Monday, June 24, 2013

Kicking and Screaming: Thoughts on Theatre and Social Media

Recently American Theatre Magazine posted a question to their Facebook feed asking readers' opinions regarding the usage of cellular phones (and other communication devices) in the rehearsal hall.
The comments were, if nothing else, deeply illuminating in regards to the American Theatre's status vis a vis the 21st century.  A number of directors, often older, thundered how such devices were roundly banned from usage within their rehearsal halls.  Some even going so far as to announce that they confiscated the phones of their actors while others grudgingly admitted their usefulness in the logistical processes surrounding the show.  It seemed that only Scott Walters (of Creative Insubordination) dissented, wondering aloud when the theatre was going to join the 21st Century.

And I cannot help but concur with Mr. Walters, but also find myself disturbed to the general timbre of the response.  Ban, banish, and forbid all smack of an autocratic outlook on the theatre.  As a director, far be it from me to question too far the institution of directoral sovereignty, but such treatment of one's colleagues quite simply strikes me as paranoid.  Though some respondents may be teachers referring to their students, I still wonder if banishment is the best answer... as these habits can follow them into collegiate and professional situations (recent studies discussed on NPR indicate that collegiate hazing traditions are actually carried up from High School as opposed to being a case of youth emulating their elders).

However, of greater concern to me was the phrasing of the question. "We know about electronic devices at the theatre (bad)..." This question seems to assume a great deal.  At first it assumes that the American theatre is uniformly in agreement on ANY issue, and second it assumes that electronic devices in the theatre are inherently bad.  This seems to be generally agreed upon, with publications lionizing as "heroic" a theatregoer who smashed another person's cell phone, an act which can be considered assault in some jurisdictions.  Now, you will be hard-pressed to find a thespian who has not encountered distractions (cell phones, loud candy wrappers, etc.) and sincerely desired to set the offending person on fire for their crimes.  But is this not approaching it with the wrong attitude?

Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, has written eloquently about the importance of the intermission.  It is the epitome of the theatre as a social event.  And yet, disruption (screen glow) aside, are we not just as guilty of locking our audience in as the director who refuses to allow for an interval?  If we, as artists, are losing our audience members, mid show, to the likes of Facebook, are we not doing something wrong?  I would submit that we are.  The busker or masquer, the itinerant commedian, the hawker in the fairground had to fight, hard, for the audience attention.  And I would submit that our loathing of cellular phones is indicative of our current artistic laziness.  It is much easier to protect your moving, poetic scene from distraction by simply banning the electronic devices as opposed to building a moving, poetic scene that connects with the audience to the point that they don't pull it out in the first place.

The mountebanks of the fairground understood this, and played to it.  But we should also keep in mind that the theatre began as a social and communal event.  Social media (the thing that the person on the phone is most likely checking because, well... who actually talks on those things anymore?) would seem to be the natural ally of the quintessential social event, helping to cast its shadow even further than the immediate space in which the play/show/gig/thing is happening.  So much of our current theatre is not structured to handle this, and that is a deficiency on our part.  It is time to stop blaming "thoughtless audience members" or mocking them as philistines.  It is our job to hold attention.  And if your vision cannot do that, then perhaps the problem is you.

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