While in my theatre production seminar, my professor (a trained actor) was discussing the ways in which theatre has been affected by the new generation. She was explaining the magic of theatre, how it’s a lived experience, empowered by it being in the moment. Even if the show is put on once a day, five times a week, there are moments that can never be reenacted again. Whether these moments are the way a certain line is delivered or the way a spotlight shined perfectly on a specific actor, they are something special experienced only by the audience on that night.
For me, this idea of “being in the moment” is what gives theatre its magical essence: the stage is completely transformed, and you are transported into the play’s fictional, but sometimes realistic, universe. That’s why you’re instructed before the show starts to put away all mobile and electronic devices as to not interrupt or interfere with the play itself. (Think of how annoying it is for an audience member to be taken out of the play’s illusion by the flash of another’s camera — it’s so much worse for the actors!) By purchasing a ticket, we have all signed up to have this first-hand experience. It’s a shame to ruin it.
These points I had realized myself this past winter when I went to watch one of my best friends act in the Ottawa’s Little Theatre production of The Three Musketeers. I was seated alone in the back of the dark theatre, waiting for him to go onstage, my phone held in my hand ready to capture the perfect picture of him in a wig to mock him with later. But when the curtains opened and the show began, I was transported to 17th century France. Not once, even when my friend finally got on stage in his Jack Sparrow-esque wig, did I reach for the device. It was the raw experience of watching real people in their element that kept me frozen in my seat- theatre in its natural state.
Yet, there were small technological elements of the new age that was incorporated into the production: words projected behind the actors and onto the back curtain used to inform the audience of the setting of the scene. It didn’t affect the overall experience at all. other than being a helpful reminder for when the scene was changing. Yet, it is little experiments like this that lead to bigger discussions on the use of technology and specifically, social media, within something as natural as theatre productions.
The prospect of the use of technology getting in the way of artistic expression has been a long debate, but there is a question of the natural experience being more passé. The feeling of being “of the moment” has long been valued; yet with the changing of the times to what some deem as “the Digital Age,” the fast-paced and accessible qualities of social media have been well accepted. Almost everything from music to movies can be downloaded and streamed from home. Artists are now attempting to incorporate aspects of social media in their art to play a part in this social change. One of its biggest influences is the use of social media websites helping to market their projects. Artists are turning to Twitter and Facebook to get the word out on their productions and are even being trained on how to make it more appealing in 140 characters to attract viewers.
Writer, Jeffrey Cranor, used Twitter to conduct an experiment. He tweeted out what he called “Assignments” to his Twitter followers through NY Neo Futurists to “Write a play on Twitter—no more than 140 characters long, a single Tweet—using two roles and a significant prop.” This was well received by the public and after being sent many creative tweets from his followers, the NY Neo Futurists company was inspired to continue this experiment by adapting the tweets into short plays performed on the streets.
A production by the name of “Fate Book” had its actors create real Facebook and Twitter accounts for their characters who would create posts about themselves and the events in their fictional lives, as well as interacting with the other characters. These posts would give insight into the lives of the characters and provide backstory for the events of the play that was put on days later.
Viewers were invited to watch the progression of events online and were put into a position to experience the unfolding of the play from start to finish. By the time the production was put on, the audience members would already be anticipating the drama that would play out before them. The production was set up in a warehouse where the audience members could walk around and experience the events taking place as though they were part of the action themselves.
Less than great attempts at Greatness
While experiments like Cranor’s have been successful, there have been others that have suffered worse reviews. One was described to have actors performing small plays in a store front window bordered by a screen that posted the tweets of random strangers passing by were encouraged to sent them ideas of what to act out. It seemed to be a self-reflexive experiment as the actors dressed up in business suits to act as everyday people, putting action to their thoughts-by-tweet, yet some people felt as though they were being mocked.
Also, another social media development not well respected by theatre fans is the live streaming of shows, both online and on television. There have been successful attempts by Fox for the production of “Grease Live” and NBC for “the Sound of Music Live”, yet they both lacked the magical essence of viewing it first hand. Though the possibility of the actors making mistakes on air did provide an exhilarating essence to the shows, the same could be said about sports broadcasts and live reality TV shows.
There is no doubt that with the rise of social media, there is an end to an era of tradition where the dramatic arts is concerned, yet there is also promise of the rise of innovation for the arts as well. As a professional in the art of theatre, my professor was quick to explain how the use of technology and social media in drama productions was neither a good or a bad sign for the art itself. Sticking to what’s old and traditional has its perks: living in the moment is thrilling and beautiful, with a sense of urgency and magical realism that transports the audience.
Yet, we would be fooling ourselves to ignore the advantages that arise with the development of social media. It has the ability to reach a greater audience, to have a chance of prolonging the experience of being in the moment and to incorporate modern values of the new generations into art. Many forms of culture and values that are presented on stage are outdated and unreflective of the way society thinks now, (think of Shakespeare trying to beat a woman into submission in the Taming of the Shrew.) Therefore, there is always room for change and growth in a medium as freeing as drama. This open field of art meets nicely with the open possibilities of the Digital Age.