Thomas Cott’s “You’ve Cott Mail” today includes quite a bit about technology and the presentation of artistic performance. A wide range of viewpoints are covered, from the Grateful Dead’s free seats for tapers policy to a jazz musician who refuses to record and is only interested in engaging live audiences with his music. (The jazz musician’s position is one that rings true to me on an artistic level. However, there’s nothing like having folding money in my pocket. Selling CDs – and books – at gigs is a sure avenue to having some walking around dough. But that’s a whole other topic.)
I clicked the link to a discussion with the artistic director of the Steppenwolf in Chicago weighs and an arts “researcher”. I’m going to restrain myself from ranting about the topsy turvy top down admin-heavy cultural institutions and grants-making process and stick to the topic as it was presented
One of the most interesting things on that link was a photo from the rear of an auditorium somewhere that was labeled “Tweet seats”. That really struck me as exactly what cultural institutions need these days. “Tweet seats” or even better “Tech Seats” are the 21st century equivalent of “the pit” in Shakespeare’s day.
Most of the big cultural institutions ban the use of mobile devices such as cell phone cameras (still or video), texting, tweeting and so forth. While my personal approach is to avoid Twitter and FaceBook, when I sit on the bandstand in a saloon playing music and see someone holding up their cell phone and video taping or snapping pix, a big smile breaks out on my face. Text us, tweet us, share us! We love it!
While the technology isn’t for me, personally, I understand that this is how young people spread the word. “Word of mouth” is spread by handheld technology and it includes photos and videos. I want people to tweet about the band, to send or post photos of us, to post videos of our performances on YouTube. I want young people to turn out for our music, and to drink and eat and get stoned and so on – in other words, enjoy themselves.
When (should I say "if"?) "Ukulele Land" ever gets the production it deserves, I will cajole, beg, demand -- whatever it takes to allow people to spread the word by using their handhelds during performances. This is a musical for everyone, but especially for audiences who consider the 21st century their century.
People are tired of the mushroom approach to culture. The mushroom approach is, basically, stick the audience in a dark room and have them sit quietly while they absorb whatever is being presented (ie., “the bullshit”) on stage. There’s the rub, as the saying goes. The greatest plays in literature were created by Shakespeare. (I would argue for including Moliere in that statement but, for this discussion, let’s stick with the guy who’s plays are the most performed on the planet.)
In Shakespeare’s day there was a pit – an area in front of the stage where audience members stood and drank, ate, cat-called and so on throughout the performances. These were the cheap seats – or lack of seats, as it were.
Shakespeare, in his writing, had to play to the pit. He had to win them over with story and language, as did his contemporaries.
Somewhere along the line, some admin (theater manager) came up with the idea of selling the seats closest to the stage to the uptight rich folks for top dollar. The rest, as they say, is history. (And soon it might really be history!)
Today’s young audience members tend to be respectful when they get respect. My experience is that if you engage them with your performance, they will be riveted, and they will want to share the experience. Sometimes, people will rush right over to to the joint and increase the crowd factor as a result of receiving a digital message. While that might work for a saloon, theater performances admittedly are more structured and require ticket sales and so forth. However, word of mouth is word of mouth, and young people today have their own way of sharing and it is technological.
Theater admins will argue that theater unions won’t allow their members performances to be electronically recorded, etc etc. Just the term itself “electronically recorded” is so outmoded that somebody’s got to come up with a joke about it soon. Theatrical unions have to come into the 21st century as much as theaters do. It is up to the the unions' younger members to demand changes to their contracts that allow for digital word of mouth, a digital pit, if you will..
Otherwise, theater admins and theater union admins may find themselves looking for work sooner rather than later. Wouldn’t that be an interesting turn of events?