Stage & Dance

Ashland theater hopes to develop followers by tweeting during play

It used to be candy wrappers. Then pagers. But for the past 10 years or so, it is the cell phone that has become the villain in curtain speeches.

Some speech makers try to make jokes; others issue serious admonitions. Whatever the approach, nearly every live theater or music performance begins with a reminder to folks to turn off or silence their phones.

One Eastern Kentucky arts venue, however, is doing just the opposite.

The Paramount Arts Center in Ashland is asking patrons to bring their phones to the theater and keep them on for the duration of the National Players' high-tech production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The audience will be encouraged to join Twitter and follow @ParamountJoe, allowing them to receive more than 100 tweets that correspond with specific portions of the show. The tweets will include anything from informative factoids about Shakespeare's life and work to background information about characters to cross-references with similar themes in the Bard's other plays, kind of like VH1's retired pop-up videos, but with cell phones and live theater.

For instance, the following informational nuggets, in Twitter's format of 140 characters or fewer, are an example of the kind of tweets audiences can expect during Friday's performance:

■ "Nearly 400 years after his death, there are 15 million pages about Shakespeare on Google."

■ "Macbeth is thought to be one of the most produced plays ever, with a performance in the world every 4 hours."

■ "Suicide occurs an unlucky 13 times in Shakespeare's plays."

The National Players had to sign off on the tweeting experiment, but the venture is entirely venue-originated and driven, with Paramount's marketing director, Jenny Holmes, leading the charge in the hopes of attracting a new generation of tech-savvy patrons.

"Any time you try something new, it gets the attention of someone who may not have been to our theater before," Holmes said. "We want to reach out to new audiences.

"As a theater that is getting ready to turn 80 years old in September, we have a mature following who have supported us for years, but this is a way to bring that next generation in on all aspects of our programming," she said.

Whether the blend of new technology and theater will resonate with audiences is unknown, but Paramount is one of a handful of venues and theater companies pioneering the concept.

The National Players' hyper- modernized vision of the play, with glow-in-the-dark fairies and an electronica soundtrack, seemed the perfect opportunity to experiment with a marriage of technology and art, Holmes said.

She came up with the idea while attending a technology workshop during the 2010 Southeastern Theater Conference in Lexington.

The Twitter experiment is just one component of the Paramount's growing social media outreach strategy. The venue has about 5,000 Facebook friends and a smart-phone application with calendar and ticketing features, and the theater routinely posts podcasts and live streaming of popular events.

For the technologically challenged, show sponsor nTelos, a Virginia-based communications company, will have a help desk in the Paramount lobby to assist patrons with Twitter sign-up and smart-phone troubleshooting.

Purists who just want to watch the show, old-fashioned style, will be directed to a special seating area in the balcony. And not to worry, although phones are welcome, the noises they make are not. Holmes will ask everyone to silence their phones during the curtain speech but keep them on and active if they wish to participate in the live tweeting.