Tweet Seats and Other Attempts at Audience Engagement

The Mobile Symphony Orchestra in Alabama introduced its “tweet seats” late last year during a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. The seats are located in the back row of the auditorium and are made available to those who wish to text or tweet during the performance. This type of move is representative of many arts organizations’ attempts to encourage audiences to engage technologically with performances.

“Although the trend has yet to hit the nation’s largest cities or most prominent companies, arts organizations from Minnesota’s Guthrie Theatre to Palm Beach Opera have begun allowing — nay, encouraging — audiences to break out their mobile devices and respond to performances in real time, even as the actors, singers, and players onstage are working hard to hold everyone’s gaze,” writes Pacific Standard.

The article also notes that the Mobile Symphony example is “just one facet of a larger shift taking place in the performing arts — one that champions ‘audience engagement’ and, in the minds of critics, subtly denigrates ‘passive spectating.’” Meaning, it’s not enough for arts organizations to just put on a good show anymore. That show must also contain interactive, personal elements for the audience.

“That means prepping your audience ahead of time, debriefing them afterwards, and giving them opportunities to comment or participate as well as observe. In some cases, audience engagement means inviting people to sing, play, or dance along with the performers; in others, to split their attention between the stage and (very small) screen,” the article explains.

The trend gives rise to some important questions, hotly debated by professionals and scholars on both sides: “Is sustained focus even possible in mass audiences anymore? If not, what have we lost? But part of the discussion, taken on its own terms, boils down to a fairly tractable psychological question: Who, really, is more engaged? Is it the audience member holding a screen and responding to the action with his thumbs, or the one sitting silently in the dark with her eyes glued to the stage?”