Theater should tackle, not just concede to, technology

by Benjamin D. Kabialis / Theater Columnist • April 5, 2012

Modern technology is changing the wiring of the human brain, and American theater is unprepared. The theater is one of a few places left where a person is expected to turn off their cell phone, sit still, and pay attention. It is not surprising, then, that the growing trend of “Tweet Seats” is so bitterly opposed by journalists and bloggers covering theater. 

Adopters of the movement, which The Bostson Globe reported will soon come to Lyric Stage and Central Square Theater, reserve special seats, out of view of others, for audience members to check and post tweets during performances. The anti-Tweet Seat mentality, shared by 89.8 percent of theatergoers in a recent Guardian poll, is that modern distractions don’t belong in the theater.  

The trend may end up short-lived or harmless. But with or without Tweet Seats, the immersion, focus, and presence at the foundation of theater is threatened by neurological and cultural changes. Can the art form keep up, or will it be reduced to a theater of stimulation? Ousting Tweet Seats, or cell phones all together, will not prevent modern technological distraction.

In January, the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology Conference reported that employees who use smartphones are beginning to feel phantom vibrations induced by the stress to reply to texts and emails. Even if a theater manages to successfully pack a house, there is no guarantee that folks these days can pay full attention over a long period of time.

This invisible, psychological challenge is becoming increasingly apparent.  Oxford professor of synaptic pharmacology Susan Greenfield has written that technologies such as social networking, text messaging, and television are reducing the connections our brains make to immediate and superficial levels. The art form’s foundations — conversation, empathy, relationships — are being undermined at an actual neurological level. Industry thinkers are stuck making simple, reactionary measures.

Many theaters are claiming that Tweet Seats will help maintain attention by encouraging community and interaction. Some honest marketing directors are making no such pretensions. Nick Peterson, marketing director of Central Square Theater, told The Boston Globe Magazine’s Miss Conduct blog, “My hope for any theater that implements Tweet Seats would be that twweeters would become so engrossed and absorbed in the theatrical experience that they would forget to update their followers.”  

Tweet Seats are essentially the first concession by theaters to a growing group of people who desire only to partially concentrate. Rather than resist this particular movement, those who want to see artistic integrity remain in the theater need to come to terms with modern changes and find more stimulating ways of integrating them. 

Theater continues to pander to an aging, dying subscriber base. Why not solve two problems at once? Rather than throwing a few seats into the back of a theater, artistic directors should allow a new group of young, tech-literate artists to take the lead.