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At the theater, when is the right time to tweet, or not to tweet?

When you go to the theater, the first sound you’re most likely to hear won’t be the orchestra tuning or the play’s opening dialogue – it will most likely be someone telling you to turn off your cell phone. Personally, if in the dark of a theater I see one shining screen of light, I do get distracted from the performance at hand. Venues all over the country are beginning to realize that nothing (including attention-critical situations, like driving) can pull someone away from his or her smartphone. Instead of continuing to fight mobile Internet, a few theaters have decided to embrace it. Can you really not stop tweeting for a two hour ballet? Okay, performance halls are saying, just so long as all of you addicts sit together.

The assumption of course is that while Twitter users are in their designated section, tweeting and reading tweets, they are discussing the show and the performers, not the latest celebrity gossip. The Richmond Shakespeare company, based in Virginia, hosted an event last year encouraging all audience members to blog, tweet, and text about anything to do with the show, all in real-time as the performance was happening. One director of a group in Chicago gave a running commentary on “The Man Who Was Thursday” in 2010, all through tweets during the show.

This begs the question: does anything that draws your focus away from a performance, enhance the experience? Many say no. The emotional connection gained from first-time audience members by simply absorbing the words and music from the stage could be ruined when interrupted. There is a reason we all hate the guy in the next row, texting while we’re watching a movie. The same could be said of watching something on the stage.

At the same time, getting extra commentary from behind the scenes, or getting historical background on the piece the orchestra is playing, could be the extra tweet that keeps an audience interested in what’s happening on the stage. The National Symphony Orchestra thought just such a commentary would be a great addition to the audience’s experience. In 2009, they live tweeted Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony.” Before that idea came to fruition, the symphony orchestra’s director Emil de Cou had personally written a Twitter script for audience members to follow. He wanted to give the listeners information they wouldn’t have otherwise, from the conductor and from the composer, to enhance their understanding of the music. His logic: if you only read 140 characters every few minutes or so, you can still be fully engaged in the art being performed.

There’s no doubt that keeping things fresh and technologically in-touch, including art forms that seem more out-of-date to today’s 20-somethings and younger, is a positive outcome from these tweet seats. Attendance of classical concerts by people 24 years old and younger is down by a third, reports the National Endowment for the Arts. By engaging the technology savvy tweeters in concerts, plays, ballets, and more, perhaps there will be more interest in attending overall. The counterpoint is raised that new and spontaneous innovation to a generally static performance art is positive, but trendy-ness shouldn’t be the only contributing factor to deciding whether a performance will or will not incorporate social media. Directors have voiced concerns that while twitter and smartphones can add to the storytelling of a performance, caution should be exercised to ensure that it doesn’t become gimmicky.

Right now, no theaters as renowned as say Carnegie Hall are adopting these tweet seats, but small venues in places like Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Raleigh are testing the waters by adding tweet seats. Time will tell whether this ends up being a detriment or a contribution to the stage.