Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

The Foundational Problem in Implementing Social Media in Big Theatre

In Social media, Theatre on November 22, 2006 at 10:18 pm

Web pages, email and so forth are technologies that can be dovetailed into the traditional approach to communication, that is, top-down, broadcast communication. No one is really threatened by these technologies, just inconvenienced, because they support and further the traditional approach to communications and marketing.

However, as has been catalogued numerous times by people with more time and know-how than I have, people have grown utterly disgusted by this approach. No one wants you to cold-call their house at dinner time. No one wants your email about boner pills and software. No one wants brochures for leaf blowers to arrive at their apartment in Chelsea. Again and again and again, people have voted. One example will due. The standard rate of positive response for an email campaign is two percent. Two percent. That means for every positive action, you need to send out 50 emails. That’s 49 people who have been inconvenienced by you. The approach is cold, lacking in fellow-feeling and inefficient.

This new generation of technologies—blogs, podcasts, forums, file- and photo-sharing, RSS feeds, MySpace and Facebook, etc.—has been referred to as “disruptive technologies.” Disruptive because they completely break with, and break, what has come before. If you are not in a position to embrace two-way conversations, you will find disruptive technologies to be extremely threatening.

The theatre has a special situation, but one which meshes with this society-wide backlash against being told to sit down and shut up and listen. Already early adopters, secondary adopters, businesses and media have embraced these new technologies. Theatre, almost without any exception, has not. A medium built on communication refuses, in essence, to communicate. The contempt for the audience this implies is palpable.

The story of how this attitude came to predominate is instructive.

In the 60s and 70s, a generation of theatre professionals turned their backs on the pandering, bottom-line-driven theatre of Broadway. In an attempt, no doubt earnest, to return theatre to a place where it could provide people with intellectual and spiritual sustenance, this generation developed non-profit theatre, regional theatre. It worked. For a while. But now that this generation is in their 60s and 70s, the attitudes that powered their revolution, calcifying over time, have turned into a self-serving orthodoxy. Regional theatre has become Big Theatre.

The exaggerated self-regard of this generation is the single biggest liability for the sustainability and relevance of theatre. The brave refusal to consider profit first has grown into a patent refusal to listen, in any way.

One particularly self-aggrandizing actor once told me, when I had proposed we use MySpace to reach out to schoolkids who regularly came in groups to the theatre I worked at, but never came back on their own afterward, “Must the Festival sink to a new low in promoting itself?…why would we want to promote ourselves to the lowest common denominator? Let’s try to set our sights on something we can all be proud of and not waste our creative energies on some vapid preteen scrap book.” (He also used the word “lest” and mentioned Julliard.)

As happens when a group occupies the moral high ground for long enough, they achieved a position of authority, no longer rebels. Having grown comfortable in that authority, it seemed to begin to feel theirs by right. Especially when surrounded by people all too eager to flatter them, the only people they allow to surround them after a while, they grew arrogant and disconnected. They honestly believe that the very people who bring the second-half of the text to every single performance are the hoi polloi, the great unwashed, forgetting apparently that theatre’s genesis, in addition to religion, is entertainment, and the reputation of theatre professionals has more often been that of whores than of dons. You’d think that would breed some humility. It does not seem to have done so.

Using “disruptive technologies” in this context requires the willingness to destroy the many defenses theatre has put up to protect itself from the people it ought to be serving. The likeliness of establishing a functional two-way conversation in Big Theatre using social media is scant until this generation of theatre professionals retires. Even then, there will be a lot of habits of mind to unlearn.

No, listening to an audience is not the same thing as pandering to it. Opening up a blog and enabling the comment fields is not the start of a slippery slope leading inevitably to a production of “Dukes of Hazard: The Musical!”

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