Social Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Social Media, and Performance

By Way, Geoffrey | Journal of Narrative Theory, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Social Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Social Media, and Performance


Way, Geoffrey, Journal of Narrative Theory


In January 2010, the Birmingham, Alabama-based Sloss Performing Arts Company began work on a performance of Romeo and Juliet that experimented with the social network site Facebook to allow their audience the ability to access and participate in the rehearsal process that led up to four live stage performances in May. Later that spring, the Royal Shakespeare Company began a live-week performance of Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow that was performed entirely via Twitter. Six actors and actresses tweeted the performance over five weeks, and anyone with an internet connection could follow the performance at any time by visiting the performance website or the individual characters' Twitter profiles. While these were two quite separate projects, one by a small local performing arts company and the other by the internationally recognized RSC, both incorporated social media into their performances of Shakespeare. As such, their uses of social media raise a variety of scholarly questions. What, for example, were the desired and achieved outcomes for allowing the audience access to the rehearsal process via social media, as with the Sloss production? Did their use of social media shift or change the audience's role in the production, and if so, how? In the case of Such Tweet Sorrow, what happens when a social media site such as Twitter becomes the platform for a dramatic performance? What are the promises and chal- lenges for performance companies that utilize social media? How will performance scholarship account for these implications?

The use of social media in dramatic performances is a fairly recent practice, yet there are already certain trends in the ways productions attempt to weave social media sites into their practices. In looking at the Sloss and RSC productions, I am concerned with the ways that each company incorporates a specific type of social media-social network sites (SNSs)1-into its performance. These are sites that danah boyd and Nicole Ellison define "as personal (or 'egocentric') networks, with the individual at the center of their own community" (boyd and Ellison 2007). However, boyd and Ellison's definition is still somewhat generalized, and getting more specific can help us understand the ways individual SNSs develop their own specific sets of user practices. These user practices are generally shaped by two separate yet intertwined aspects: a site's technological constraints and active members' participatory practices and culture. Twitter provides an excellent example for considering a SNS's technological constraints, as a single user update, or "tweet," is limited to 140 typed characters. Twitter users must work within this constraint, often abbreviating words, shortening hyperlinks, or cutting unnecessary characters in order to fit their message to the tweet's 140 characters. While this limit affects the length of a tweet, it is, as communication scholar Nancy Baym states, through users' "shared behaviors" on a site that, "[c]ommunity norms of practice are displayed, reinforced, negotiated and taught" (Baym 2010: 80). In this way, SNSs such as Twitter and Eacebook operate as online spaces in which members enact a type of social performance, where specific practices established and reinforced by the user, and members of the user's network, signal their membership within the community.

Michele Knobel and Colin Eankshear's study of Facebook membership explicates how both technological constraints and user practices shape accepted means of participation. They argue that, "The knowledge system involved in participating within Facebook is complex. Part of it involve[s] 'co-ordinated sets of actions' or 'skills' concerned with performing the technology. . . . Beyond this, however, the knowledge systems that users bring to their social networking involve discursive knowledge and how to render [it] effectively" (Knobel and Eankshear 2008: 276). Knobel and Lankshear identify the effects Facebook's technological constraints can have on user practices, as well as the fact that users create and main- tain worthwhile connections with each other through their recognition of, and participation in, shared user practices. …

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