Click and Clap

App, Tweets Illuminate Clarice Performances, Not Venues

As the lights dim and the audience whispers fade out, a recorded announcement precedes each show at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center: Please take this opportunity to silence your cell phones and any other electronic devices.

These days, however, select groups don’t have to follow that rule. The Clarice has placed iPads in the hands of some patrons and is encouraging others to tweet during performances as part of a new focus on enhancing the audience experience through technology.

For film- or concertgoers who seethe when others’ phones light up a theater for some critical Facebook-checking, this may sound scandalous. But for Martin Wollesen, executive director of The Clarice, these tools present an opportunity to attract and engage people, particularly young adults.

“Technology is part of their everyday lived experiences. It cannot be divorced from eating, drinking or socializing,” he says. “When we think about engaging or reflecting during a performance, they’re doing it in an immediate forum with technology.”

This summer, The Clarice became the first testing site for Symphony Interactive, an app developed by Linda Dusman D.M.A. ’88, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She and her team compile information about a particular piece of music and then present it in real time during the performance on pre-programmed, silenced, low-light tablets distributed to volunteers.

In this classier spin on pop-up videos, test subjects at the National Orchestral Institute and Festival’s June performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, were alerted to incoming insights with the appearance of a piano key on their screens. By tapping on each key as it appeared, they could read short messages noting that cellos and basses had taken over a motif first played by violins, or highlighting the composer’s innovation in adding oboes.

“If you’re not a musician, it might be revealing to become aware that something in the music is changing,” says School of Music Professor Robert Gibson, who brought the app to Maryland. “One of the areas we’re really trying to pursue is people attending a symphony orchestra concert for the first time. One of the realizations we’ve had is that one reason young people stay away from concerts is that they have preconceived notions that may cause anxiety. They may feel they don’t know when to applaud or how to dress. So how do you make these listeners more comfortable? Symphony Interactive may be a way to engage them with something familiar that speaks to having a new experience.”

Maryland musicology students are participating in this research in the fall by developing annotations about other popular works of music, helping to create a library of Symphony Interactive program notes that may be made available to professional orchestras as the app evolves.

The same thinking and strategy went into the introduction of “tweet seats” last spring at The Clarice. It’s among a growing number of performing arts centers and theaters inviting patrons to discuss their observations about the performance is it happens, via Twitter. The Clarice seats the group in the back and off to the side, to prevent their screens’ glare from distracting others, and it’s carefully choosing which performances are the best fit for tweeting and which artists are open to the idea.

Gavin Witt, associate artistic director and director of dramaturgy at Center Stage in Baltimore, was “thrilled” for the chance to tweet through the one-man show “An Iliad,” but said he was clumsy at it and at times struggled to toggle in and out of the performance to type.

“A con was that it ultimately asked me to be both inside and outside the show more than I was comfortable with,” he said. “But a big pro for me was this really exciting sense of community. We were all there, sitting next to each other, sharing the same moment, and people outside could witness it through us and take part.”

That’s the point, says Wollesen. He’d be the last to criticize any of the tweets themselves, even if they just quote dialogue or urge others to check out the show. “There is this traditional idea of experts who mediate this experience—what’s ‘right’ or what’s ‘correct.’ We are interested in discovery. We come at different points of experience, and that’s part of a learning process. What we care about is that learning process.”

The effort extends beyond the theater itself. This fall, the dialogue of tweets will be projected on the walls of the lobby to stimulate conversations among patrons heading home. And The Clarice is expanding the use of its 2-year-old video-recording booth, now calling it the YouBooth and asking guests to talk not just about their impressions of the performance, but about themselves, to show the variety of people who enjoy the arts.

Wollesen, who joined the university last fall, says he’s grateful to be part of a community so open to these ideas. “We want to create a space in places where different people can come together and can have a shared experience that reflects their individual needs.”

Find the next “tweet seat” event at The Clarice.


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