Theatre & Social Media: Follow the Conversations
I doubt whether many of Twitter’s 200 million odd users have paused to look at the website’s About page, but for the first time the other day I took a curious peek. Buried in among the blurb about information, networks and embedded media, there were a couple of phrases that jumped off the computer screen at me. The first was the suggestion to users to ‘tell your story’ and the second was Twitter’s description of itself as a service that allows us to ‘follow the conversations’.
These are two phrases that theatres might take heed of. The arts world has recently been all a twitter, if you will, over the ways in which theatres use social media, and the prognosis is not good. It was clear from the debate (twebate? too far?) kicked off on Twitter by The Public Reviews (@publicreviews) that many audience members and arts professionals are far from happy about the tactics employed by theatres on this platform, with the main culprits being over-zealous retweeting and endless promotional tweets.
In response to such complaints, Jake Orr (@jakeyoh) of A Younger Theatre (@ayoungertheatre) asked Should Arts Organisations Use Twitter? Using a rather apt analogy, Jake argued that ‘Twitter isn’t a complex beast that needs taming, it’s like a constantly-moving shoal of fish’. He went on to complain:
There is, however, a vast array of organisations which seem to feel that social media equates to marketing. They don’t swim with the shoal, they are the fishermen above casting their lines in an attempt to hook something. The problem comes when none of the fish want to be caught on a hook and dragged to the surface to land up on some fisherman’s dinner plate.
I will spare you all a rehash of the arguments about what theatres are doing wrong in relation to Twitter, as this is ground that has already been well covered, and I would instead suggest taking a nosy at Mr Orr’s comments on the matter. Rather than focusing on where arts organisations are going wrong, it is about time we thought about what Twitter and other online platforms can do for theatres and other creative bodies and how such platforms might be better utilised.
The question of how a theatre engages with the online community runs deeper than just Twitter. Dan Baker (@dan_baker83), writing about online presence for ArtsProfessional (@ArtsPro), states that ‘online presence brings with it a need for “brand identity” – the ways in which audiences view the company they are interacting with’. Social media, rather than a handy add-on or half-baked afterthought, needs to be a fully integrated part of an organisation’s online identity, creating an internet presence that is informative, creative and approachable.
Shakespeare’s Globe (@The_Globe) is, in my opinion, a good example of one theatre that is beginning to get it right, using Twitter to converse as well as promote and setting up fun interactive projects like their virtual Forest of Arden on Facebook.
To go back to where this article began, I am a firm believer that it is all about conversation and storytelling – two of the things that theatre does best. In an interview for a feature I wrote earlier this year, the Nuffield Theatre’s Mark Courtice commented that a theatre should be ‘a place where the community can discuss the things that matter’. Theatre is often very successful at opening up such discussions, so why not extend this dialogue to the online community?
The arts community, both professionals and fans, has grabbed hold of Twitter with both hands, giving theatres a ready-made audience if they can exploit it. These are people who understand how to use the internet to start up a conversation, so take the discussion to them and they will do the rest. Arts organisations need to ask questions, respond to the questions of others, stoke the fires of impassioned debate. The key word to sum it up is engagement.
That then brings us to storytelling. Far from being just a vehicle for users to share banal observations about their last meal or the current contestants on X Factor, Twitter offers great opportunities for creativity. While 140 characters may not sound like a lot, some imaginative users have started writing short stories in tweet form, these short but sweet bursts of narrative giving new meaning to the genre of flash fiction.
The RSC (@TheRSC) created their own experiment with Twitter drama Such Tweet Sorrow, and while this project was far from perfect and I certainly would not suggest something on this scale for all theatres, it was a step in the right direction in terms of exploring what social media can be used for.
Appearing in the midst of all this debate about theatres and social media is the online campaign for Betwixt! (@BetwixtMusical), a new production of the musical comedy opening at Trafalgar Studios 2 on 26 July. Breaking convention by using tumblr instead of a traditional website, the production team are boldly experimenting with a new interactive promotional tactic, encouraging theatregoers to get involved through Q&As, ticket treasure hunts, interactive video blogs and, of course, Twitter. Such an approach tells a dual story, engaging audience members not only in the show itself but also in the narrative of the production coming together.
Whether audiences are ready for Betwixt!‘s striking marketing strategy remains to be seen, but it will at the very least begin to get people talking. Theatre is a conversation and it is one that theatregoers want in on. So unless you’re Hamlet, stop giving us a soliloquy and let’s have some dialogue.
My comments only begin to suggest what improvements could be made; open up the conversation and leave your suggestions about how arts organisations should use social media.
Fellow tweeters can follow me here: @CatherineLove21