image shared on flickr via a creative commons license on by SarahMcGowen
Over the past week and for 5 in total, several people in the Twittersphere will be playing a part in one of the greatest love stories in the English language. Such Tweet Sorrow is Romeo and Juliet told in 140 character installments. The piece is 24/7, and includes audioboos, yfrog pics, youtube videos and an awful, awful lot of tweeting.
There are several really interesting aspects to this bold experiment, which is a collaboration between the RSC and a multi-media company called Mudlark. The project is 4ip funded, the basic story line (transposed into a modern setting) is plotted and then the plotted occurrences are handed over to the actors daily, who then improvise their reported actions.
People who follow the characters on Twitter can see the conversations happening in real time, and are often asked to contribute, aid decisions, lend reactions. This interaction is producing some intriguing results, some people playing along, and others determined to break what’s left of the ‘4th wall’. The project even has its own ‘fanboy’ playing with the story, to which the official @such_tweet account have been alerting people to (and blocked, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish). The idea of a piece of performance infiltrating your daily feeds is a fascinating one, and the interactive aspect also invites its audience to be performers. When you interact with the characters you are interacting with them as a character yourself – a version of your self, one who pretends that these characters are real.
However despite the interesting questions the work is raising, truth is I’m feeling incredibly let down by the #suchtweet experiment. It is entirely right that it exists, and that people should explore these new forms, but aspects of the characterisation, logistical errors, as well continual formal misconceptions are really beginning to grate. The question is, how and when is it appropriate to raise these criticisms. During? Or after the event has finished?
I disagree with this idea – a film is a finished product, performances grow. A traditional theatrical experience is usually a closed down one, this ongoing project is describe as interactive. Surely this should go for the criticism as well?
Another pertinent question, certainly, is how to deliver criticism. Due to the amount of interaction invited, do you talk directly to the performers, in character? Suggest that the way they’re delivering their information is heavy handed (TMI!) or their characterization offensive (#uploadthatload case in point.). As it is a project largely delivered through Twitter that was my first reaction. I’m not sure it was the right one. It’s hard to phrase ‘I think your characterisation represents unfair assumptions about teenage boys’. Best I managed was “have some respect.” My next reaction was to tweet about my dissatisfaction publicly, engage with (what is ostensibly) other audience members. Some suggested waiting to see how it worked out, though most of my followers that responded (by no means a bunch necessarily representative of the rest of Twitter) shared my concerns. Mixed sample:
However, after a character RT’d some of my ‘in character’ criticisms (attracting attention outside of the context I had given) I feel like I should set out exactly what I think. So here I am, outside of Twitter, long form. Let’s dance.
I want to make myself clear, I certainly don’t think that this performance experiment is in any way sullying the name of Shakespeare, or that it is in any trivial way attempting to engage dramatically with the tech or (as it’s often misrepresented) ‘youth’ community. I think it’s an excellent concept. The problem is all in the execution.
The level of gender stereotyping that has been occurring in #suchtweet has been painful to behold. The boys tweet pictures of girls breasts, make fun of the ‘ginger mingers’ they pull by accident, and generally fight and swear. The female characters moan, cry, and go shopping to relieve their tension. I was pointed by the official @such_tweet feed to consider Shakespeare’s own gender characterization. I have two answers to that 1) when you transpose a story to a modern setting, it makes sense that characterisation should follow 2) Shakespeare’s characters were much more interesting and nuanced than are currently being played out. I also think it’s entirely possible to be nuanced individual in a reduced, 140 character format – everyone else on twitter manages it.
This is a small one, but important, I think, and plays a part in the previous problem. I came across this quote from the actress playing Juliet which sums up the problem:
“I’m nearly 20 so I would normally type in quite a sophisticated way, but a 15-year-old today will use a lot of text speak.” (Source)
So she’s 19. 4 years seems more the younger you are. I’m 25. But I have a brother and sister at 13 and 11. I also remember being 15, me and most of the people I knew made a concerted effort to avoid text speak, we felt like it was an adult stereotype of our lives (though perhaps didn’t articulate it like that), these days texts can be as long as you like, much more used are internet acronyms and emoticons. Also, young people do not feel more simply, they just sometimes don’t have the tools with which to articulate it – that’s why I find the broad brushstrokes of Mercutio and Romeo’s carousing so insulting. I know some teen boys do it, I know some that don’t, but they sure as hell wouldn’t tweet about so much of it. They’re not that foolish.
This is a minor qualm, but really? A car crash? That was the best modern analogue for warring families that you could find? At one of my friend’s schools the Muslim and Hindu kids had a horrible ongoing vendetta which ended in a stabbing. My brother’s girlfriend had to keep him a secret for a long while because he wasn’t Chinese. And while I’m pretty sure that though my mum wouldn’t disown me if I fell in love with a Tory, it’d be pretty hard for her to fathom. Perhaps ignore that last one, but the previous feel much more relevant, and there’s so much less EXPLAINING to do.
This is the big one, despite the new form, the fundamental point is the old playwright’s adage: show don’t tell. These characters should not be offering us the dialogue as it happens, but snapshots of a much bigger picture – the interactive part is piecing it together. What the performances so far represent is a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential of the form. A recent example of this is that last night (Saturday) Tybalt and Romeo had a fight. 3 characters told us this.
How to make this performance and not reported literature? Show, don’t tell. Plenty of kids record fights and put them on Youtube, heck they probably livestream them now. A twitvid taken by Mercutio of Romeo and Tybalt fighting amongst chaos in a pub would have been thrilling. Also, dramatic.
Another example: the way the characters actually use the tweets. This is the advice I give to all of the theatre companies I work with on social media in practice or process: make it interesting. Saying “I am so angry” isn’t interesting or interactive; linking to angry music you’re playing, is. Saying “my eyes are so red from crying” is not interesting, but asking people if cucumbers on the eyes bring down puffiness because you don’t want your dad to know, is. Don’t tell me your brother was just arrested on the telly, show me a fuzzy twitpic of it.
Characters are tweeting things that it is unrealistic to tweet just to get the information out there. Twitter is a public space, would you announce your problems to everyone in a pub? No. But your sadness or anger might seep through, become apparent.
Perhaps not everyone on twitter is interesting, but this is not real life, this is art embedded in real life, it should still be artful.*
*Never talk to me about Live Art.
If you can’t fit it into a tweet without taking out all of the spaces and using c’s and u’s find another way of saying it. Or blog it, live journal, audioboo, twitpic, video. The skill of Twitter is learning how to make pertinent points in short bursts. We can’t always succeed at that, but that’s the fullest expression of it.
I think that #suchtweet is a bold experiment, but all involved seem to be working on the misconception that a smaller form requires broader brushstrokes, that they have to squeeze everything in, that there’s no room for nuance. Is this because of the 140 character form? Would you consider a haiku fundamentally less expressive than a longer poem? What about iambic pentameter? Shakespeare’s nuance was in his language, #suchtweet needs to find it in its form. The actors are working hard in unexplored territory, I completely respect that, but I consider that a greater reason to offer criticism, not a lesser. I also acknowledge that perhaps this experiment is not aimed at me, theatre academic, playwright, blogger. Maybe it’s aimed at people who don’t use these forms, but are growing up living them. And that (of course) the piece could get much better.
Do you think I’m being too harsh? Do you think that I should have waited until the end to critique? Do you think I should review each week? I’d be interested to know what you think.
How would I have done this? Much more mean-ly. I would have cast the piece from existing and well established Twitter and socmed users, secretly, and then let the story play out without announcing it, to have people we previously thought of as ‘real’, fight, fall in love, die… Imagine finding their blog suspended? A tweet from family announcing that they had died? Playing with the boundaries of the real is dangerous, but an investigation of these online spaces – how they pretend to liveness and truth – and of how we all reconstruct ourselves, play a part, an analogue of our self on them each day? Now that’s interesting.
For my week two post on Such Tweet Sorrow, click here.