Twitter: The new groundlings?

twittergroundlings copyThis morning I read an article on Artsfwd.org about how the University Musical Society (UMS) is incorporating Twitter and “Twitter boxes” to promote social media interaction with their show. Using special crafted boxes, a pre-selected area in the back of the theater, a specific hashtag, asking for a certain number of tweets during the show, and asking the “twitter seat” participants to lower the brightness on their phones or devices, UMS has allowed specific audience members to engage their immediate thoughts regarding a show unto an theater community and audience that knows what twitter stream to follow.

Some have embraced this idea, praising the immediate feedback it gives actors, writers, and directors. Others reject this idea, saying that it takes away from the connection that an actor is trying to build with his audience by giving audience members a “distraction.”

Me? I’m intrigued by this idea.  And for the simple reason that it struck me that Twitter (and Facebook) have become our default method of sharing immediate thoughts, actions, ideas, etc. Just this morning, I tweeted this:

I then did some retweeting of articles I found interesting, including the article that inspired this post. Have you noticed those hashtags bugs on television? Like this:

thevoice_hashtag

daniel-bryan-kane-WWE-hashtag

Shows like The Voice and entertainment companies like World Wrestling Entertainment have learned the power of Twitter and encourage their viewers to engage online. So why hasn’t live theater engaged in this more?

I think that we, as actors, writers, or directors, want to have the audience “connect” with us, to be focused on us and our work. Theater can be a very selfish pursuit. But this has not always been the case. You’ve heard of the term “groundling” I’m sure. It dates back to the 17th century and was a person who frequented the Globe Theatre but was too poor to pay to be able to sit on one of the three levels of the theater. They were known to misbehave and are commonly believed to have thrown food such as fruit and nuts at characters they did not like (although there is no evidence of this.) Remember the old cartoons of tomatoes being thrown on stage? It comes from this. The tradition of audience interaction continued with the emergence of vaudeville. According to the site Musicals101.com

Vaudeville audiences were not passive observers. They were vocal and sometimes physical participants in performances. Their cheers, jeers or painful silences would make or break an act. At New York’s Palace, the reaction of the show biz pros attending a Monday matinee affected an act’s bookings and pay for months to come. But a bad reaction in any vaudeville theatre could ruin an act’s reputation. If a local manager decided to fire an act due to audience displeasure or disinterest, a damning report was sent back to the United Booking Office. So it is no exaggeration to say that from Broadway to Boise, audiences had tremendous influence in shaping vaudeville.

Theater has the tradition of immediate audience interaction, it really isn’t until the 1930s and the rise of the “Broadway style” musical that audiences became more passive and sedate, something that we, as modern audiences, have come to expect. When I watched the live broadcast of Legally Blonde: The Musical on MTV, it bothered me that whenever a new character or a fan favorite would appear, the audience burst out into screams, but I can’t fault them for REACTING! Isn’t that what we want as the creators of theater, to provoke a reaction?

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, social media sites like these, can combine these two traditions. Audiences can still sit quietly and not intrude on the actors and their performances, but can still engage and show their pleasure or displeasure with a show immediately. This is why I support a movement like “tweet seats.”

You can find me Tweeting @eerobert, Like my Facebook page, or follow me on Tumblr.

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