Over the last couple of weeks, those of you on Twitter will have found it difficult to avoid tweets from BetFair Poker. Whoever manages the account is producing fun material at a remarkable rate - almost none of which has anything to do with poker. The tweets are mostly either faux-motivational gobbets of the sort Chris John Jackson might create, or surreal and rambling narratives unfolding over several tweets. Here's the first from a little series I enjoyed today, to give you a flavour:
'We've all been informed that our annual bonus will be decided by our ability to create a Faster-Than-Light drive in the next 45 minutes.'
What starts as a mildly satirical vignette moves up through several gears. in a journey to the centre of the sun - without losing that mildly satirical sting:
- 'But I have dinner plans!" I cried. My complaint was dismissed. "We need you to teach poker to the people of the Sun." Alison barked.'
- 'Alison has only been head of marketing for one day and she's already trying to conquer the universe. She can't even use the photocopier.'
Some of you will dismiss this as trivial and silly, and of course you will be right. And if you've just scrolled through it having linked to the account above (it was today, starting around 3pm), I hope you enjoyed it. But you won't have got the best out of it. Rather than gobbled up, it's designed to be drip-fed on alongside all your other tweets by Stephen Fry and Barack Obama and that guy who wrote that show. Nibbled on in such installments, it's doing something tastily different with the form, without being so unusual as to be indigestible. Still, sure, it's pretty silly.
But compare it with the twitter feed of your local theatre. Bland nuggets of fact and instamatic retweetings of praise, right? I follow most of the theatres I've found on Twitter. Their tone is almost indistinguishable.
In a sense it's hardly surprising. Twitter (and other social media) are so new that we still think of them as simply media for imparting information, particularly if we work in marketing and imparting information is a big part of our job. But a well-designed poster can be about more than simply imparting information. It's about atmospheres and ideas and it's part of the narrative. At its best it can be an art form in its own right. So why not the twitter feed?
In another sense, it's incredibly surprising. So here's the strong version of that argument: given an opportunity to do something creative in an entirely new medium, the theatres, some of the most creative organisations in the world, instead see a plain tool with a plain function.
Meanwhile an online poker website steals the march.
There are of course exceptions in the theatre world. I'm not sure to what extent they're still at it, but the West Yorkshire Playhouse used to run a very human, chatty Twitter feed that asked interesting questions and engaged in discussion with the answerers. I'm sure there are others. But they don't begin to consider the really creative possibilities.
There have been attempts to create drama for Twitter. (At some point someone will coin the conflation "twama" and we will all be forced to send them to Twoventry.) The RSC's Such Tweet Sorrow, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet via Twitter, had great potential, but in deciding to have it tweeted by actors they made a bit of a boo-boo. There are some great actors tweeting brilliant material, but the skill of acting well is coincidental to the skill of writing well for twitter. They cast the piece badly: they should have used writers. (If you're interested in reading a fuller critique of STS, Hannah Nicklin's is the one to read.)
There have been huge successes, too. Dan Rebellato's series of tweets entering the mind of Raoul Moat, an account that imagined the hilarious goings-on at the bottom of that Chilean mine. Dan Rebellato's were particularly thrilling, because they give the lie to the idea that in order to be successful on twitter, you have to be a stand-up. Sure, funny material gets attention. But it is possible to start funny and go further.
And it's not as though @betfairpoker has got everything right. For a start, there is no interaction, killing one of Twitter's key joys. It hasn't sustained any narrative line for more than a dozen or so tweets spread over a couple of hours, sometimes flatly contradicting itself a few days later. And it hasn't done much that isn't essentially facetious, however hilariously so. But it has created some memorable characters, some enjoyable storylines and some cracking comic lines. It's The IT Crowd. That's an improvement on marketing, but when do we get The Wire?
This is a genuine challenge to theatres. Why is it left to a few individuals and a poker website to explore this new medium's creative possibilities, when an art form that spends its time commissioning writers, generating stories and creating characters to tell them, is instead using it to tell us when we can catch the open dress rehearsal? One answer is obvious: because they're theatres, not a digital arts organisation. But just because I occasionally play a guitar doesn't mean I'm not a theatre director. Just because Fuel are creating a series of podcasts doesn't mean they're not theatre producers. It's possible to create in more than one medium. It can only do you good to try.
And if you want an instrumentalist argument: it still works as marketing. @betfairpoker has a hatful more followers than any regional theatre I can find. They're not there for the poker. There really isn't any. Yet every so often there is some mention of a new blog on the website or the weekly offer (yes, weekly: that's really it) and we all dutifully traipse over, trusting that it will be fun. Yep, that's it. We trust this nonsense to give us a good time. What better advert for a theatre? Added to which, if any of us does fancy a spot of online Hold'Em (missus?), what's the first place we're going to think of?
Like it or not, the digital world is here. Social media have radically changed the way we interact with one another, and that isn't going away. I love theatre above any art form and will defend to the death the beautiful simplicity of a group of people in a room, together, sharing a story or an experience. But it isn't either/or.
Can we make great art on Twitter? We'd be bloody idiots not to try.
Declarations of Interest:
Firstly, I am a writer and I tweet, so I guess this could read like a pitch for work. That wasn't the intention. But hell, I'm open to offers.
Secondly, later this year, along with the abovementioned Dan Rebellato, I'm taking part in an R+D for Pilot Theatre (working title: #tag), where we're going to look at how we create a drama that unfolds on Twitter, possibly over quite a long time. That's an enormously exciting project, but what I'm talking about here is more modest. At root, I'm just wondering if theatres can make their feed more interesting. The word "more" is optional in that sentence.
Thirdly: big thanks to @patrickriot for the fantastically stimulating conversation that finally prompted me to get on and write this post.
Addendum - 25/01/11
There's a distinction to be drawn here between two effective uses of Twitter. There are plenty of individuals using Twitter well and interactively on behalf of their organisations, tweeting provocative and interesting stuff and generally being a very human face. Several of them are name-checked below in the comments.
But that's different to using social media as a place to generate artistic work. That's happening very sporadically, although again there are exceptions. @andytfield's various "imaginary theatre" projects are lovely for the medium. But there could be a whole lot more.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will