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What Role Does Social Media Play In The Theatre?

Insights with Tony Howell

There’s no denying that technology and theatre have a complicated relationship. While some shows, such as “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Encounter,” have embraced social media, others have sworn against it. Let’s be real, no one wants to get Patti LuPoned during a show (yes, it’s a verb now). So, then, what role does technology and social media play in theatre, both in the audience and onstage?

Once again, the answer to that question is complicated. However, social media and marketing expert Tony Howell thankfully took the time to speak with me on the matter and discuss how producers can begin to embrace technological advances while still maintaining the integrity and beauty of live theatre.

“I think it has a place in certain pieces,” Howell said of social media. “I don’t think it needs to take over, but I would like to see stories that include it because it’s part of the world we live in now.”

Recently, social media has been brought to the stage, most notably in the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” But how can the audience use social media without interrupting the performance?

Ben Platt in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

“What I would encourage in terms of best practices is that it’s totally great to take a picture of the procedium and playbill,” he said. “Another great thing is to leave a review. After you see something, review the piece yourself, go to their Facebook page and share your thoughts, especially when they’re positive.”

When it comes to producers’ and marketers’ use of social media, Howell said the most effective method to getting people to share their experiences of the show is to have a step and repeat in the lobby of the theatre. This way, everyone who comes to the show can take a picture and post it online.

Social media is undeniably a great tool to be used before or after a show. However, surfing social media and the internet during a performance has recently become far too regular. Rest assured, theatre fans, this isn’t just a Broadway problem, but a global one.

“I think we will see a global problem of attention spans and people disconnecting from the real world around them to engage with the virtual world around them, but I don’t think it’s limited to theatre,” Howell said. “We see our union and industry fighting against it, saying that live theatre needs to be live.”

However, Howell hopes that embracing social media within limits will actually bring great changes to the Great White Way.

“What I think will happen with Broadway and theatre, I hope, is that we’ll be able to share our art form with audiences and more people through digital with the expectation that if you want the premium live experience, you buy a ticket,” he said. “I would like to see more digital integration where we get to be a part of the show. Word-of-mouth marketing is the No. 1 form of marketing because it doesn’t cost you anything, and people trust their family and friends’ recommendations. I think producers are hurting themselves by not encouraging social media. I just think that we have to write the rules and teach etiquette.”

What about onstage? Could social media be incorporated more frequently into shows themselves, like “Hit List” from the hit NBC show “Smash?” (Yes, it’s a hit in my heart.)

Howell warns that it may remove people from the story, since taking a second look at their phone may cause audiences to then surf the web or check email. However, in the right context, with limitations, it could potentially work.

Aside from within the theatres themselves, Howell has also seen how social media has started to have an impact on casting decisions.

“I see it being involved in casting decisions, but I think people make the mistake of looking at 10,000 followers versus the actual engagement rate,” he said. “So someone with a hundred followers and a higher engagement could actually bring more results to the ticket process than someone with a bunch of spambots that they bought from Russia.”

Frankly, it’s 2017. Technology and social media are bound to start to find their place within theatre, whether onstage or offstage. While this does present some potential negatives to the experience of live theatre we’ve come to know and love, with the right rules and guidance, it could have a profound effect on the art form.

Written by Gianluca Russo

Gianluca Russo is a writer, performer, and theatre critic based out of New York.

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