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Theater and the Internet

We often consider technology an imposition on both our craft and our business: social media putting pressure on everything from marketing to performance, for example, or IT budgets draining resources from “more important” work. But the etymological root of technology is techne: the Greek word for art. To paraphrase cartoonist Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Every month, this column will investigate the ways in which technology can inspire us, transform us, and help us chart a new course in the 21st century. Thanks for—to use a radio metaphor—tuning in.



Is it possible that we’ve actually underestimated the effect of the internet on the future of the American theater? I think it might be.

I’m not talking about the ways in which theater is marketed or tickets are sold. I’m talking about the art. I’m talking about the ways people want to interact with culture.

The internet is just shy of two decades old, give or take, but it only achieved greater than 50 percent adoption among adults in the United States about a dozen years ago. (Kids lagged behind for a while, but they passed their parents several years back.) That means there are young people currently applying to colleges right now who have never lived in a world without the internet, which entered the zeitgeist when they were just beginning to form long-term memories.

Most of them—and this may go without saying—do not yet buy theater tickets. This is in large part, of course, because of their age, but when they get older…will they?

Here’s my concern.

The internet is the dominant technology of the last decade…and it’s deeply interactive. We create narratives by making click choices as we surf: we discover “mini-narratives”—websites, YouTube and Vine videos, Tumblrs, tweets, emails…all the stuff the internet is made of—and assemble them, connect them, comment on them, argue about them, remix them, tell our own stories about them, and transform them into memes. Cultural experiences mediated by the internet are inherently collaborative.


Cultural experiences mediated by the internet are inherently collaborative.


The whole notion of audience? It almost doesn’t exist. Not on the internet, not in the way we often think of audiences in the theater: as passive recipients of a well-polished story being delivered by storytellers to whom we have ceded a great deal of control over the dynamics of the environment. Yes, lip service is paid to the fact that theater audiences aren’t actually passive—that we act in a great variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, from shifting in our seats to offering standing ovations—but come on: very little theater is actually made with the expectation of genuine interactivity.

And that’s fine, really… There’s nothing wrong with that kind of theater. In fact, let me be even more aggressively positive and say what everyone reading this column surely knows: profound experiences can and do come from sitting in large groups and paying undivided attention for a couple of hours to storytellers with our best interests in mind. That mode of storytelling is especially (though not only) appropriate for older audiences: those of us who were brought up in the era of appointment television. We fully expect to have to show up when the story starts and watch until it’s over. We even like it.

But have you noticed how much we also like, say, Sleep No More? Immersive theater experiences in which we create individual stories by dint of where we focus our attention are emerging and increasing in popularity, and they owe as much to the non-linear (or less linear) world of gaming as they do to theater. Importantly, they change the fundamental relationship of audience and artist; the “I” of each audience member is more deeply integrated into the narrative than ever before. Podcast plays belong to this same category, too, and performances for the unwitting in public spaces. I’m reminded, in a kind of inverted way, of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, which changed the physical and thus psychological relationship between viewer and no-longer-quite-stationary-object. An expansion of our vocabulary is surely underway.

I realize there are going to be several people reading this column who will suggest that asking theater to be more interactive is tantamount to asking, say, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to be more like spaghetti and meatballs. I think that’s mistaken; I think the framing of that concern is a distraction. I think our audiences are walking into our theaters (or, more specifically, NOT walking into them) with increasing desire for and expectation of a different kind of cuisine than we’re giving them…and we can either learn how to prepare new dishes or, like so many other restaurants before us, go out of business.

So here’s my question about those seventeen year-olds getting ready to matriculate to colleges across the country: when some of them inevitably enter theater programs, what kind of plays will they learn to devise? Do we know how to teach them to make interactive work? Maybe we do. I don’t know. And when they all graduate, no matter what they study, and start using their new-found disposable income to purchase access to cultural experiences, what are they going to be looking for? The by then perhaps less familiar experience of sitting still in neat rows of seats? Perhaps. Sure. But might they really be craving a more interactive mode of storytelling?

Technology both reflects and changes the ways in which we think. The interactivity of the internet is embedded inside of us. The internet is inside of us, even when we walk into a theater. It’s right there in our pockets, accessible through the miniature computers we call phones, and it’s right there in our heads. And I fear that if we don’t start telling more stories designed to accommodate that simple fact, we might be in trouble.

So let’s get started. Let’s position ourselves not in opposition to the audiences’ growing desire for interactivity but in partnership with it. Let’s move into the space between a writer-centric narrative and an open audience-centric exploratory experience like the internet and explore the tensions between those two paradigms. Let’s see what’s possible.


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Gwydion Suilebhan discusses the impact of technology on theatre.



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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Maybe I misread the article, but I don't think the point is just about using the internet to involve audiences in plays. Rather there may be an increasing expectation among audiences that they will be involved as part of the action once they're at the show itself.

Having worked in the theatre as well as being an audience member, I don't know how true that is - at least here in the UK, where we're generally a reserved crowd. Theatre audiences still expect to be somewhat hidden behind the fourth wall. When you cross that line, things can get very uncomfortable, very quickly, especially if the performance is on the dark side.

I witnessed this first-hand in a couple of stage shows: Tim Crouch's "The Author", and La Fura Dels Baus' "XXX". The former was a deliberate crossing of the invisible boundary, and saw the audience split in two, sat facing each other, with the actors dotted among the crowd. It was all acted from within the audience, and had dark, violent, and graphic themes that prompted several walk-outs (and, apparently, caused people in other performances to faint). The latter show was about the porn industry, and involved some very graphic "audience participation" on stage (though I suspect it was actors pretending to be audience members).

The point is, despite both being excellent in their own right, the 'interactive' element of these plays was what brought in the audiences... but it was more the novelty of the interactivity, than the interactivity itself.

If most productions were 'interactive' in this way, I suspect audience numbers wouldn't necessarily increase. When people go to the theatre, I believe the majority go to relax and be entertained behind the safety of the fourth wall. It's only a small section of us who come for innovation or something challenging.

I suspect this will still be true, even for the generation who expect interactivity (yet still watch TV), though I'd be interested to see evidence either way.

I am in agreement with Erin's comment, and come at it from some very recent, real-world experience. Lean & Hungry Theater (which produces 1-hour versions of Shakespeare and other classics for live radio, and of which I am the social media manager) recently used social media to allow the characters in our production of Julius Caesar to interact with each other and the general public on Twitter and Facebook. It was a natural fit for this particular treatment, as the setting (New York during the Occupy Movement of 2012) was heavily involved in social media in its own right.

We gave each actor Twitter accounts for their characters (multiple ones in a few cases), a unifying hashtag (#OccupyRomeLnH), and encouraged them to use the account to engage in several activities:

1. Explore and deepen the character(s)

2. Explore and deepen the relationships between characters

3. Comment and interact with the world of New York during the Occupy Movement of 2012

4. Interact with the general public.

5. Interact "live" with the cast on production day as the broadcast was going on.

This experiment, which we're not the first to try by any means, worked well for us *to a limited degree.* We had a relatively small engagement with the general public - which we can chalk up to a number of factors (insufficient marketing of the experiment, fast pace of social media leading to short conversations, not especially deep, limited frequency and recency of posts by the busy actors, etc.). But we found a very profound inter-actor engagement that was especially useful in exploring relationships and, even plumbing depths of character not previously available to our performers. (I think a corollary to this is the engagement Sally Fields and Daniel Day-Lewis used during the lead-up to Lincoln where they used text messaging extensively between their two characters.)

If you like, I have some hard numbers to go along with the conclusions above.

All in all, I think we would be willing to add social media again in future productions as a worthwhile tool among tools.

Great article, Makes me think of a conversation at the National Association of Broadcasters conference 2 years ago about the ground shift between broadcast and online mediums and how there are TV networks in the world of Cable that are beginning to attempt direct interactivity with audiences. I remember hearing talk of a TV show that you would get online to sign up to be part of a group that would be text messaged by characters during the show and get phone messages to deliver clues to the big mystery of the shows prime arc. It was one of the direct ways they were trying to steam the tide of people migrating from "appointment" TV to "click when you want".

The big thing in this conversation (not this article) that we always forget is that there still is appointment TV. National Sporting events, Award Ceremonies, series that people have to watch. There are still young people that are doing that, its just not the whole nation anymore. There is choice and options, which is what we see people want in their entertainment. Its the thing we have not hit exactly in theatre. The majority of theatre is still one type where you sit in your seat and consume and we still have many people fighting that is the only form of theatre that there should be.

While there are tons of choices in genre of theatre, there aren't a ton of choices in the way in which theatre is experienced. There is becoming more and more options in TV and Film viewing and the way in which you interact with it as a viewer, I mean look at TALKING DEAD or TALKING BAD. Its a show about a show in which you can tweet, Facebook, or message the people talking about it and directly interact with them.

Totally agree with Erin that Twitter has caused a number of people to go back to appointment TV, but not enough to actually change what is happening through online mediums and the ways that Broadcast companies are trying new things to keep relevant. She is also right that the level of interactivity can get increasingly expensive depending on how much you want to do. Sleep No More cost Millions to build and create, and your average theatre just can't afford that. So banding together is a great idea, but just shaking things up and looking at how other mediums are dealing with the content shift and trying things out to see how to integrate ideas into theaters is something very exciting.

This conversation gets more and more exciting as it continues and yes rehashes a lot of the same thoughts everyone always has but builds on it all as well. Thanks for having it Howl Round and Thanks for a really thought provoking article.

I agree with a lot of what Gwydion is saying here, but (you knew that was coming, sorry) I think we can expand the definition of interactivity further than just within the performance space. After all, the age of Twitter has re-created the need for appointment television. If going into a TV/movie experience spoiler-free is important to you, than you must experience those events when they air or risk the destruction of your experience. #Scandal? #DayOfTheDoctor? #BreakingBad? You get my point. The conversations around those shows was instant and passionate and there is nothing remotely interactive about consuming television. People indulged their collective need as an audience in organizing their commentary on the product they consumed in a well-understood space (Twitter, blogosphere, comment boards, etc) and this satisfied their desire to speak and be heard and to participate. I feel like theatres lack the (virtual) space to accommodate this level of interactivity, often because of the amount of negativity involved in online cultural discourse, among the more mundane reasons (time, money, expertise). I think this is where the opportunity for interactivity lies in the immediate future, when many theatres will continue to offer the sit-in-your-seat variety of theatre, because they can't create 6 versions of Sleep No More every year. Perhpas a theatre, or a consortium of theatres, could attempt to create a transmedia audience experience (Twitter, blogs, YouTube, podcasts AND plays), as a proof-of-concept? (I can dream, right?)

I love this topic and I love that Howlround is hosting a discussion on technology and culture. Thanks for sharing these thoughts Gwydion.