State of the Arts
It seemed like a terrible idea to me. Why would the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts invite people to fire up their smartphones and tweet through a live performance?
Most of us have precious few opportunities to unplug, and attending a concert is one of them. Imagine: a real, live human being singing and sweating, right there in front of your eyes! If I ran a theater, I might make people check their phones with their coats at the door.
But I was willing to be proven wrong. After all, the Flynn wasn’t alone in offering “Tweet Seats” — a block of seats in the balcony reserved for select audience members who agree to live-tweet the show in exchange for free tickets. The program has gone over well elsewhere in the country, including at Florida’s Palm Beach Opera.
I decided to experience it firsthand.
On Saturday night, about 20 of us Tweet Seaters — including many of Burlington’s most active Twitter users — took our places in the balcony’s front row, while guitarists Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo prepared to take the stage. Already, our smartphones and iPads were glowing, and the tweeting began.
“Many of tonight’s guitars were gathered locally, including the acoustic, belonging to @flynncenter’s Tech Director,” tweeted Chelsea Lafayette.
“David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot’s warmup chords remind me of the best parts of my childhood. It’s acoustic nostalgia,” Rachel Feldman tweeted.
After the duo’s first song, I started to get the hang of things. “Last song finished with an oops,” I tweeted. “Makes me like these guys.”
Before I knew it, I was in full-blown Twitter mode. And I’ll admit it: It was really fun. The music was great, and the tweeting made me feel like I belonged to a mini-community — instantaneously. I didn’t have to earn my place to be accepted; I just had to use the right hash tag. It was like sitting at the kids’ table. We were the raucous ones, quipping to a great soundtrack, while stodgy grownups sat downstairs, earnestly taking in the music.
It felt subversive just to be sitting in that grand, art-deco theater and noodling on my iPhone.
Still, as an arts writer, I felt at times unfairly influenced by other Tweet Seaters’ opinions. I enjoyed Ribot’s voice — which was weaker than Hidalgo’s, but endearingly vulnerable — until other tweeters started criticizing it.
And I worried that I was enjoying the show in the same obsessive way I enjoy refreshing Facebook to see how many new people have liked or commented on my awesome new status. In the midst of a great song, I found myself pulling out of the musical trance because I was afraid I was missing out on the conversation.
Shay Totten, who was tweeting two seats down from me, told me later in an email that he found the live-tweeting more distracting than he’d expected. “It affected my ability to truly listen to the music,” he wrote. “It was like having a speechless conversation with a bunch of people — all fun, interesting and smart — but a conversation nonetheless during a pretty remarkable performance.”
At times, the music overpowered Twitter’s allure. “How you know #flynntweets tweeters are lost in the music… the glow of the iPhones dims across the balcony,” tweeted Nichole Magoon.
Did our Twitter feed amount to anything meaningful? I’m really not sure. If the Flynn’s main goal was promotional, it seemed to work to the extent that a handful of people following the feed tweeted they wished they’d been there.
“It’s pretty cool to read the tweets from everyone live tweeting @FlynnCenter tonight. ALMOST feels like I’m there,” tweeted Elaine Young.
But some of us felt ambivalent about live-tweeting live music. “When I’m at a show at Higher Ground with glasses clinking, people talking, jostling and such, I always feel less concerned about using my phone to post pictures, tweet or text friends,” Totten wrote in a postshow email. “But, at a sit-down theater like the Flynn, and with such commanding artists as Ribot and Hidalgo, I felt as if I was cheating on them. They deserved our rapt attention to become connected to the performance, and even though I was granted license to tweet during the show, I still felt guilty doing it. A disrespect they didn’t deserve.”
Louisa Stein, assistant professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College and a big fan of live-tweeting culture, disagrees. It’s only cheating, she writes in an email, “if you’re subscribing to a vision of media/theater/art that’s one-to-many, and [that] as an audience member, you’re just supposed to soak it all in.” If you approach a performance “as a collective meeting of performer and audience,” Stein continued, “then I wouldn’t say there’s cheating going on, but rather increased visibility of the creative collective.”
“The early returns look good,” wrote the Flynn’s marketing communications manager, Kevin Titterton, in an email after the show. “I get the sense that people were connecting with each other and that it added something to the experience.” He says the venue is likely to do it again “if we have a show that’s a good fit and we can stick people in the balcony.”
I asked Totten if he’d sign up for another round of Tweet Seats. “To listen to great performances like Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo? Yes, I’d do it again,” he wrote. “But I’d probably tweet less, listen more.”