Theatre and Social Media
A gain for art?

Screenshot of „Theatercamp“ at Hamburg Thalia Theater
Screenshot of „Theatercamp“ at Hamburg Thalia Theater | ©

Can the theatre make use of social media for more than presentation and marketing? Various approaches attempt with varying success, to encourage their audiences and Internet users to interact.

Invariably, when progress bestows a new medium on mankind, the oldest medium in the world, the theatre, gets the wind up: “Can I still keep up?” it seems to ask itself, and tends as a result to a panicked reaction. Cinema was one such threat, then TV. Today it is the effects of the digital revolution that arouse fear: Will the “Facebook Generation” engage at all with a purely passively experienced art form? How to deal with an audience used to simultaneously commenting upon everything it experiences?

Most attempted rapprochements between the theatre and the internet have hitherto worked like superficial rejuvenations: Facebook as anti-wrinkle cream for the profile and presentation, a video project as modish stage accessory. It is hardly possible to see in this more than marketing campaigns or gestures of artistic adaptation. In addition to the question about how the Net can be used to attract a young audience, this raises the question about how the theatre can make artistic use of social media.

At a theatre camp organised by the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg together with the association Timeline e.V., the communication departments of various German theatres discussed these questions with digital natives. The proposals that the participants contributed may be as shocking to middle-class theatre-goers as they were initially to directors and actors: a tweeting audience that, at the end of the performance, evaluate it on the internet; videos of rehearsals posted at a blog; live streams; flash mobs to vote on plays and material.

Ring of the Nibelung as “do-it-yourself-Ring”

Jochen Strauch, head of marketing at the Thalia and moderator of the camp, posed the most important fundamental question: “How do we free social media from the pressure of market-oriented success and use them artistically?” Connecting the two media ultimately makes sense only under aesthetic and thematic aspects. Opera here appears to be a step ahead of theatre: Johannes Lachermeier of the Bavarian State Opera has presented several projects that have shaped stage material into their own art forms on the Internet. One of these was the Ring of the Nibelung, which the director Andreas Kriegenburg produced in parallel on stage. Detached from the stage performance, a Do-It-Yourself-Ring enables the internet user to play at being director with videos and sounds on his own online stage. The State Opera also called for art actions in public space via Twitter and Facebook: a serial flash mob, which was joined by over 200 people. Lachmeier’s plea: “The internet can not only communicate about art; art also takes place there!”

An equally ambitious pilot project, though one rather meagre in its result, was the Berlin Maxim Gorki Theatre’s production Effi Briest 2.0 on Facebook. Not much more than a vote on the design of Effi’s wedding dress was expected of the 1,400 virtual participants; more interaction would have muddled up the plot. In general, a production on stage cannot be replaced by any of these projects – nor is that their goal. Envisaged instead are playful possibilities, a theatre that demands distanced reflection, with interactive processes to complement it.

“Rehearsals must remain a protected space!”

The corresponding necessary opening of the theatre is probably where the greatest difficulties lurk. Not only because an intendant generally tries the Internet only when a performance threatens to be poorly attended, but also because actors and directors also often balk at making the rehearsals transparent on the Internet – and rightly so. Konradin Kunze, who broached for discussion his development of a play at the Young People’s Theatre in Hamburg, spoke up for the artists: “Rehearsals must remain a protected space!” Although the young people’s play revolves thematically around a Facebook data centre, it was not developed collectively with Facebook users but rather tells a linear story in conventional fashion, quite without new media. But can a purely thematic treatment depict the digitally shaped lives of young people? On the other hand, should a play reflect reality in the first place?

Jochen Strauch sees more possibilities: “How could the way of using the Net affect the dramaturgy of a play?” he asks. Malte Lüken, owner of a company for interactive internet formats, proposes as a possible answer his pilot project Deus Ex Show, in which the audience votes live on how the action on stage should proceed. Whether such a democratic process will prove as fruitful for art as the work of a single visionary artist remains an open question.

At the beginning of May 2014, the online theatre feuilleton Nachtkritik for the second time will organise, together with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a conference on Theatre and the Net”. Here too the core question is: “How does the Internet culture affect practice and production conditions of artistic creativity in the theater?” It won’t be the last discussion of this subject.