The cellular device is a wonderful technology. But that wonder is tempered every time a John Philip Sousa-like ringtone fanfare blares out, say, during the bloody dagger scene from a live performance of Macbeth. Which, of course, is why mobile phones have been unconditionally banished from the sacred precincts of live theater since their invention.
So it was something of a surprise when CTG appeared to bend that ironclad ban last week by introducing synchronized tweeting sections at the Thursday evening performances of A Raisin in the Sun at Culver City's Kirk Douglas and Clybourne Park across town at the Taper. Both audiences used the same hashtag, #WhereWeLive, to discuss the two shows, whose stories are interconnected. The “experiment,” which was the brainchild of Jim Royce and Jim Halloran of CTG's marketing department, reportedly was managed with enough tact and discretion that few in the audiences were even aware of the Twittering transgressors in their midst.
Outside the two theaters, however, the precedent quickly turned into the tweets heard 'round the world, argued about in places such as the nationwide email list for dramaturgs and literary managers. Opinions ranged from tweeting during performances as a valid and innovative way to attract and engage younger, more tech-savvy audiences, to the notion that any cellphone use during a live performance is a disruptive, distracting and, particularly for the actors, fundamentally disrespectful activity.
For Halloran, Twitter simply represents the future. “Our goal was to gather experiential data to see if social media can have a role in live theater and enhance audience engagement.” He believes that such instantaneous messaging “can capture the electricity of a media and emotive event. [The tweeters] can take the content of the show and put their personal stamp on it and leave it at the theater.”
His colleague Royce agrees. “We are no longer in an era where dialogue is one-to-one,” he says. “On the horizon, we are seeing an age where email and Facebook and Google+ and Twitter are going to evolve into another platform. Eventually they're all going to merge together, and we want to be in the center of that conversation.”
L.A.-based dramaturg Kayla S. Cagan was one of the select 20 recruited by CTG to tweet at conversation ground zero during A Raisin in the Sun. Cagan, already a prolific and thoughtful presence in the Twittersphere, is nothing if not enthusiastic about her experience. “[It] allowed me to share in a communal response,” she says. “When a scene was particularly moving, I stopped tweeting, as did others. We watched, laughed, cried, applauded, etc. And then we had a chance to discuss it over Twitter — if we wanted to. … And it was really fun to read each other's insights and interact.”
And, as Halloran points out, the experiment resulted in “not one single complaint from the actors or audience so far.” Then again, he wasn't at Chinatown's Mountain Bar on Thursday night, where, following playwright Kevin O'Sullivan's semiannual evening of short plays known as Pharmacy, the post-performance discussion was somewhat less sanguine.
Director Bart DeLorenzo was skeptical: “I can't imagine how dull a play would have to be where you would need to comment on it during the performance to keep yourself entertained. And I also can't imagine what you could possibly say in a tweet that would be worth taking the time out from the play to communicate. Maybe if I saw one interesting tweet written during performance, I might change my mind.”
DeLorenzo's date for the evening, veteran L.A. stage actress Shannon Holt, was considerably more categorical. “I think it's very disrespectful to look down from the stage and see people fiddling on their phones. [Seeing the screen] lights takes you out of the play — for the people in the audience as well as the actors.”
The undecided camp included producer-director Zombie Joe, who thoughtfully mused, “If the tweeting somehow benefits theater as a whole, if it helps build momentum or its growth, it's a great idea. But the question is whether it's pulling [the tweeters'] focus or is it enhancing their experience of the show? It may be that in our over-media-stimulated world, it's expecting too much for people to merely sit down and watch a show without bringing in their knitting as well.”
For the playwrights in attendance, the opinion was unanimous, unambiguous and summed up by writer-director Wes Walker as “a terrible idea! It's a total retreat from the primal, basic nature of live theater — the human mouth speaking to the human ear with no distraction. I think it's a mistake.”
For this aging observer, who quixotically keeps a 1970s-vintage, oiled-and-inked Olivetti manual typewriter in his earthquake preparedness kit, the attitude is one of mournful resignation. If live tweeting during theater performances can be done, it will be done. On the brighter side, if cellphones truly have become legitimized for use inside the theater, perhaps it will put an end once and for all to the ubiquitous, albeit long-stale, curtain-raising gag of the in-character, prerecorded reminder to turn off the diabolical devices.