What does the word live or classical theatre bring to mind? Possibly something simple like a stage and curtains, a dark auditorium, an over-the-top Broadway musical or maybe even Shakespeare, and most likely something from another era. Few today would associate classical theatres with something as modern and now as online social media sites (OSM) like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. However, more and more theatres are quickly recognizing the ability and power of OSM to engage their audiences and attract new patrons in ways that have never been done before. This post is part of our expanding look at how social media is changing our social world and making the old new again. While still new to the theatre scene, online social media tools are now beginning to take center stage in the marketing and promotion of many theatre productions. But it’s more than just a marketing tool, smart and innovative theatre companies are also using OSM to inspire and enlighten their audiences, allowing patrons to understand not only the productions they are seeing, but connecting theatre goers to the very people creating these productions; creating the ultimate back stage pass.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the ‘theatre capital of the world’: New York City. Theatres in NYC are embracing Twitter, Facebook and YouTube with gusto. These tools provide a macrocosmic or microcosmic view of the theatre world in New York City, allowing everyone involve to gather virtually to discuss the drama and minutia of what is happening within the NYC theatre scene. For example, on Twitter there is @Playbill where you can find the most obscure tibits about shows on and off Broadway, or on YouTube you can find channels that feature shows from Broadway.com’s, and on Facebook you can easily find pages that are dedicated to current and past shows such as American Idiot The Musical or Spiderman the Musical. There are also Broadway-based social networking sites such as the New York Theatre Network and BroadwaySpace, created specifically as places where theatre attendees can connect with one another, learn the latest news about Broadway productions and receive ticket discounts. But it is not just theatres in New York City that are embracing online social media. In fact, many Canadian theatre companies including Mirvish Productions, DanCap Productions, The Shaw Festival and The Stratford Shakespeare Festival are actively devising new and ever more interesting ways to use online social media in their work.
At this stage in the relationship between OSM and the theatre, most theatre groups are still using OSM purely as a marketing tool. In particular, theatres are using social media to connect and deepen their relationship with current and future patrons. Prior to the utilization of social media and social networking sites, communication between theatre professionals and patrons could only have occurred through formal meetings such as the meet-and-greet before or after a show, or via letters and emails. Now patrons can easily communicate and interact with theatre companies and their cast members in a multitudes of ways. (Based on my own personal experiences, this increased communication between theatres and their patrons has allowed for more positive and lasting company-patron relations to take place.) By allowing for this kind of lasting relationship between a theatre company and their patrons, the company can ensure a more loyal and supportive following and possibly create lifelong patrons.
But it is not just marketing anymore, more recently some of the more avant-garde theatre companies have begun experimenting with using online social media to actually create brand new types of theatrical performances. For example, Twitter has been used to recreate one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays: Romeo and Juliet. In April of 2010, the Royal Shakespeare Company developed the first ever professionally acted Twitter Shakespearean play entitled: Such Tweet Sorrow. Over a five week period, actors tweeted to one another and their followers from the point of view of characters in Romeo and Juliet, while roughly following the storyline set out by Shakespeare, but resetting it in modern day London (Cimolino, 2010). This daring theatrical experiment is only one example of how theatre companies are beginning to use OSM to develop new kinds of performances, and in the future we are likely to see even more experimentation using social media tools.
One early and strong proponent of using social media in support of the theatres in Canada is Mr. Antoni Cimolino, the General Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (the largest classical repertory theatre in North America). Showing the depth of his understanding of how OSM is fundamentally changing the way theatres must relate to their patrons in the future, Mr. Cimolino recognizes that: “…we have go beyond the traditional model of communication – in which carefully crafted information is delivered to a passively waiting populace – and embrace the interactive, fluid, dynamic and democratic possibilities afforded by today’s social media.” (Cimolino, 2010:8). This summer, the Social Media Lab will be conducting a case study of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s use of Twitter to gain a broader understanding of how theatres are using social media to connect with audiences, and specifically whether or not it will help to attract younger patrons. The results of the study will be posted on our website later this Fall.
*Written by Amanda Wilk, with contribution from Philip Mai and Anatoliy Gruzd.
Cimolino, A. (2010). Who’s afraid of the brave new world? What does the digital revolution mean for the future of classical theatre? Unpublished paper. Retrieved from http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/uploadedFiles/Stratford/media/2010_Speeches/10_AC_whos_afraid_of_the_brave_new_world.pdf?n=7812