From movie theaters to concert halls, one thing that's been commonly frowned on worse than offering audible commentary from an audience seat is using a smartphone during a performance. But for one theater in Rhode Island, the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC), the art of social networking during a performance is making something of a comeback as the facility recently began offering a set of seats in the back for those users who want access to Twitter during a show.
Dubbed the "tweet seats," the seats are available for those who want to live-tweet a performance, offering up their immediate impressions on set design, music, costuming, or anything else that the tweet seat occupants dub noteworthy. Those taking a "tweet seat" and actively tweeting during the performance get their tickets at no charge, almost like a reviewer's premium. The seats are becoming a staple at a growing number of theaters from Broadway to off-Broadway and beyond, but it's not coming without a few sour notes of good old fashioned controversy.
The "tweet seats" are a response from the theaters themselves, actively trying to draw a connection between the rise of social media and the long-standing theater tradition as a potential way to draw interest back to what some see as a declining art form. There are those, naturally, who believe that any use of electronic devices in a theater is a bad idea; the distraction to players and patrons, the unexpected bursts of light and sound can damage not only the show, but the entire experience. But at the same time, the sheer explosive growth of the technology means that, if the generation using it isn't sufficiently engaged, they may well throw over the theater entirely and stick to more tweet-friendly locales, including the rising home theater. That could mean disaster for the long-term health of musicals and concert halls.
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The PPAC even took it a step farther, offering up the ability for cast members backstage to do some tweeting as well. Though it's too early for such theaters to make judgments as to whether or not social media use is driving new patrons into seats or old patrons out of theirs, it's clear they're going to at least give it some time. The PPAC plans to run the "tweet seat" program through the end of the year, and others, like the Huntington Theater in Boston, are working on a similar program they call a "Twittermission" in which intermission gets a bit jazzed up with a social media edge.
Naturally, there are concerns. Some forms of theater, like musicals, can get sufficiently loud and brassy that no one would notice somebody tweeting away in the back. Doing this during a performance of "The Cherry Orchard" might not go so well. Theaters may do well to respond to these concerns; while the special seating is a good idea, perhaps some further restructuring would help. Balcony seating, for example, is likely to keep the light and sound of social media well out of the audience's main line of sight and keep it from interfering with the actors.
But the concerned theaters raise a good point: social media isn't going away, neither are mobile devices. To ignore it--worse, to ostracize it--is likely to put theaters on an adversarial footing with a new generation of theater-goers. That's not a recipe for long-term viability, and it's good to see the theaters are taking this new development seriously. Hopefully, it will prove successful in the long run; losing an art form is never a good thing.
Edited by Brooke Neuman