How Can Tweet Seats Provide New Opportunities for Audience Engagement?

In this project update from the University Musical Society (UMS)’s Lobby Project, Anna Prushinskaya shares outcomes from a recently launched program that enables participants to use technology during performances to connect among and beyond the theater space.

Participants in the tweet seats program at UMS before a performance.

When the team at UMS (University Musical Society) was considering new digital initiatives for this season, they thought about their recent re-branding process, one outcome of which was a new tagline: Be Present.

As a strategy for implementing this idea, the UMS Lobby team developed a pilot tweet seats program this fall. Work on the UMS Lobby, a blog-based audience engagement project developed out of participation in EmcArts’s Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, kick-started a period of rapid innovation at UMS. Read about the Lobby Project in our Innovation Stories collection.

Acknowledging different attitudes towards technology

Studies show that for some, engaging with technology is the preferred method of processing and “being present” at a performance. In one such study, Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin refer to this subset of audiences as “technology-based processors.” They “love all forms of online engagement, and appear to be growing in number, especially among younger audience segments […]. Their motivations are both intellectual and social in nature.”

Technology-based processors are people who tend to search for information online, connect via social media, and contribute to blogs and discussion forums.

So, we thought, let’s get together a group of people with differing attitudes towards technology to learn more about the effects of utilizing it during a live performance experience.

Our question: What can experimenting with technology teach us about being “engaged” or “present” at a performance?

Assembling our first audience of tweeters

We reached out to our community and asked our UMS Lobby guest bloggers, University of Michigan students and faculty, and local journalists and cultural tastemakers to participate. They had all kinds of attitudes towards technology.

Internally, we debated about how we could structure the experiment without affecting the performance experience of others in the audience. We were clear in our announcements of the project that only tweet seats participants would be permitted to use devices during a performance; for the rest of the audience, our standard device policy applies (“Turn off all cellphones and electronic devices”).

The tweet seats participants were asked to silence and dim their devices; we also prepared individual phone containers to limit any emitted light (colloquially know around the office as “tweet boxes”).

"Tweet boxes" used to shield the glowing light from a mobile device
“Tweet boxes” used to shield the glowing light from a mobile device

At each of the performances, participants were required to tweet 3-5 times using the hashtag #umslobby. No specific instructions for content of tweets were given.

To evaluate the project, we pre-interviewed the participants prior to the start of the program and then followed up with them after the performance to chat about whether the experience met their expectations; interviews appear on UMS Lobby.

In the end, we received no complaints from other patrons, and we discovered positive outcomes.

Tweet seats aren’t just for young people

“Live tweeting made this performance far less sticky to me,” said Molly Roegel, an undergraduate University of Michigan student. Mark Clague, U-M Associate Professor of Musicology and new UMS Board member, said of his Twitter conversation around one theater performance: “I didn’t change my mind [about my initial interpretation of the performance] […], but my commitment to that understanding is richer and deeper for the tweets.”

Tweet seats are fun to watch out of the auditorium, too

With each installment of tweet seats, we received positive comments from our Twitter community, who were following the #umslobby tweet seats conversation for the conversation’s sake, not because they were at the related performance. Tweet seats were successful in engaging our digital community, not just our in-venue community.

Changing attitudes within our organization

Within UMS, we had vigorous conversation about the project, as staff members had attitudes toward technology as wide-ranging as those of our participants.

In one case, we convinced Michael Kondziolka, our Director of Programming, to participate as a tweet seater. In his pre-interview, Michael noted, in response to a question about what it might mean to “be present” during a performance: “I view the communication that takes place between a performer and an audience member – whether it be lyric, declaimed, or movement based – to be sacred. Therefore, anything that breaks that bond is anathema to the notion of being ‘being present.’”

Though Michael wasn’t able to participate in his event due to last-minute directorial duties at his designated performance, he noted in his post-interview that he was inspired to share the tweet seats feed with the theater company: After the show, I mentioned this to [the company] and they were, not surprisingly, first a little put off by the whole notion of tweet seats and, after more conversation, intrigued. I shared the tweet stream with them…and they seemed to like it.”

Michael also added, describing the complexity of the performance, “The idea of another layer the processing of my thoughts and experiences and transmitting them in real time […] might have sent me around the bend. But I am still willing to try at an upcoming show!”

In another instance, a staff member who’s receptive to technology came across an artist’s tweet which lightly disparaged tweet seats generally. We had planned a tweet seats event in conjunction with this artist’s performance; we had a great conversation internally about balancing the value of the project as an audience-engagement initiative with artist perspectives. In the end, we moved forward with the program, and our artist actually used the #umslobby hashtag during a behind-the-scenes moment.

Making use of pauses, not just live experiences

Mark Clague noted after participating in a tweet seats event at the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg performance, “In some ways, tweeting orchestra concerts seems like the perfect entry point for social-media enabled conversations to start (since one does not have to “see” the stage constantly to experience the art fully).”

But recognizing the culture of orchestral performances, with their special classical concert rituals, he suggested that “pauses” might be best for engaging classical audiences in tweets: “I wonder if Hill [Auditorium] wouldn’t be the perfect location for an intermission tweet exchange in which all patrons were encouraged to discuss a performance during the interval and/or immediately after a performance.”

It’s a great suggestion, and not just for orchestral events. We plan to encourage our audience to chime in during such pauses in the next stage of this project.

Developing the tweet seats program further

Tweet seaters in action at a recent performance at UMS
Tweet seaters in action at a recent performance at UMS

This winter, we’re opening tweet seats up to anyone in our audience instead of reaching out to specific participants. We’re hoping to gain further insights into how our audiences experience processing performances through technology – and we can’t wait to meet these audience members. We’ll continue to document our participants’ reactions at four events that run the gamut from theater to orchestras to indie music.

Probably the most important outcome of this project, however, is this process of documentation. Through our pre-tweet seats and post-tweet seats interviews of each participant, we’ve catalogued a new set of audience approaches and journeys through technology-enhanced live performing arts experiences.

Tweet seats are an interesting phenomenon, but what’s more interesting is how people who come to see our performances view this type of project. What’s in a tweet? A whole lot of information that could help us to learn more about our audiences and, we hope, about how to harness the potential of emerging media for the performing arts in an ever-changing digital space.


Check out tweet seats participant Matt Landry, reflecting on his experience during the Mariachi Vargas performance at UMS.

Anna Prushinskaya explores the possibilities of technology for the performing arts at UMS (University Musical Society) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She first became interested in technology and the arts through the world of publishing, where she's still involved as Midwest editor at Joyland Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @anyavp.