by Isaac Butler
I'd like to posit here at the outset something that the rest of this post rests on: Attention in theatre is important. Theatre, in fact, requires a different kind of attention than most other activities, because it's a sort of make believe that you (generally) only get to watch. This should be terrible. Who wants to watch other people have fun? But for whatever reason, when it works, its magic.
The trick of most productions is to seduce you into paying this kind of attention, doing this kind of work (for it is work), without you even really realizing it's happening. They do this in all sorts of ways, good and bad, from the riotous spectacle of War Horse (a show I hated, for the record) to the you-must-lean-in quiet of The Aliens.
I actually think paying this kind of attention is easier for chldren. Or, at least, it was easier for me as a child, because I was playing make believe all the time, so watching Philip Goodwin as the Dauphin in Saint Joan at the Folger didn't strike me as particularly weird. It was just so great to see adults doing this thing that I liked doing.
Peter Brook has this thing he talks about it either The Empty Space or The Open Door about the dreaded moment when, during a show, an audience member picks up their program to read it, and how he lives in fear of that moment, and how he wants to construct a kind of production that will hold their attention from beginning to end.
You might have guessed by now that this post is about "Tweet Seats," the absurd new phenomenon of theaters devoting certain seats on certain nights for people who want to tweet while watching their shows. This is an epic act of shooting oneself in the foot. For theatre that is not fully attended to cannot be fully appreciated, and the attention it requires is a collective act. Theatre is created in the space between the spectator as a group and as individuals and the work being performed on stage.
I am not advocating here for quiet, docile, obedient audiences. I think there's all sorts of ways to create that attention with varying degrees of rambunctiousness, but you can't create that attention if you are stopping from watching the god damn show to look at your god damn phone. And what's more, your doing that makes it harder for those around you to pay attention.
But the Tweet Seats phenomenon (which I hope will die before it catches on any further) is a sign of something bigger, of how truly out of touch our theaters are. Because what this is all about is the ongoing efforts by theaters to get younger/hipper/whateverer patrons to come to their shows without having to change the work they do.
A few years ago (oh shit I'm old) I wrote on Parabasis about the deep, dark secret of getting younger audiences to go to the theatre. I'm just gonna quote myself here in the interest of time:
I'm going to reveal, right now, the secret to getting young people to come to your theatre and see shows. Because it's a no-brainer and I'm tired of having this conversation (For reasons that should become obvious in a second). Here's the secret:
(1) Do work they want to see.
(2) Endeavor to do it well
(3) Offer it at a price point they will find reasonable
You know what's not on that list? Twitter. Facebook. The internets. Beer pong nights. Those are marketing channels, we'll get to how to do those better in a moment.
Theater companies and producers for the most part do not want to do the above three things. What they want to do is do the same work and use marketing to trick younger audiences into thinking it's what they want to see.
So the next time we have this conversation... can we please have it honestly and start asking some more interesting questions, some more difficult questions? Questions like: Do you actually want younger audiences, or do you just want their money? or Would your theater company be able to sustain itself on a younger audience base? And if not, are you just fucked? Are you just riding it out for as long as possible knowing it's not going to work out in the long run?
I don't think this is any less true than it was then. Tweet Seats-- particularly absent any real change in programming-- is just empty, gimmicky bullshit. What's more, it's insulting, the way most condescending panders to demographic groups are insulting.No where is this clearer than in the Guthrie's recent "Tweet Seats" night at "The Servant of Two Masters" where the Guthrie's twitter account asked such burning, must-be-answered-rather-than-watch-the-show questions like "Did you expect music like this?" or "How cool is the set by Katherine Akiko Day?" or "What's been your favorite pop culture reference so far?" We get it, Guthrie, you're trying to do "The Servant of Two Masters" in a way that's young and hip and show you're a happenin' Daddy-O, but nothing reeks of out of touch old man stench like someone parading around how young and cool they're trying to be. It's akin to your bald middle aged father picking you up from school in a new convertable and a 22 year old girlfriend. Or the scene in Star Trek where Kirk listens to The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" whilst riding a hover bike.
So I have a counter proposal for theaters trying out tweet seats: Why don't you try to do a show where both the play and the production are of such quality that someone who is tempted by their phone will want to watch from start to finish without jumping on the internet? And then, rather than sabotage it in the hopes that you can turn your audience into unpaid marketing labor for it, why don't you figure out a way to price it and market it so that the people you intended it for will want to come see it?