Twitter Meets Polonius

Keith Negley for The Chronicle

April 29, 2013

Until recently I had two strict rules about cellphone use during theater classes and performances: no cellphones in the classroom, and no cellphones during the show. But since today's students are rarely separated from their cellphones, I began to wonder if there was a way to tap the technology for artistic purposes.

I had heard of a symphony that instructed its audience to keep cellphones turned on during performances, to be used as part of the musical presentation. I also had heard of a theater in southern Georgia that encouraged audience members to bring laptops to the show to help actors decide the ending.

All of this inspired an experiment last fall at Georgia State University, where I teach courses in acting and "Introduction to the Theatre." For an experimental adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet that we called Hamlet 2.0, we allowed audience members to keep their cellphones on during the show, and encouraged them and the cast to communicate via Twitter and Facebook during the live performance.

For this student performance, we used three screens on stage—two of them provided the location of various scenes, and one was used to post social-media messages for the audience to see. (There were several other experimental aspects of the play: We used a reverse-gender cast, without changing pronouns or titles, and all the characters' soliloquies were projected onto one of the onstage screens.)

We assembled the cast late in the spring semester, and when we met again in June, we asked the actors to use social media to help with character development. Over the summer they began to create Facebook pages for their characters and to encourage friends to "friend" them on their characters' pages.

For example, Guildenstern was thought of as a party girl (remember, we reversed the characters' genders) who would keep up with all types of reality television, so that character would "like" pages such as those of the Kardashians. The actress who played Guildenstern wrote one Facebook posting that said: "Tonight, the traffic held no compassion. I couldn't keep up with Kardashians."

The actress who portrayed Polonius said the use of social media provided the most thorough character development she had ever experienced. "Getting into character wasn't something I took 20 minutes to do each night before rehearsal," she told me. "I was constantly thinking in Polonius's mind, figuring out what he would be doing on a casual Thursday night or which television shows he would like on Facebook."

Cast members continued to post on their own characters' Facebook pages and to communicate with other characters through rehearsals and, later, during performances. This was a challenge to some actors and a help to others. Polonius, for example, didn't have much to do with the other characters, and ended up communicating primarily with her children, Ophelia and Laertes, becoming something of a "helicopter mom."

During rehearsals actors had a chance to get used to the idea of using Facebook during a performance and to incorporate Twitter as well. We also had to work through a few technical snafus. We discovered early on that when characters posted on Hamlet's Facebook page and it was projected on the big screen, it would not automatically refresh. We decided that Hamlet would have to refresh her own page live onstage. This prompted the decision that when Hamlet would leave a particular scene, she would not exit the stage, but instead would go to a different part of the stage to update Facebook using a computer on a desk. Once the actors got used to the idea of texting and posting, they used this technology to comment and contribute to the action on stage.

For example, when Hamlet was having personal issues with her father, another character would offer encouragement via Twitter, which would appear on the social-media screen. And when Hamlet was confronted by Laertes, an audience member posted a comment on Hamlet's Facebook page warning how intimidating and powerful Laertes was.

One actor said that during performances, the live feed "forced me to stay in character even when no one could see me." Another found that the live feed became an extension of the show. Audience members had their own take on the use of social media during the performance. Some enjoyed the spontaneity and interaction, while others found it distracting. "It made you pay attention because you had no idea what would happen next," one viewer said.

Our experiment was intended to explore whether social media could enhance a live theatrical performance. I think social-media features can be effective for both actor and audience: They help actors develop their characters and maintain an active presence throughout the show, even when they are not on stage. And audience members can feel as if they are active participants in the creative process.

Since theater has to compete with film, television, and computers, I believe including modern social networking in theatrical productions is a risk worth taking. It may even lead to a new genre of theater.

Norman Ferguson Jr. is a visiting lecturer in the department of communication at Georgia State University.