Now, with the ubiquity of instant messaging and e-mail, the growing popularity of Twitter and YouTube, and even newer services like Google Wave, velocity and efficiency have become even more important. Although new media can help build big TV audiences for events like the Super Bowl, it also tends to make people treat those events as fodder for digital chatter. More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.I also liked this quote:
“Reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet,” the scholar Susan Jacoby writes in “The Age of American Unreason.” “What we are engaged in — like birds of prey looking for their next meal — is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.”But I'm a bit more iffy on this:
Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime. This is why Sarah Palin’s every move and pronouncement is followed by television news, talk-show hosts and pundits of every political persuasion. This is why Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right and Michael Moore on the left are repeatedly quoted by followers and opponents. This is why a gathering of 600 people for last month’s national Tea Party convention in Nashville received a disproportionate amount of coverage from both the mainstream news media and the blogosphere.And not just for the somewhat false equivalence of Glenn Beck and Michael Moore. And the way that legacy media constantly points its fingers at the unwashed rubes who clamor for a constant stream of right-wing updates as though they play no role in that at all. But that's not my point here.
George connects Kakautani's thoughts more directly to theatre:
As she notes, Internet users seem to be a jumpy lot, demanding the instant gratification that is denied by more complex art of any kind. It is a call for an increased shallowness in some ways, and these digital and virtual connections, it must be remembered, are digital and virtual, not particularly human. They also threaten, Kakutani suggests, to close prematurely those presumably open minds that cross the thresholds of theatre auditoria. "Online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking," Kakutani writes; in the theatre, a "bored" audience's desire to have their own prejudices confirmed as well, cutting off imaginative alternatives before they're barely seeded, as well as demanding immediate interpretation of what might be a deliberately ambiguous experience, seems to me to lead to a drama resembling a mountain stream — very clear, but very shallow.And he wraps up with a quote from Richard Foreman:
I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the "instantly available." A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance — as we all become "pancake people" — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.Not to put to fine a point on it, I think this is mostly bunk. Just plain, legacy media/snobbish complaining that they just don't make things like they used and slow is better and kids today just aren't no darn good.
I've made no bones about my affection for modern "junk" art and the digital world. I've referred to Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You more than once. But I'll do it again. His basic thesis is that pop culture has grown in complexity and the demands that it makes on its audience over time and that it is actually as good for you as "traditional" entertainment. I think that trend gives the lie to the whole idea of pancake people becoming dominant. And I think it shows us, in theatre in particular, a way forward and way to reach out to younger audiences. And no, I'm not talking about slapping on a Twitter feed.
In Johnson's book (available on Google Books, natch), he compare a classic cop show, like Dragnet or Hawaii Five-O, with a modern show, like The Sopranos. In terms of storytelling, dramatic narrative and backstory, The Sopranos blows Dragnet away. It's an infinitely more complicated form of storytelling, requiring the viewer to have more knowledge about the characters and the world of the story than the old cop show, and, though he doesn't get into this, involving far more sophisticated forms of storytelling, more subtlety, more leaving things up to the viewer to figure out, more suggestion. Compare Starsky & Hutch to The Wire and you'll see what I mean. The Wire, as much as I love it, is a bad example, since it wasn't all that popular when it aired, but The Sopranos was.
Audiences today are smart. Yes, they're probably over-stimulated, and maybe their attention spans have shrunk in one way or another, but their ability to skip to the end is off the charts. Honestly, maybe it has been for longer than we think. They see plot twists coming a mile off. They know tropes and devices the instant they appear and are rarely fooled. They know what they like quickly and if they don't like it, they turn off. I think, too often, in theatre, they're getting the same old slop, even when it's postmodern slop, see where it's going and would rather engage in something that engages them back. If someone is texting or Twittering during your show, maybe, just maybe, it's not them. It's you. I'm addicted to my smartphone, but when I'm doing something engaging, I don't look at it. I don't care if someone's texting or updating their Facebook. I'm watching this thing that's happening in front of me. Rather than depending on schoolmarm tricks and rigid rules, maybe we should, you know, make the shows better.
There are a lot of dangers in this highly connected, on-demand new world, but, as a collaborative, at least nominally interactive artform, we should be thriving here. We should be embracing the digital world as a way not just of putting butts in seats, but of making art, discussing our art, refining and reforming our art. Of collaborating and opening up our process. Connecting with our audiences. Not just selling to them, but investing in them.
When we treat theatre like a literary endeavor, or an art project, it keeps in the one-way, one-dimensional world. We speak, you listen and enjoy and then go home. I think we can do better than that. I think we need to do better than that. This isn't a call for every show to be Twitterable and malleable. I'm still a formalist and a believer in presentational theatre. But we have to remember that the show doesn't start at curtain up and end at blackout. The life of the play can and should extend beyond that. The conversation we're having with the audience should extend beyond that. Otherwise, yes, we lose them to YouTube and Hulu and the Google.
We have to tell the stories of our day, in the language of our day and make it mean something. In short, we have to evolve. And standing athwart the digital river and saying "Kids today ain't no damn good" is basically the opposite of evolution. I think we can do better.