Commentary: Does the future of theater depend on allowing audiences to text?

Pamela Putch, L.A. Stage Times, 6/21/11

At the TCG conference, futurist David Houle explained how our culture is moving at a faster pace than ever imagined, and as new generations are born how they will live in a world of virtual communication that we cannot imagine today.  Houle addressed the theater makers directly with the ultimate question -- how do you keep the theater thriving in this future environment?  I have to admit that I was overwhelmed at times by the concepts he was putting forth. Does the future of the theater depend on inviting youth into the theaters by allowing texting during performances or by someday wearing goggles in theaters, which would give virtual information on the performance thereby making it an interactive experience? I worried that this would change what I loved and cherished about the theater.  I thought about it more as it related to my very profit-based commercial advertising world. Just as the world of radio morphed into television, television is even now transforming into a new world, an interactive web-based world. One day the television experience may only be accessible via the internet. Would the theater world be left behind if it didn't embrace this virtual world? Obviously, the theater already uses the internet to sell tickets, promote shows and keep audiences connected. But in an age when people can remain in the comfort of their own homes to work, shop and view movies, how can the theater inspire patrons to get out of the house and attend live theatrical performances?


FROM TC: This research may help explain why audiences are more likely to be texting while watching a live performance:


Survey: 1/3 of U.S. viewers multitask while watching TV, 6/15/11

About one-third of U.S. viewers multitask while watching TV from live or time-shifted programming.  Surfing the Internet is the biggest activity -- 56% of all multitasking. But other activities earn high scores as well -- reading a book, magazine, or newspaper (44%), social networking (40%) and mobile phone texting (37%). This data comes from a recent Harris Interactive poll with Adweek surveying 2,309 U.S. adults in May of this year.  The survey says about one-third shop online while watching TV (29%). A smaller number of TV multitaskers -- 7% -- read a book on an electronic device.   Harris Interactive says multitasking soars while watching TV, although about 40% of U.S. viewers have DVR machines where they can stop and start TV shows to do other activities. The survey says this may be a result of Americans' decreasing amount of free leisure time.  Young TV viewers are most likely to use electronic devices -- computers, phones and tablets -- for their multitasking efforts. Older adults will use more analog ways -- reading a book, magazine or newspaper.   Overall, men will use more electronic devices than women -- 20% of the time for mobile phones versus 16% of the time for women. Men will use a computer or tablet 8% of the time versus 6% for women. College graduates do more multitasking than non-graduates. About 3% say they don't watch TV at all.


Commentary: Is it time the arts embrace use of smartphones during performances?

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune, 7/6/11

People are silently firing up their smartphone screens in darkened theaters everywhere. During plays. At concerts. And it shows no sign of going away.  Even audience members who are firmly against texting midshow (or tweeting or checking in on Foursquare) can find themselves falling victim to the lure of the smartphone vibration.  "I do think it's a kind of Pavlovian response, a primitive response," said Nicholas Carr, who explores this phenomenon in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. "In all sorts of situations people find it harder and harder not to glance at their smartphone. And what starts to happen is that things that used to be considered incredibly rude will, as more and more people start doing it, suddenly become normal. And then it just feeds on itself."  Many venue owners and performers said they started noticing a change in audience behavior about three years ago. In 2009, 11% of mobile phone users in the U.S. had a smartphone. By April of this year that number tripled.  A number of entertainment endeavors are now incorporating our smartphone addictions into the show.  Some bands, for example, are using technology that allows fans to text song requests during a concert.  "In my book I talk about a symphony where the conductor sends out tweets during the course of the performance to explain musical references to the piece," said Carr. "Obviously those tweets are set up ahead of time, he's not tweeting while he's conducting. But it just shows that even at the symphony, where you would want to encourage undistracted listening, even there you're seeing them responding to the desire people have to fiddle with their gadgets at every moment of the day."


Commentary: Active 'meta-conversations' about a performance = success

Trisha Mead, 2AM Theatre blog, 7/7/11

You can't give hundreds of millions of people a device that fits into their pocket and gives them instant access to all the information ever gathered on the planet (and everyone they've ever met) and expect this not to transform the way we do everything (including experience live performance). Right now, we are about 2 years past an event horizon that we will later look back at and describe as being as truly transformative as the invention of the electric lightbulb.  It's a kind of social Wild West right now, a lawless time where disruptive technology has arrived but the social agreements that integrate that technology into our lives successfully is still emerging. The new etiquette will emerge. But it will not be the same as before smartphones existed.  As primary communicators (artists/performers) we will need to let go of the expectation that silence and eyes on the front of the room means attention successfully grabbed. Instead we should look for active meta-conversations about the topic/performance to signal successful absorption and dissemination of the experience.  For the performers who successfully make the paradigm shift there are huge opportunities to gauge the relevance, impact, popularity and success of an event in a whole new way. There [are] also huge risks -- you will not be able to control the message if you bomb. You will need to work harder to be more interesting than the meta-conversations you have inspired. You will need to create work that allows space for meta-conversation to unfold. That will be an uncomfortable adjustment for most people.  And, just like our brains require the occasional absence of light in order to have downtime and recharge, society will ultimately evolve safe spaces where we will, by mutual agreement, turn off our devices and be whole and complete in the moment. Will the theater be one of those spaces? I'm not so sure. Perhaps.

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