When I enter a theater for a performance, my enjoyment comes from the chance to escape the everyday world and connect with different people or places or situations. I love to experience new perspectives and ideas. And once that’s over — as a fan or a theater critic — I look forward to telling others about what I’ve seen. I think I’m pretty progressive in how I do this. I post news and opinions online via CityBeat’s arts blog, and several hundred people follow my daily posts on Facebook (Rick Pender’s Theater Stages & Scenes).
Social media such as Facebook have become a necessary and effective means for the arts to spread the word. But a new trend is giving me pause: tweeting during performances. Since Twitter was launched in 2006, it’s been adopted by 300 million users. Many arts organizations — including the Cincinnati Symphony — are using “tweet seats,” sections where audience members so inclined can be seated to send messages during a concert. These are usually away from patrons who might be disturbed by glowing smartphone screens. Some theaters (none yet here in Cincinnati) are now doing this, and that’s giving me pause.
I don’t want to suggest that Classical music requires less attention than theater, but the concert hall experience is largely auditory, and a low level of lighting is often maintained.
So perhaps spending time with your smartphone doesn’t diminish the listening experience. But I believe that theater requires fuller visual engagement. While you’re looking at your phone’s screen or thumbing a message, some unspoken onstage action crucial to the story could occur. Sending repeated messages could cause you to miss a lot of what’s going on.
Some people argue that they can multitask, but they’re also the folks who think they can drive and text simultaneously. (Or like the driver so engrossed in a phone the other day that she pulled into an intersection in front of me without looking for other cars.) Theatergoers won’t cause accidents by tweeting, but I bet that many of them — even if their phone has been silenced — will notice tweets unrelated to the performance, email or voice messages and be tempted to check them out, if not respond. Theatergoers who whisper to one another during a performance bug me, and tweeting seems like one more thing to dilute the experience of live performance. I’ve asked them to stop checking their phones for the time during a show. Perhaps they’re bored, but it’s a distraction for everyone nearby.
I’m all for theaters and other performing arts using media like Twitter creatively to build awareness of a performance. That kind of publicity is a powerful way to build interest in a production or a concert. But let’s contain it to times when socializing is acceptable. How about a serious push during intermission to send a notice to your network? Or encouraging it post-performance — although not if you’re the driver on the way home, please.
I won’t be sitting near any “tweet seats.” I hope our local theaters dive into this part of the swimming hole with caution.
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