Theaters adapt to the age of Twitter

What do we pay for when we buy a ticket to a play or a movie or a symphony? On one side of the generation gap is the idea that plays — not audience members — are to be seen and heard, in the dark, with all attention directed forward. And on the other side of the gap is the suggestion that traditional theater can be enhanced by gadgets and social media we're using all the time.

Goodspeed Musicals recently experimented with a Tweet Team at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. At a November 17 performance of the musical "Hello! My Baby," about 15 seats were roped off in the back of the small theater, reserved as Tweet Seats for people interested in tweeting about the show, during the show.

As it happens, Goodspeed Musicals isn't alone in dabbling with social-media integration. USA Today reported that the National Symphony Orchestra was tweeting program notes during a July 2009 performance of Beethoven's Sixth, and that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra started roping off tweet seats in September.

Elisa Hale, public relations manager at Goodspeed, said in a recent interview with the Advocate that she considers Twitter the "new word of mouth," and wanted "Hello! My Baby" to benefit from this other popular mode of interaction.

During that Nov. 17 show, not only were tweet-seaters posting about the show, but so were the actors waiting backstage for their cues. And Georgia Stitt, who has written and arranged new music for the show, tweeted "fun facts" about "Hello! My Baby"'s lyrics, history, cast and plot, using the hashtag "#HMBMusical."

"Another fun fact:," @georgiastitt tweeted at 8:45 that night, "'If You Were The Only Girl In The World' used to be in Act Two & 'Stairway'and 'Surprised' weren't in #HMBMusical at all!"

"It's a big cooperative event," said Hale.

Other Connecticut theaters have been slower to adopt what, for the theater world, might be considered radical practice. The presence of cell phones is grumbled about in most public spaces: buses, restaurants, stores, and especially places where silence is an agreed-upon condition, like in theaters and libraries, or at the dinner table, where you're expected to stay focused on the conversation.

Even if your ringer is off and you're not talking to anyone, the rapid finger movements of texting seem to distract other people from whatever they're doing, and the — even dimmed — lit-up LED screens of your phone (or tablet) are still intrusively not-dark, and people will hate you for activating them. There's a movie theater in Austin, Texas, that will throw you out if they catch you with your phone out, and one of their braggy ads promoting this practice is a three-minute audio clip (with transcription for emphasis) of an agitated woman calling and complaining after being thrown out for using her phone as a light to find her seat. So the adoption of tweet seats seems as risky as it may be trendy.

Yale Repertory Theater said they've simply heard of tweet-seats existing, with no plans to start roping off back-row chairs for the device-inclined. Hartford Stage in Hartford said something similar, and TheaterWorks didn't return calls for comment. But the Connecticut Forum has been an enthusiastic and prolific presence on Twitter, tweeting often and establishing hashtags for each event. Jamie Daniel, the media director at the Forum, said there are plans to establish a tweeting section.

"Some people really require interactive feedback," Daniel said. "So we do encourage tweeting. We think most people [right now] are doing it during intermission or pre- and post-[the forum], but we wanna make accommodations for them to be tweeting during the show, too."

Daniel, like Elisa Hale, wants to respect the audience members who are annoyed by "interactive feedback."

Hale says she's mindful of non-tweeting audience members' preferences for a deviceless environment, and she said she heard no complaints after the Nov. 17 show that anyone found the experiment disruptive.

"[Live-tweeting] should just be an enhancement, not a distraction," Hale said.

She said Twitter adds another layer to the way the audience experiences a show, and if people at home who couldn't make it to a performance stumble upon it too, well, that makes for pretty good P.R. Mostly, though, "the audience feeds off the actors and vice versa," she said. And you're remoting in a second audience, as well. One of the things Twitter has proved successful at is tying together a globe-spanning conversation on any subject as trivial-seeming as the "Walking Dead" finale or as huge as the death of Kim Jong-il. Streamlining hashtags and consistently tweeting them files everything people are saying about that topic in one place, and it's entertaining — and often useful — to be able to go back and look at that collection of tweets.

"We want to appeal to a newer audience," Hale says. "People who may not always attend the theater, or at least not come to Goodspeed."

"We're in the experimental stages right now, though," she continued. "So hopefully we'll fall into the groove."

tweety tweet @BriannaLSnyder

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