Tweet Seating: We should be discouraging mobiles in theatres

Regular theatre-goers all have their horror stories regarding experiences with audiences, as theatre etiquette appears to be becoming a thing of the past. We’ve all experienced noisy eaters, drunkenness, incessant chattering and yo-yo toileteers …but one of the worst offenders are the phone fiends, who just can’t seem to resist the lure of technology for even a few hours. Audience members using their phones during a performance is probably the biggest complaint among theatre-goers and cast members alike, which is why the appearance of ‘tweet seating’ in the West End is both surprising and dismaying.

‘Tweet seating’ is something which has been around for a few years in the US, but it seems to have finally made its way to our shores as Once the Musical has recently been trialling the controversial practice. What is ‘tweet seating’, I hear some of you ask? Basically, a seat/seats is/are set aside for individuals to live-tweet throughout a performance, with permission from the theatre. The tweeter can post photos and offers a running commentary on the show, performers and so forth with the purpose of engaging social media users to the show’s benefit. It is a hot topic that has arguments running for and against it, but mobiles are increasingly becoming a problem in relation to the theatre and I really don’t see how a ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ stance is going to help in any way.

Designated seats in which the use of mobile phones is not only condoned but encouraged in the theatre is, in my opinion, one of the worst ideas ever cooked up – I’m not alone in thinking this either. Most theatre-goers have had the experience of their visit to the theatre being sullied by fellow audience members and their phones, whether through camera flashes, screens lighting up or even calls being taken during the performance. It’s disruptive to those seated around them, and also the actors on stage, which is why there is generally a pre-show announcement about the prohibition of  mobile phones. How can there be one rule for one, and one rule for another though? I find it difficult to see the reasoning behind banning most of the audience from using phones and giving permission to a select few in the same breath, and so will the audience members who will ignore any warnings and think it okay to use their phones because others are allowed to. There will also be those in the audience who have no idea what ‘tweet seating ‘ is and may simply follow suit when they see these individuals on their phones because they don’t know any different. It’s a slippery slope and one which I can envision causing a mountain of problems that will see an increase in the usage of phones during performances.

People using phones in the theatre are so hated by theatre-goers because of the distraction caused by them, as mentioned above. Theatres which have jumped on the ‘tweet seating’ bandwagon have attempted to combat this by being careful in choosing where to place their tweeting visitors, with the aim of positioning them where they won’t prove a distraction to fellow audience members. These seats are usually on the side or at the back of the auditorium, where their occupants will be least conspicuous as they tweet away on their phones. Honestly though, I don’t think there is any seat in any theatre where the glare from the screen won’t be visible to someone in the audience, and therefore a distraction to them.

Another key point in the issue that has been raised is this: just how much attention can you pay to the performance itself when you’re spending half your time looking down at your phone to tweet? I’ve often been sat at home watching a film on TV when I’ve received a text from a friend and entered into a conversational exchange with them that leads me to miss an important scene or line or completely tune out for a moment. It’s all too easy to be distracted when you have a phone in your hand and the same will be just as true in the theatre as it is at home. If you’re thinking up something witty and interesting to tweet, you’ll miss what’s happening on stage. If you’re looking down at your phone to type, you’ll miss what’s happening on stage. It’s as simple as that. It’s impossible to fully concentrate on both at the same time, and because of that, the tweeter’s ability to reliably comment on their experience of the show is compromised. The joy of theatre is that is offers an experience in which the audience can lose themselves in a fantasy world and forget the reality of their own life and problems for a few hours, but no-one can immerse themselves in the actor’s performances and the story being told on stage when they’re constantly updating on events on social media. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who feels the need to tweet throughout a performance should just stay at home because they clearly don’t understand or appreciate the magic of the theatre experience.

Easy access to information is just a fact of life nowadays and people are not just used to being a fingertip away from being able to find out anything they want to know, or getting in touch with anyone they want to speak to, but have come to expect it too. This is why they have such a hard time switching off for even a few hours at the theatre. The strongest argument for ‘tweet seating’ is that it acknowledges the relationship between the theatre and technology and embraces people’s increasing reliance on gadgets such as iPads and mobiles. I’ve previously written on the subject of social media in regards to the theatre and agree that it is a useful tool  for promotion in this day and age; my views haven’t changed in that respect, but I don’t think ‘tweet seating’ falls under the same banner. Allowing people to tweet before and after the show, as well as during intermissions, causes no issues, but allowing it during the performance crosses a line that just shouldn’t be crossed. Fans utilising social media is certainly beneficiary to theatre production, but it should be kept outside of the show as fans tweeting during performances should be a definite ‘no-no’. Cast members tweeting backstage or employees of the theatre tweeting from the back of the auditorium could be far better options for a show looking to connect with people through social media?

The recent test-trial of ‘tweet seating’ by the West End production of Once has ignited a debate over the practice, but the hammer seems to be falling on the side of ‘Nay’ as most theatre fans have registered their disapproval concerning the matter. A poll set up on a theatre website showed that 74% of people said they ‘hated the idea’, while one individual went the extra mile in their opposition of ‘tweet seating’ following a discussion on our London Theatre facebook page. Theatre fan Michelle Hedley set up a petition to openly protest against the introduction of ‘tweet seating’ in the UK, addressed to the producers of Once and all other theatre producers in the UK.

Whether ‘tweet seating’ is actually on its way to becoming standard practice here in the UK remains to be seen, as at the moment it has simply been trialled at a few shows. We can only hope that trials is as far as it goes. Perhaps theatres do need to adapt to the rising grip that technology has on society today, but this is not the way. Respect for the audience and the cast far outweighs any benefit live-tweeting may possess, if any, and if anything needs to be addressed then it is the growing lack of this respect apparent at the theatre. ‘Tweet-seating’ is a ridiculous attempt to appear ‘cool’ and identify with the technologically-savvy audiences of today. It panders to the few while widely ignoring the needs of the many, and it’s about time the theatre industry got tough instead of  using bargaining and bribing to deal with the infantile individuals whose bad behaviour ruins the experience for everyone else. Forget about ‘tweet seats’. Time to bring in the ‘naughty step’!

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 18th September 2014