Technology must be accommodated but must first be understood and tamed
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
One of my favourite comics, Patton Oswalt, fought an unpleasant battle in the live vs. tech war this week. He was in a club, working for free, testing new material. He noticed someone started filming him. It threw him off because the material was so raw, the taping had begun well into the bit and he didn't want it being exposed to the world before it was ready. All good reasons for being perturbed. But Oswalt, despite his bitter onstage persona, is a fairly decent person who, right that moment, became (reportedly) a little undecent at the filmer's, a woman's, expense.
... it signals that a collision is coming and theatres need to consider it.
The bloggosphere and Twittersphere exploded. (I don't much care if you don't like those words…get used to them.) People came out pro and con Oswalt and the woman who was filming him. Oswalt was called upon to defend himself in his own blog, which I thought he did rather well. (Read it here and do read the link he suggests at the top of the piece of a witness.)
I don't much care who was right or wrong here, but I do know it signals that a collision is coming and theatres need to consider it. Facebook, Twitter and the very blog you are reading have created a culture in which people want to share things and there is a premium on sharing things that are new. Not new as in yesterday. New as in NOW!
One of the results is that reviewers feel the pressure to get their thoughts out faster. That's a good thing. Theatre works better for me and my ideas are clearer when I am writing a review based on an immediate gut reaction. (But that's just me; I do not for a moment disrespect the critics who take more time to write a considered reaction.)
The second result, more important to companies, is that people want to Tweet from the theatre, blog from it or share pictures from it. There are about a thousand issues Actors Equity will have to resolve but like it or not there is no turning back from this reality. Audiences, for good or ill, want to turn the experience of theatre into one like film and TV. They want to "talk", if you will.
I do not want the theatres of the world turning into a sea of lighted screens with the air filled by the tapping on virtual keyboards.
Part of me is mortified by this. I do not want the theatres of the world turning into a sea of lighted screens with the air filled by the tapping on virtual keyboards. However, I am also loathe to turn our theatres into sancta santorum - churches of high art where an elite (priests/actors) are sharing from an altar to the massed and mindless followers. However, though I think theatres can be marvellous places I am also aware that many consider them to be a little forbidding in their stodginess.
Tech has snuck into the theatres of the world in other ways and, for the most part, has been embraced. I think immediately of the Metropolitan Opera's subtitling system: a small screen on the seat in front of each spectator which allows us to read the text of a foreign opera in English. I found the perfect use for this when I went to see Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg there and the story came alive for me; then, during a key aria (by Ben Heppner, no less) I turned off the screen and ceded to the well-known music. The small screen bothers no one in other seats.
I think it is key that theatres understand this need to share. I will offer one anecdote: I saw Dreamgirls on Broadway when it first came out and when Jennifer Holliday sang the mind-bending "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" the audience, simply, could not contain itself. They were on their feet roaring with approval halfway through the song and went quite, quite mad at the end. It was a moment of pure theatre ecstasy and that excitement thrummed through to the end of the show. (And probably accounts for the piece's success.)
"Hey! Hamlet! Just kill the fucker!"
I am not advocating that kind of vocal participation for all plays - ("Hey! Hamlet! Just kill the fucker!") - but I am saying that need to participate, share, send out the message, has always been there and has now found its way back into the houses via technology. Theatres can only gain by finding a way to enable it.
It's a touchy business. Companies risk alienating the purists whatever they do technologically (the Met suffered a lot of criticism for its subtitles but now every opera company in the world wishes they had the expensive system). But the purists are dying off and there is no future to any of our arts if we do not allow the new generation to express itself as audiences do now. It has happened at rock concerts, it is happening in comedy clubs (look at the case of poor, stupid Michael Richards), it is happening at movie houses and, especially, in homes around the world where Tweeting about TV is becoming key to the success of certain programs.
Theatres are already discussing reserved Twitter sections of the house (and some Fringe fests have experimented with the actual thing). Twitter nights? Facebook performances? Youtube previews? They're all prickly discussions which must be undertaken by all of us.