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"To tweet or not to tweet?" More like The Tempest!

By DJ Kelly May 7, 2009

At Lunchbox Theatre I floated an idea that was more than a little out there. I didn’t expect it to gain much traction (in marketing you get used to that happening when you propose things “outside of the box”). But it did gain traction. And after getting the approval of the AD, GM, Literary Manager and playwrights – albeit with BIG questions unanswered – we took a deep breath and moved forward.

The result is an experiment that is generating some controversy. I wanted to share one string of that controversy here because the conversation is a good one. And an important one.

The project we decided to undertake was to allow live tweeting/blogging at two selected performances of Lunchbox Theatre’s Petro-Canada Stage One Festival.

Here’s the media release that went out and was posted on the Lunchbox blog.

We won’t ask you to turn off your phone
Bloggers and twitterers invited to live blog/tweet Petro-Canada Stage One

Calgary, AB – The Petro-Canada Stage One Festival takes six new Canadian one act plays and gives the opportunity for each playwright to workshop their script and collect feedback from audiences following two public readings. As an avid user of “social media” Lunchbox Theatre will be undertaking a pilot project this year suggesting audience members turn ON their cell phones at the beginning of the performance.

In order to expand the methods and tools for collecting feedback from audience members, Lunchbox Theatre has created a unique event for the bloggers and twitterers of Calgary. For the Saturday, May 9 reading of Emily and Roy by Paul Kaufmann and the Saturday, May 16 reading of The Boiler Room by Allana Harkin, bloggers and twitters are invited to bring their laptops or smart-phones with them to the theatre and live blog/tweet during the reading. All blogs and tweets from these patrons will then be made available via the Lunchbox Theatre Blog (www.lunchboxtheatre.com/blog) for the public to view.

“We have been using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and our blog to broadcast information about Lunchbox for some time now; however this event provides an opportunity for users of these tools to interact with our work on a whole different level,” says D.J. Kelly, Marketing and Communications for Lunchbox Theatre.

“Petro-Canada Stage One readings are all about collecting patron feedback to help improve the scripts as they move on to the next phase in their development process,” adds Caroline Russell-King, Literary Manager for Petro-Canada Stage One. “It is in our best interest to gather as much feedback as possible and in as many different ways as possible. The honest comments generated through this will be used to make the plays better.”

Bloggers or Twitter users from Calgary are invited to contact Lunchbox Theatre Box Office with their blog address or Twitter username to purchase a ticket for $8 at 403 265 4292 x 0 or boxoffice@lunchboxtheatre.com. Tickets may also be purchased online from tickets.lunchboxtheatre.com.

The world’s longest running lunchtime theatre, Lunchbox Theatre is a professional company that caters to downtown office workers over the noon-hour by producing at least six plays per year as well as the Petro-Canada Stage One new play festival and the BD&P Emerging Director Program. After 33 years, Lunchbox Theatre has recently relocated to the base of the Calgary Tower.

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As you can imagine this generated some nearly immediate feedback from members of the arts community. Perhaps the most notable was/is local actor Hal Kerbes who has worked at Lunchbox Theatre many times before. Here is the text of his note he published on Facebook:

You may or may not have seen this post this morning. And it might be better for me to just shut up … but there are some things that simply cross a line.

Those of us who work onstage have had to learn to contend with the occasional errant audience member whose phone goes off during a performance. Then came newer communication technologies where people could be connected to everything, any time, anywhere.

I had the personal challenge, at one performance, of completing an intense & demanding scene culminating in my death while tied to a chair, where I remained for the final 20 minutes of the play. During this entire time, approximately 10 feet from me, a young woman was busy texting away, her little “tikka-tikka” sounds making me want to commit potentially justifiable homicide.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of new technologies. But there is a time and a place, and I personally do not think, either as a performer or as an audience member, that this (from this morning’s CPAA bulletin) is it: [see the release above]

His note, understandably has already generated 23 comments – a fair number for a Facebook note I’d say! Of course the majority of the comments focused on what Hal was specifically talking about: the distraction of texting to the actor. This of course is a MAJOR concern during a regular performance. That is also why we chose to not run this experiment on a regular performance. Here was my explanation in the comments to Hal’s note:

We carefully considered the options and decided to try it as an experiment. The idea of Stage One is to solicit audience feedback – we do this in feedback forms and post-show q&a sessions already – and give this to the playwright to do with it as they will.

I’m certainly not advocating for this to be a standard practise at a performance. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra tried that about a month ago and it had all the negative and positive impacts you can imagine and that others have pointed out here.

But doing it during a reading where audience feedback is already requested is another thing entirely. The public readings are about feedback for the playwright at their heart. That is what this is meant to give.

Why not try it out before dismissing it? New technology does not necessarily need to be feared in this context. It may provide some amazing opportunities to the playwright never available before.

On the distraction comment side: We are doing these on the 2nd public reading of the play so the creative team has one traditional reading under their belt free of online influence. We want to make sure the playwright gets the same benefit as the playwrights working on non-live blogged/tweeted shows. In addition we selected a performance that had sold zero tickets up until that point.

I’d also like to note this is Lunchbox Theatre. We allow people to bring their lunch into the theatre. The rattling of that can be far more distracting than someone in the back row typing on their BlackBerry. Actors here operate in an environment expecting a certain level of distraction during their work.

So there it is. Will the “experiment” work? How do we gauge success? The important thing, to me at least, is that we are looking at something new that may help the play development process. Something that may even open up Lunchbox to potential new audiences.

None-the-less it is important to not dismiss points such as Hal’s and those in his comments. They are very real concerns. (Among others that we at Lunchbox have that haven’t been discussed.) And to that end here is the text of a Facebook message I sent to Hal for sharing his opinion:

I wanted to thank you for posting your thoughts on what Lunchbox is attempting. I especially appreciate it because your comments are EXACTLY what ours were when we first started talking about the possiblity of doing something using social media to better interact with our audiences.

I get really excited when projects like this get this kind of attention. And it certainly does deserve this kind of attention and the discussion it’s creating. You’re points are important and it is good to constantly remind ourselves of what is important.

I, for one, am looking forward to seeing how the two readings play out. Will it be useful for the playwright? Will it be unacceptably distracting for the actors or the audience? What are the possible outcomes of having these comments available online? Will anyone even bother to show up to twitter or live blog?! No one knows the answers yet.

But we will know moving forward because of this experiment.

Again, thanks for taking the bold step of making your opinion heard. I hope more do the same on issues as artistically important as this.
-dj

Stay tuned for more and to see what the outcome of these two readings is on this front. And of course if you want to attend either of the performances – to live blog/tweet or just to watch – contact the Lunchbox Theatre at 403 265 4292 x 0 or buy online.

As a postscript, if you’re not reading this too late, you can listen to playwright Allana Harkin and Stage One Literary Manager Caroline Russell-King on CBC Radio One Calgary’s The Eyeopener Thursday, May 6 at 7:40 am. (1010 AM or 99.1 FM)