How We All Watched The Sound Of Music #Together

Like probably most of you reading this post, I watched The Sound Of Music Live a week ago today. Since then, I feel like I’ve read more articles responding to the audience’s response – via social media, of course, with even DiGiorno Pizza playing along – than responding to the performance itself. It’s that meta-commentary that I’m interested in, too – though not to argue whether or not people should have been as snarky as they were. I’m here to examine what happens when the togetherness of theatre is replaced with, or supplemented by, #togetherness.



As if my interest in audience engagement isn’t clear from my first two blog posts, I want to begin by talking about the collective experience of theatre in the most general sense. Theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it needs an audience to exist. And that audience, whether it’s 20 people or 2000, shares in a single experience that is being performed at that moment for them. For me, the shared experience of a live (and usually ephemeral) event is one of the most powerful aspects of theatre. There’s a connection between what’s being performed and who’s watching the performance because everyone involved is experiencing it simultaneously.

Because of The Sound Of Music’s liveness, I contend that it fits that description (though rebroadcasts certainly pose an interesting caveat – and I wonder what twitter will look like on Saturday when NBC re-airs it). But the collective experience transferred to a different arena: though the telecast’s 18 million viewers weren’t in the same physical space (or even in the same time zone), we were in the same digital space. What’s gained in that transference? What’s lost? How does that affect the collective experience of theatre?

Theatricality and broadcast technology together in one photo. (Photo: Nino Munoz/NBC)

Theatricality and broadcast technology together in one photo. (Photo: Nino Munoz/NBC)

At the Sound of Music viewing party I attended, all seven of us there had our phones or computers in hand almost constantly. We all felt the need to be plugged into the larger audience around us; though we shared a physical space, we also shared an awareness that the audience’s collective space was definitively elsewhere. As such, we spent every commercial break catching up on twitter and facebook – but more than that, we also spent each break reading our favorite tweets aloud. Though being on your phone while hanging out with friends is often an isolating experience, that night, it was the opposite; it was one of those rare instances where social media transcends the internet and becomes tangible social interaction. In that sense, a key component of our physical space was finding ways to connect ourselves to the larger digital audience space – and then sharing that connection with others, connecting them to the digital collective, too.

Though the magnitude of the digital audience is invisible – you can’t look out into the house and see the size of the group you’re part of – I think that you feel more personally connected to other audience members in a digital audience space. Never in my life have I struck up a conversation with an audience member I didn’t know when attending a show. Yet last Thursday, I engaged with the posts my friends and I read aloud, regardless of whether I knew the poster personally or even knew of them as a fan. For me, that’s something gained, or at least something good experienced differently.

But just feeling like a vocal member of a large audience doesn’t need to be where a digital audience’s power ends. Though in actuality last week’s social media outpouring seemed to be used more for snark than anything else, it also demonstrated that twitter has the capability to be a platform for democratic, open, wide-reaching conversations. When theatre has such wide-reaching simultaneity as last week’s broadcast did, it can be that conversation’s subject.

Yes, there are elements that are lost when you don’t share a physical space. For me, the biggest one was that although I felt very connected to the national audience as I followed along on social media, I felt removed from the actual performance. How can social media solve a problem like that one? I don’t think it can. I don’t think there’s a world in which I want theatre to happen only remotely; rather – as always – I want to find ways to hybridize, to expand audience communities without losing other things that make theatre special.

In many ways, contemporary musical theatre is already ahead of the curve here; youtube is such a powerful forum for discovering new writers and performers that the Dramatists Guild devoted a two-hour webcast to it. But there’s even more audience development to do, even without a national platform. I remember watching a live webcast of a concert at (le) Poisson Rouge a few years ago when I couldn’t make the concert itself; that setup lets a digital audience as well as an in-person audience partake in the live event and allows for a digital audience space that both groups can participate in. Or even without finding ways to make content widely and simultaneously available, maybe shows could set up times for past audience members to engage in discussion about the show on the show’s facebook page or through a twitter hashtag (such as HowlRound‘s weekly #newplay chats). If the show isn’t simultaneously available, making sure the discussion is seems like the best way to make sustained conversation – and thereby a connected audience – happen.

However you felt about last week’s broadcast, I think Lin-Manuel Miranda sums everything up in my personal favorite tweet of the evening:

I'm really happy we're all watching a musical together, kids.

Me too, Lin. Me too.

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