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.

Pint Sized Plays Interviews 5: The Directors

As the count down towards this year’s Pint Sized Plays Festival continues, we thought we’d take a moment to chat up some of our directors. With voices as distinct as the writers whose work they get to direct, these backstage snapshots offer a window into some of the indie theater scene’s best and brightest. Enjoy!

Who are you, in fifty words or less.

Meg O’Connor: I am Meg O’Connor, marketer for immigration law by day, but by night! – theater junkie. Playwright, director, improviser, expert in reading Stage Directions.

Neil Higgins: I’m an actor, writer and director who loves the SF theatre scene and is excited by how much it has been growing in the past few years.

Eileen Tull: I am Eileen Tull. I have met Hanson. I was on Oprah once. I moved to the Bay Area about a year ago from Chicago. I direct and generally do theater all of the time.

What’s the play you’re directing about?

Meg O’Connor: Beeeeeeaar by Megan Cohen is about love, loss, dancing, and roaring. Llama, by Stuart Bousel and Megan Cohen is about a Llama at a crossroads, and it will take a heroic act to bring him back to his former glory.

Neil Higgins: This play, Celia Sh**s, by William Bivins, is about a little-discussed issue that arises between the sexes. And existential crises. And, to a lesser extent, beer.

Eileen Tull: Loss, love, and hate. This is what makes up Leah M. Winery’s To Deborah.

What drew you to this kick-ass show?

Eileen Tull: The cleverness in its simplicity.

Meg O’Connor: I’ve been involved every year and have had a blast each time. The bar setting makes for a great atmosphere, the audience is inebriated enough to find us funny, and I get to pay my actors in beer. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

Neil Higgins: It’s a really fun script that talks about something that doesn’t really get talked about a lot. The situation and characters are at once comically exaggerated and realistically relatable.

What are you discovering is the challenge of working at Theater Pub?

Eileen Tull: This is my second time working with Theater Pub (though I’ve been a wallflower fan since I got to the Bay Area), and I feel like the challenge lies in filling the space, which is non-traditional and spilling full of people.

Neil Higgins: Time is always an issue; both in how little there is before the show compared to a traditional production schedule and trying to get all of one’s actors in the same place at the same time to rehearse.

Meg O’Connor: In rehearsal, I make sure to have water to practice with…so, there are lots of pee breaks.

What has you most excited to be there?

Meg O’Connor: Theater Pub’s community is fun, intelligent, and passionate. Working with them is the epitome of the phrase “Work Hard – Play Hard.”

Eileen Tull: The vibe is just super positive. From the producers to the collaborators to the audience. It’s as if everyone has the Theater Pub motto on their mind: “Make it good, keep it casual, have a beer.”

Neil Higgins: It’s a talented group of people and I can’t wait to see all the great pieces that come out of it.

What’s been your biggest, craziest, most HA! I PULLED THAT OFF, BITCHES! moment as a director?

Neil Higgins: An actor broke his leg a week or so before we opened. I had to add a couple lines, change almost all the blocking and some choreography.

Eileen Tull: The first play I ever directed ended with the stage direction “Then, spring.” It was a ten minute play about a post-apocalyptic freezing Earth run by robots. I am still dating the playwright. But it was a daunting playground of a stage direction for a little first time director. I ended up using costume changes, pastels, and Louis Armstrong to bring it to life.

Meg O’Connor: This one time, I had an actress enter the stage through a giant vagina. That was pretty cool.

If you could direct anything, with limitless budget and stars, what would it be and why?

Meg O’Connor: Mourning Becomes Electra starring RuPaul

Neil Higgins:
Tie between The Importance of Being Earnest and Titus Andronicus because they are such
amazing shows and my ideas for them require a lot of money.

Eileen Tull: I would do a marathon in rep of The Rover, Cyrano de Bergerac, She Stoops to Conquer, and Twelfth Night. And then commission re-imagined adaptations of each one. And then direct those. Rinse and repeat with Doctor Faustus, Macbeth, and Hamlet.

What’s up next for you?

Neil Higgins: Acting in Measure for Measure for Theater Pub in August!

Eileen Tull: Directing and producing Flesh at the Santa Cruz Fringe Festival, performing an original solo show Jesus, Do You Like Me? Please Mark Yes or No. at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and directing a couple of Olympians Festival plays in the winter.

Meg O’Connor: My play In the Deep about the titan Tethys will be featured in this year’s Olympians Festival in December.

What else in the SF Theater scene has you excited?

Eileen Tull: I just wrapped up stage managing The Odyssey on Angel Island. Woof. I’m so excited about the work We Players and other site specific companies are doing to transform spaces and redefine what it is to have a theatrical experience.

Meg O’Connor: Banana Bag and Bodice’s Space//Space has got me jazzed (they have to bring it to SF now, plz) and the piece The Collaboratory is working on (Dirty Laundry) sounds fascinating.

Neil Higgins: Olympians III in December is going to be most marvelous.

What is your favorite beer?

Neil Higgins: I’m more of a cider man.

Eileen Tull: I would be lying if I didn’t say PBR. But I did have a chocolate beer in Chicago one time that blew my mind. Still recovering from it.

Meg O’Connor: I’m currently having an affair with Alaskan Amber, but I’m fickle. I break beer-hearts like it’s my job.

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!

Postcards From The Odyssey #4: “There’s a Lizard in my Hiding Spot” and other tales from The Odyssey

We continue our inside coverage of We Players’ “The Odyssey on Angel Island” with some stories from the backstage crew that’s responsible for bringing the Bay Area’s own Ithaca to life.

Loe Matley, Bailey Smith, Hannah Gaff, Eileen Tull and Ruth Tringham – just part of the extraordinary production team for The Odyssey on Angel Island. Photo by Frieda de Lackner.

Today’s Postcard from The Odyssey on Angel Island comes courtesy of Eileen Tull, our intrepid Stage Manager extraordinaire. Eileen makes a lot of the magic happen onstage; but her backstage is outdoors, hiding behind rocks and trees and trekking over hill and dale. She writes:

Most of my backstage experiences have been in small black box theaters. I’d never bothered to count the acreage of the backstage area. For The Odyssey on Angel Island, my black box theater is now a seven hundred and fifty acre stage. My stand by calls are moot, as I am typically yards ahead of each scene. I push the GO button to no avail and my only light instruments are the Heavenly Bodies.

This show is a unique experience, in that we have been rehearsing as well as living together on the Island every weekend for the past few months. We have many rules in place: ten minute showers, no personal clutter, Island quiet hours start at ten, but the most important rule is open and creative collaboration.

Many cans of gold paint were harmed in the making of this production. Photo by Eileen Tull.

A typical day in the life of a stage manager on Angel Island:
6:00am – Try to turn off alarm, turns out to be birds
6:30am – Wake up, camp out next to the one bathroom in the Fire Dorm, to ensure a morning shower
7:00am – Eat breakfast, drink precious, precious coffee
7:15am – Pack up truck, kiss actors on the forehead and begin morning HERD (which is what we call the morning preset — stands for Hannah, Eileen, Ruth and David, core members of the production team)
7:30am – Make blood and milk
7:45am – Carry carpets and pillows up a flight of stairs
8:30am – Raise the We Players flag at West Garrison, Angel Island
9:00am – Drive to Ithaca (also known as Ayala Cove, Angel Island), check in with actors
10:00am – Call soft places, thank you soft
10:15am – Lie in wait for my next cue, atop a secret path. This is when I usually play shoot bubble on my phone or call my mother.
11:30am – Ferry actors around, set up The Land of the Lotus-Eaters
11:35am – In the process, recoat my hands with orange food coloring
12:30pm – Travel to the Cyclops’ cave
12:35pm – Chase a bird out of the cave
12:40pm – Okay, it chased me
12:45pm – Try to get to my hiding place. There’s a lizard. Try to poke it with a stick. It looks at me. I let it know that I have to get in my hiding place. It runs away.
1:30pm – Ferry actors/wait to ferry actors
3:30pm – Race the audience back to Ithaca, actors in tow
4:00pm – End of show, just about. Begin reset for next show. Begin drinking.

A shot from the driver’s seat of one of the We Players vehicles used to ferry actors, team and props around Angel Island. Photo by Eileen Tull.

Eileen Tull is a director and writer who relocated to the Bay Area from Chicago in June 2011. http://www.eileentull.com