Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: Re-thinking Tweet Seats

Marissa Skudlarek takes a break from her whirlwind life to ponder the ever-controversial Tweet Seat. 

Want to know how cool and glamorous I am? Some of the most fun I’ve had recently was the Friday night I spent alone on my couch watching the Olympics opening ceremony. My enthusiasm was enhanced partly by the large glass of Cabernet in front of me, and more by the fact that as I watched, I carried on a Twitter conversation with the equally glamorous @WayBetterThanTV and @Tullie23 (a.k.a. playwright Megan Cohen and director Eileen Tull. Perhaps you saw their work in the Pint-Sized Play Festival?)

In fact, I had so much fun that evening that I began to rethink my position on “tweet seats” in the theater. Advocates of tweet seats claim that they will make the audience feel more connected to the show. Increasing spectators’ level of engagement and sense of participation will create a more memorable experience. I used to regard this argument with skepticism, but that was before I joined Twitter and spent a Friday night live-tweeting with friends. And guess what? I’m pretty sure I did feel more engaged and connected to the Olympics ceremony because I tweeted through it! So was I justified in being against tweet seats?

When I first heard of tweet seats, I thought they were just one more sign of the decline of civilization. Yes, even though I belong to the “millennial” generation that tweet seats are supposedly designed to attract, I thought they were a dreadful idea, a conduit for rudeness and selfishness. If the purpose of theater is to immerse yourself in a work of art, tweet seats were the antithesis of that. Twitter encourages snarky humor, and it can take a lot of mental energy to figure out how to get your point across in 140 characters. Wouldn’t tweeting spectators care more about their own cleverness than about paying attention to the show?

But after enjoying myself so much while tweeting the Olympics, I’m willing to concede that live-tweeting can make an audience member more engaged or invested in what she is watching. At the same time, I’m not sure if that is enough reason to make tweet seats a regular part of theater.

The Olympics opening ceremony was a massive televised event; as such, it was practically designed to be live-tweeted. How can you show the Queen and James Bond jumping out of a helicopter and not expect people to tweet the hell out of it? But plays, by and large, are not written or staged with Twitter in mind. Perhaps, in the future, some playwrights and directors will make theater that specifically seeks to engage with Twitter as a medium and invites that kind of audience participation. But if a play is not designed for Twitter, you may disrespect the artists’ work by inviting audiences to live-tweet it.

The sheer global spectacle of the Olympics ceremony and the attendant flood of thousands of Tweets means it’s highly unlikely that any of the participants would see what I had written. Thus, I didn’t have to worry about the effect of my tweets on the artists or athletes. But theater, particularly indie theater, is a small, local endeavor. If a theater sponsors a “Twitter night,” you just know that the actors will run backstage as soon as the show is over to read what the audience is saying about them – perhaps they’ll even do that at intermission! While getting this kind of immediate feedback could be useful, it also has the potential to dismay or dishearten. At the very least, actors may feel compelled to alter their performances in order to garner better mentions on Twitter – and that seems like a dangerous path to go down.

Moreover, Twitter is geared toward the quick ‘n’ quippy. As a result, we have less of a filter when we live-tweet than when we engage in other forms of writing. This can lead to some great impromptu witticisms, but also to tweets that, a day later, seem too rude or judgmental or just plain unfunny. Again, I worry that it could be damaging for theater artists to read such unfiltered reactions to their work. You could say that Twitter provides the “raw, honest” feedback that artists need – but I do not believe in making a virtue of rawness. And besides, are tweets always honest? Don’t people sometimes tweet things they don’t actually believe, in order to make better jokes?

So, because of the inherently live, local, intimate nature of theater, I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of tweet seats. Part of me dislikes claiming this exception for theater, because I sometimes think that we modern theater artists are overly invested in the uniqueness of our artform, forgetting that most people see it as just one entertainment option among many. If people enjoy live-tweeting other forms of entertainment, why should theater be any different?

Still, I’d be more likely to support a relaxation on tweeting at the cinema than at the theater. Like the Olympics ceremony, movies are large, global events, so a critical tweet of a movie will have far less potential for injury than one of a play. But then how do you tweet while wearing 3-D glasses? This problem, unfortunately, is yet to be solved.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If you want to be in the know next time she live-tweets an event, follow @MarissaSkud.