nella Vera, to share her thoughts on the Gob Squad tweet seat experiment. Ms. Vera said:
“I think many of our tweeters enjoyed being able to share their thoughts on what was happening on stage, but also found that it was a bit of a challenging task – keeping one eye on the stage and on your phone is not as easy as it seems! Because it was a large group sitting together, many of them commented that they enjoyed being able to ‘talk’ with each other without disturbing the show and share impressions; this added to the communal feel of the event. They liked being able to see how others were reacting to the work and how it compared to their own thoughts. In a way, it actually enhanced the very thing theater tries to do—bring people together to share ideas. This is not something we would do on a regular basis but it is fun to consider if the work lends itself to such an environment. (For example, our Joe’s Pub venue is already a tweet-friendly zone where fans of the musicians regularly take photos and videos of performances.)”
A way to view passive tweet seaters is to consider them press. This is the second production I attended this season (the first, Nightmare NYC) for which I was specifically invited to tweet the event. At Kitchen, a couple tweeters referenced this:
Shimmeringcell: Whoa, we have laminated press passes with our names on ‘em, drink tix, & swag!
Scamandalous: This makes me feel like real press! #kitchenlive, baby!
They felt like real press. Perhaps even a critic. The night I attended was, indeed, a press preview. I saw David Cote of Time Out New York dart out just after the curtain call. What if, in addition to his regular review, Mr. Cote sat in the back and live tweeted with the rest of us? Would there be an immediate box office jolt for the show if a critic’s tweet hailed a performance? Automatic dive if it panned? Over the past couple years, bloggers have gained credibility with producers as viable critics. Might tweeters be taking their rightful seats next to blog and mainstream critics? I’m not suggesting reviewers begin reviewing on microblogs, but if there’s a place for the long form bloggers, why not tweeters, too? Obviously, there’s already been plenty of fire against tweeting about plays before they’re ready for prime time (Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, anyone?), but what if the tweet seats landed on press previews? That certainly doesn’t preclude the average theatre attendee from sharing her/his thoughts after the show, but it might encourage microbloggers to attend a preview worth sharing.
Ms. Vera also offered some marketing statistics from the tweet seat night. “Although the intent behind the event was not purely a marketing one,” said Ms. Vera, “it is interesting to note that there were a total of 483 tweets generated, resulting in 270,359 impressions, reaching an audience of 32,700 followers. That’s pretty amazing for 25 people!”
Indeed it is. 25 live tweeters reached 32,700 people. For theaters, it may not just be about creating artistic interaction. It may be about spreading the word. And for an experimental theatre show imported from England, I’m sure it can use all the word of mouth it can get.
For many reasons, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) was the perfect play on which The Public to experiment with tweet seats. The Gob Squad is forward thinking, media focused, and experimental, and so is Twitter. One of the biggest concerns/complaints of tweet seats is potentially distracting other audience and performers. The troupe performs 98% of the play obscured by a giant video screen behind which live three simple sets: a bed, a stool, and, of course, a kitchen, which are all projected onto the screen thereby minimizing actor distraction. In fact, prior to performance, the actors invited the entire audience backstage to walk through the sets, and they were excited to greet the tweet seaters. The show proposes recreations of several Andy Warhol films made in the heyday of The Factory, and these vignettes offer a meta-theatrical-video-film experience you have to see to understand. According to The Gob Squad’s website, it is, “A quest for the original, the authentic, the here and now, the real me, the real you, the hidden depths beneath the shiny surfaces of modern life.”
Sound pretentious? I thought so. And one of my followers who kept up with the #kitchenlive hashtag said our tweets made it sound pretentious, too. I guess we didn’t do a great job of conveying the experience because it was downright fun, funny, thoughtful, self-referential, and one of the best uses of audience participation I’ve seen in a long time.
I think that’s why I was only slightly disappointed with this specific tweet seat experiment. I wanted to be up on stage with the other audience participants. I wanted to interact. But I was stuck in the back row, sharing my thoughts with people who didn’t have context of my experience. I wanted more. But that’s just me. Someone else had a completely different experience, and that’s how life works. Each of us has her/his own perspective, and in the end, we’re each trying to find the original, authentic, the here and now, the real me, the real you, the hidden depths beneath the shiny surfaces of modern life.
It was an experiment, and like all experiments, some succeed and some fail. This one felt pretty positive. There’s always room for improvement, and I look forward to the evolution of this social-theatrical happening called tweet seats.
As Ms. Vera shared, “Overall, I think a good time was had by all and we truly thank everyone who participated. We learned a lot and I’m sure we will be having internal discussions about this for quite a while.”
Thanks to all my fellow tweet seaters, and special thanks to Nella Vera and The Public Theater for the tickets and their bravery.