So we have a production coming up that will have six performances. Because one performance is generally poorly attended, we generally offer some sort of last minute rush promotion requiring people to say a silly phrase to get their discount. Since the audience for this show tends to be younger, I thought I might also experiment and make that night a “social media performance.” Essentially, we would have a night where people would openly be invited to do text friends and update Twitter and Facebook status. The only thing we couldn’t let people do due to intellectual property concerns is record or take pictures.
If it was successful, I might consider expanding it to other performances as appropriate. We don’t get a more than 5-10 people commenting about our shows on social media sites so I wanted to see what would happen if we openly encouraged it. Because most classes were required to see the production the previous week, we wouldn’t see too many grouses about being forced to see the stupid show by a professor.
Knowing that a lot of people don’t like to have those around them leaning over a glowing cell phone, I thought having a specific performance dedicated to the practice might help draw those who liked the practice and allow those who disliked it to attend at other times. It wouldn’t guarantee a texting free environment at all shows, but might lead both groups to feel we recognized their needs.
When I brought the idea up at the weekly production meeting, I thought there might be some resistance. My biggest concern was for the actors who might not get the same audience reactions on that particular evening as they did in other performances due to divided attention. In fact, there might be more conversation at that performance as individuals whisper inquiries about what has transpired after everyone else laughs or gasps. I figured there would have to be some discussion of appropriateness and shifting expectations.
What I hadn’t expected was a vociferous and absolute refusal to perform that night from one of the creative team. The individual was wholly opposed to the practice which he felt was an awful trend and inappropriate at a live performance. He was under no illusion that it wouldn’t happen anyway regardless of what we did, and perhaps become more common and widespread, he just didn’t want to be party to an effort to encourage people to do it.
I think this is just part of a set of concerns that has existed for awhile and may become more prevalent soon enough. Do we diminish the performance by validating something outside of the usual practice? For orchestras, it has been projection of video images in support of the music in some way. In theatre it has been stunt casting of television/movie/pop music figures in stage performances. This isn’t just about Broadway casting choice. All across the country weather forecasters and football heroes get cast in the hope that their popularity will bring more butts to the seats. I am not sure what the characteristic corresponding situation would be in fine arts and dance.
In many ways this is different. Those elements, for better or for worse, are part of the artistic product. It may be cheapening the product to dilute it in this manner in the name of getting more attendance. It is another thing to encourage people to ignore the performance entirely to tell their friends to come to the show.
In one of my favorite Take A Friend To The Orchestra outings, Drew McManus takes a guy to a concert in Carnegie Hall. Drew tells him it is okay to be bored during some portions of the performance and I think brings binoculars so he can look more closely at the musicians during these times. Even though Drew says it is okay to be bored and not entirely engaged by the performance, his suggested alternatives encourage his companion to try to remain involved even if the music isn’t finding purchase in his ear.
Encouraging people to text sends the message that is okay to be bored, but encourages them to disengage themselves from the performance entirely without making the attempt to involve themselves in some other aspect of the experience and give the performance a chance to connect and draw them back.
I know I sound like I am siding with the objector against something I proposed doing. But this is really a matter of the two sides of my identity as an arts professional in conflict. From the marketing standpoint, allowing people to tell their friends about their experience can improve attendance. Not just as a matter of simple recommendation, but as a way for experimenters to lead their more wary friends to new experiences.
But it changes the way people are interacting with the arts in some undesirable ways. If people are viewing a performance in terms of what they can report on every few minutes, there isn’t any time given to digest the experience. There are many inveterate arts professionals who aren’t really sure what they thought about a show until the next morning. If you view a performance as a loaf of bread to comment on a slice at a time, you may never see the golden beauty of the loaf as a whole. You decide that Helen Mirren as Prospero is dumb when she first appears in The Tempest and then look for the next moment to comment on, and then the next and the next, you may miss what Julie Taymor was trying to do with the story.
Is this the way we want to encourage people to approach their experience with art? Mediated through the lens of whether what just happened was interesting enough to report to their friends at the expense of missing/incompletely comprehending what happens next? I remember reading about how certain actors in Shakespeare’s time were judged masterful when the girls wandering the aisles stopped hawking oranges. Will the power of a show be judged not by a standing ovation, the value of which seems to have degraded of late, but by the fact people were so entranced that they stopped texting?
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