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.

  • I love this approach – paying close attention to artist and audience responses and gathering/tracking all the results is SO important. I think it’s also fascinating to think about our definition of being “present” at a performance. That is after all the biggest argument about tweet seats. But it makes sense that guided and engaged tweeting might actually make a patron MORE present by instigating a dialogue, almost like class participation. If you’re in a lecture, are you more or less engaged when taking notes and jotting questions for later exploration and discussion? Great piece. Although I had a panic attack imagining me balancing that tweet box on my lap and dropping it and my phone during a performance.

    • Thanks for your comment, Natalie! I know we chatted on Twitter, but I just wanted to add here that I agree, being “present” is a very important component of this project, and these kinds of initiatives generally. For me the related BIG challenge is to methodically explore the possibilities of emerging technological to enhance the feeling of being “present” that’s so special about live arts experiences. Has anyone come across projects that do this really well?

  • Thanks Anna for a great summary of the UMS experiment. Thinking historically, the performing arts have been most successful with a big tent philosophy that includes the broadest possible audience which in turn invites a range of motivations for participating and a variety of modes of engagement. Tweet seats strike me as a way to invite some new folks into the performance and your experiment and its “tweet boxes” is a great example of an approach that is sensitive to the traditional concert ritual while creating space for something new. The intermission idea continues to seem to me a good way to increase social media discussion and has the potential to deepen the impact of the performing arts. Key will be providing social permission to participate. When the lights go up at intermission or at the end of a show, I think a hashtag and maybe even the feed should be projected on the wall of a concert hall to encourage participation and grant permission to join in the fun. I wouldn’t want electronic discussion to displace in-person interaction, but in my experience Twitter sparked face-to-face conversation.

    • Hi Mark! I agree with about continuing to build more links between the live experience and the on-line experience. As a project update, we’ve added the hashtag to in-venue monitors when technology permits, though we’re still a bit technologically limited re: live feed. Adding the idea of projections to my list!

  • Thanks Anna, this is the kind of “it’s about time” embrace of technology and Gen-Y attitudes the performing arts sorely needs!
    If I might suggest another way to reduce the distraction of direct view of screens from the side… Obviously, tweet seats are in the last row and to one side of the seating area(s). But if you could hang a privacy scrim down the aisle to elbow height of the right material to allow sound but limit light, there’d be little need for the tweet boxes and you could easily adjust the size of the section.
    Also, I suppose for the project’s documentation, it was nec. to stick to the Twitter platform… but I think Facebook interactions would have a much larger social impact. Of course, who’s to say that half weren’t also posting on FB? Can’t FB posts also be tracked with a hashtag? Thanks!

  • Rick, thanks for your response! Funny enough, we actually did consider something like the scrim idea that you’re describing. We’re a bit unique in that we present our performances in 5-6 different venues; that’s why we ended up opting for the more portable “tweet boxes.” I think your idea could be a great one for folks who are a bit more settled in one venue. We really wanted to work with our twitter community on this project (we haven’t engaged there as deeply as we’d like to in the past) – but I think some integration with FB is certainly technologically possible, if that suits the fancy of the project.

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  • The documentation you offer is amazing. Very exciting and interesting. Best wishes with the next phase as you roll it out to the general public. Certainly, you’ll receive a different perspective.

    One aspect of tweet seats I consider important is its integration with the performance. Personally, I believe tweet seats work best when integrated with the show. Either the production projects the tweets for the audience to see, or they rework the story to include tweets. If the production doesn’t directly use the tweets on stage, the next best option is to have a staff member or other behind-the-scenes tweeter engaging with the tweet-seaters. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of people broadcasting their thoughts about the show. This is social media, after all. It’s important to stay social.

    It’s all about design. In the environment you describe, there’s emphasis on designing an experience that is the least obtrusive to performers and other audience members; however, if we are structuring tweet seats to keep them unobtrusive, is it really something we should be doing? I believe tweet seats work for some productions and don’t work for others. Just like a director chooses to stage a production in the round or bring a performer into the audience to skew perspective, so too, we should consider how we design our in-show social media experiences.

    Here is the post I wrote about my tweet seat experience at the “Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good)” at The Public Theater, which was passive, meaning tweets didn’t integrate into the show.

    Andy Horwitz over at Culturebot recounts his viewing of Ivo Van Hove’ “Roman Tragedies” at Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was a designed experience. Andy talks about how it felt different (and better) than the typical tweet seat offering. I felt that difference online as I followed social media posts produced from the show. It was deeply intriguing.

    There is something to be said for entering a theater, turning off all devices and connecting deeply to what is in front of you. Theater and dance offer a singular experience that television and Twitter don’t. We should use them for what they’re designed to do. When we add online social elements to these arts, they fundamentally change. It’s important to consciously decide whether that change is for the better or for the detriment of the art. Audience engagement isn’t always about being social. It is about creating fantastic works of art that so richly engage that the audience has no desire to tweet at all.

    • Hi James! Thanks for your response.

      I agree with most of the points that you bring up here, particularly that instead of passively using new media tools in our practice, we ought to explore them deeply and use them to design an experience to support what’s special about performing arts: the live experience. This idea seems in some ways exemplified by the BAM project that you mention. In our case, we do staff tweet seats to facilitate a deeper conversation.

      I agree that the experience of live arts shifts when social media tools are introduced, but I don’t think that this change is necessarily negative or diametrically opposed to what audience engagement is “about.” I absolutely agree that we should consider how the experience shifts carefully.

      Finally, I’ll add that in my efforts to serve the emerging technology-based processors audience, I am also cognizant of continuing to serve our audiences who prefer a technology-free experience (those who engage in a way that leaves them with no desire to tweet, in you words). Sequestering tweet seats makes sense for UMS – it enables us to serve both of these audiences.

      All of this is to say that the groundwork of research and documentation is key in implementing these initiatives – what works for some organizations won’t work for others, and likewise, some forms of engagement will resonate with one audience but not another.

  • Reg Platt

    No. No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
    The entire point of being at a live performance is to be present to that performance in that moment, not to engage in other activities, however trendy.
    So frankly? Appalled.
    Speaking as a performer, I must insist that I do not want anyone tweeting, emailing, faxing, coughing, talking, eating, reading or farting during my performance. (I barely tolerate reviewers taking notes, frankly.) To do so is an unconscionable intrusion into the bond I am trying to establish between myself and that person. If I cannot hold the audience’s focus on what I am doing on stage to the point that they’re not even aware of their surroundings, much less able to tweet, I have failed. The connection between an actor and his audience is, or at least should be, intimate.
    I would not be any less insulted than if they tweeted during a kiss.
    The time for other activities is after the performance. If you want to tweet, email, etc. during a performance, wait for the dang DVD to come out and do it on your own dang sofa.

    • Hi Reg, thanks for taking the the time to respond. I’m glad to see an artist perspective in the conversation. It’s certainly a crucial one to consider.

      • I would add just one more thing: In my experience, not all artists share this perspective, but considering the artist perspective carefully should absolutely be a part of building these kinds of initiatives.

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