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Friday, January 2, 2009

New Media Meets an Old Medium at PCS

Posted by Alison Hallett on Fri, Jan 2, 2009 at 11:32 AM

I'm not always won over by Portland Center Stage's productions, but their marketing efforts consistently impress. From offering $10 rush tickets to hosting indie bands in their lobby to their involvement with this month's Fertile Ground Festival, PCS is making a calculated bid to attract a younger audience. They have an excellent website and an active Twitter presence—and now I've been informed that they'll be reserving the balcony of the Sat, Jan 19 Jan 17 performance of Apollo (premiering as part of Fertile Ground) for laptop/iPhone users who want to tweet during the show. Anyone who follows PCS on Twitter (pcsghost) will be invited to a pre-show tweetup, and folks are encouraged to tag their posts #apollo so that others can easily follow the action.

More thoughts on this, and a gratuitous use of the term "Brechtian," after the jump.

This is a really interesting idea, both in its bold and possibly unprecedented bid to attract a new audience (or engage an old audience in a new way), and what it's willing to concede for the sake of attracting that audience. It's going to rub many people the wrong way: The fracturing of attention that texting/blogging/Twittering produces is antithetical to the traditional experience of theater, to that old idea that theater requires suspension of disbelief in order to work its alchemy.

The flip side of that, though, is the complaint I hear from friends my own age when I do manage to drag them to the theater: They have a hard time paying attention; they actually can't suspend disbelief. We're no longer living in some Brechtian scenario where audiences need to be reminded that they're watching a play or risk over-identifying with the action. It's the opposite—many people can't forget they're watching a play. (And forget "breaking the fourth wall" or metatheater; been there, done that, and music and film are all over that shit.) To some extent, I think audiences weaned on stories told via the cuts and closeups of television and film find the relatively static medium of theater fundamentally unengaging. Offering them a new way to interact with theater makes a lot of sense, if those are the audience members you want to attract.

Diane Haithman's recent LA Times article raised some good points about arts (theater, dance, classical music) audiences, taking on the oft-repeated notion that audiences are "graying": Basically, Haithman suggests that these audiences have always been old, and they might stay that way, because theater is an experience better suited to old people than young. (Oldsters like to sit down; they're more affluent; they want to be home before 11.) And this isn't necessarily a bad thing for theater companies, since old people are more likely to buy season subscriptions. But she raises the following point, which I think is where PCS' marketing strategies come in:

WHETHER there is truth to such speculation, L.A. Opera's [John] Tavenner insists that it's "overly optimistic" to expect that people will develop an interest in the performing arts simply as a function of age — early exposure is still required. "I think the bulk of the audience is not going to appear magically like that, which is why performing arts organizations spend so much of their resources and time on education and community outreach," he says.

You need new old people to replace the ones who die. And for the new old people to even consider theater a viable entertainment option, they need to have some previous exposure to the medium—even if by the time they get around to buying a season subscription, they're too arthritic to give a tweet-by-tweet account of the action. Perhaps, too, that allowing young people to engage with theater in a new way will directly result in more of them attending the theater. Which begs the inevtiable question: Is this something that people are going to want to do? I got sucked into the Twitterverse during the snowstorm, but had to cut myself off when I realized I'd begun thinking in updates. Anyone? Is this appealing? Will you do it?

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