Social media and performance: bane or boon?

To tweet or not to tweet: that is the question.

Saturday night at the Tapestry Briefs performance, Artistic Director Michael Mori invited the audience to employ social media, to post to Facebook or to tweet.  He even gave us the appropriate hashtags to use (although I used the wrong ones).

I know people who detest any signs of a smartphone in a theatre.  To go into a theatre and tweet during the performance felt like a transgressive act, a violation of the usual rules.

I didn’t see any stipulations, such as “wait until each 5 minute play is over,” or “if you’re going to post remarks to Facebook please sit where your screen won’t bother your neighbours”.  Nobody said that.  We were as far as I know, free to be where we wanted, to tweet or post as we wished.  I was grateful because it meant I didn’t need to bring pen & paper to make notes, that I could use my smartphone for that purpose.  But I was only comfortable hiding myself and my glowing screen in the back row.  As Tapestry Briefs gets us to move around from space to space, I chose the back row each time.  Those of you who know my preferences will know this is also against my personal grain.  I always try to sit in the front row whenever possible, and love getting into it if possible with the performers.

But this time I chose the back row.

And so I tweeted a couple of banal comments, beginning before the show.

  • #tapestryopera #boostershots seems like a good idea tweet tweet sip sip
  • #tapestryopera whiskey envy: living in Scarborough need to drive home. Can I get that scotch in a takeout cup?? Please?
  • Green tea! #tapestrybriefs has something for all even the teetotaller mmmm not bad
  • #tapestrybriefs full house tonight in a show true to the distillery district’s roots

The operas began.  It’s impossible to tweet during a 5 minute show, you’d miss it if you put your head down. There’s a tiny gap between each.

Hm, in that brief pause between tweeting makes sense (for once). There’s no time for more than about 50 characters.

And then I came into another space and got a bit too cocky I suppose.  No one stipulated where I should sit, but this time I sat as I usually did: in the front row.  And of course that’s when I was told to put my phone away and to stop by one of the officials of Tapestry.

I felt toyed with.  And tweets –even banal stupid ones like the ones i made– are free advertising. There I am puffing their show and they tell me to stop?

My review used an analogy that may seem wrong.

As I drove home I was thinking that Michael’s invitation might be a bit like the Emancipation Proclamation, a decree only as meaningful as the functionaries & bureaucrats who could make it real. All I can say –and I think Michael likely agrees with me—is that while most in the theatre probably still hate the smartphone, there are probably ways to make it work. I sat for part of the show in the very back row, so as to avoid upsetting anyone with my glowing screen.

But in that analogy where I invoke the Emancipation Proclamation, is the tweeter like a slave seeking freedom?  Or are the audience members –the ones forced to endure that glowing little phone—more like the ones oppressed at every turn by social media morons like myself, seeking liberation from the glow and the tap tap tap?

I wonder if tweeting put some noses out of joint?  I wasn’t really looking of course, so i can’t say, beyond my misadventure with the person who shut me down.  I wonder if Michael’s invitation was upsetting the purists: those who believe opera should be done in the dark among silent rapt listeners.

How ironic.  What is the ideal audience configuration for new opera, or older operas for that matter?  I can only point to history, plus a few experiences.

History tells us that until Wagner, the theatre’s lights weren’t dimmed but actually illuminated.  Go back a century or more from Wagner and you have a noisy theatre full of people doing their business, even having dinner in their boxes.  Alcina, for example, would have been presented in a light theatre full of patrons whose silence was intermittent rather than continuous.  We do Handel no favours when we expect his music to hold our interest in a big dark silent theatre for all that time.  He never expected us to behave like that.  I sometimes wonder if Marshall Pynkoski could be persuaded to try an experiment with his audience, getting us to watch with lights up, going in and out whenever we wish, following our libretti and perhaps also using our smartphones to tweet and take photos (but no flash of course).

L-R Wallis Giunta, Olivier Laquerre, Meghan LIndsay and Allyson McHardy.

L-R Wallis Giunta, Olivier Laquerre, Meghan LIndsay and Allyson McHardy.

The closest thing I’ve had to this fantasy was in the Opera Atelier noon-hour preview to Alcina at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, where I was photographing non-stop (with their blessing & permission please note).  I posted a review with a few of my photos.  So long as there’s no flash, I believe this would take us closer to the kind of audience Handel had in his time.

In the summer I had a comparable experience with the visit of the Bicycle Opera Project to Stratford’s Revel Caffé.

Sirett & soprano Larissa Koniuk, L'Homme et l'Ange qui a venu du Ciel

Sirett & soprano Larissa Koniuk, L’Homme et l’Ange qui a venu du Ciel

I had fun taking my smartphone into the opera.  Is this something to be encouraged? So long as you make special arrangements for the seating (that is, if visible smartphones are going to make some people seethe with anger) why not?

The counter-argument goes something like this: that anyone who needs to tweet during an opera isn’t an audience member you want, that if opera needs to chase this kind of audience, the art-form is dead.


I can’t argue for one side or the other.  I felt weird tweeting at an opera, and felt weirder still when –after accepting the invitation—I was stopped in mid tweet, like a bird having his beak closed.

But I think any baroque opera making claims of historical accuracy should be presented with lights up in a theatre allowing us to go in and out. Social media could be a part of this.  As for contemporary opera –that is, anything written in the past 30 years—I don’t know that there’s any one right way to do it.  Purism in the presentation of something new feels odd.

But in future if there are any invitations to tweet I am always going to hide in the back row.  Or keep my beak shut until the show is over.

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8 Responses to Social media and performance: bane or boon?

  1. Edward Brain says:

    I guess I am old school. I am against tweeting and using Facebook during a performance. Firstly, I want to see and hear what is going on. Secondly, it may lead people to receiving phone calls during a performance which can be a total nightmare for those of us ‘serious’ patrons who are there for a performance

    • barczablog says:

      I hear you loud & clear! Phonecalls during a performance are surely unacceptable. i am blown away by the phones that ring during operas, concerts, church services. What part of “please turn off your phone, OR set it to vibrate” is so hard to understand?

  2. Michael Hidetoshi Mori says:

    Leslie, I have to come clean. Yours was the first and only night that I forgot my stipulation when encouraging tweets and social media to only have phones engaged between pieces, during intermission, or during the tastings. I am embarrassed that one of my lovely minions embarrassed you by restraining you from what I encouraged omitting my stipulations, which I didn’t think I completely understood on the evening when you confronted me.

    However, personally I do think that people engage in different ways and social media is a way for many to express their inspiration immediately and viscerally… so I am not against its discrete use even during performances.

    Thanks for this commentary regardless! Now that you have planted the idea, I would love to go to an Opera Atelier show that also had a period audience sensibility. It only seems fair!


    • barczablog says:

      Thank you Michael! Sorry if i wasn’t precisely offering the feedback you expected. But it needs to be said: Leslie is a twitter newby. His natural loyalty is to the Luddites (notice how verbose his blog is, as though it were a newspaper). He is still figuring out what the average sensibility believes. A more experienced Twit (twitterer?) would have probably known better.

      I felt I was transgressing, that’s for sure, but i’ve since discovered (from longtime Twitterers…or whatever i am supposed to call you, and no offense intended,… ) that no one doesn’t tweet during a show. I wonder, though, if one set up social media zones — such as the rear rows– whether it could be tolerated, if that were part of the social contract? This could make the otherwise poor seats attractive, right? There’s suddenly a rationale for buying the cheap seats.

      In any case, there’s room for experimentation. I wonder whether you could treat this as a dramaturgical matter, where you direct questions at the audience. The devices used to get classrooms of students to select multiple choice questions (i’m having a brain cramp…) where an instructor asks a question could be used to select various plot pathways, or even interpretative choices in a performance. How interesting could it be? i suppose that’s at least partially up to you.

  3. Some companies have experimented with “Tweet seats”. I’m not sure it’s something I want to do as I find my phone a huge distraction.

    • barczablog says:

      I am conflicted (as i’ve said), but i wonder about the younger ones, those whose heads seem to be perpetually down in the virtual realm anyway. Is that an audience one wants to court?

  4. Hi Leslie – I’m fascinated by the whole social media situation.

    My personal stance keeps evolving – I know for a fact that I can’t tweet/message etc. *and* feel engaged. I don’t even know why I’d want to, it seems antithetical to the shared concert experience that I crave. Yet, I wonder – is possible for some people to do that?

    And even a further caveat – while there are some shows where I feel completely comfortable taking iPhone pictures of the ensuing mania – usually something loud/frenetic or something minimalist/hypnotic – there are others where there is no chance I’d do it – for instance a quiet, intense passage of Mahler, or anything that sounds and feels “pianissimo” to me.

    Context is hugely important. Thanks for wading into the morass.

  5. Reblogged this on Jocelyn Morlock and commented:
    Timely article on social media and performance!

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