Perched in an upper balcony of the Guthrie Theater, his iPhone screen glowing in the dark, Brady Beckman felt like a rule breaker.
"Usually when you go to movies and plays, the phone goes away," he said.
But Beckman wasn't in trouble, and the people seated nearby didn't care. Their phones were on, too. He explained, on Twitter: "Live tweeting at the Guthrie! #guthrieservant"
The Guthrie is the latest and most prominent Minnesota theater to welcome cellphones where they are least expected -- in the audience during live performances.
Patrons at playhouses nationwide are increasingly splitting their attention between phones and the performance as more theaters offer "tweet seats" during select shows, encouraging instant online reaction to what's happening on stage. The seemingly taboo Twitter activity draws rave reviews from those who try it, saying it turns a play into an interactive experience and puts them in the critic's seat. But there are plenty of skeptics, and others who are completely appalled, calling the trend a distraction and disrespectful to the craft.
"I know what Tyrone Guthrie would say," said Dan Sullivan, a retired theater critic from Minneapolis. "He would say, 'What?! Off with their heads!'"
Even the Guthrie isn't convinced of live tweeting's long-term prospects.
The theater decided to offer "tweet seats" for four Thursday-night performances of "The Servant of Two Masters" because the play, a farce, is laden with pop culture references and improvisation. The seats, which cost $15, are in the second balcony of the proscenium stage, away from those who turn their phones off. There are two remaining "tweet seat" performances: this Thursday and Jan. 17.
"If you are in the audience and not sitting in the tweet section, you won't even know it's happening," said Quinton Skinner, a Guthrie spokesperson.
Those who tweet are not allowed to take photos, and the Guthrie asks them to use the hashtag #guthrieservant, so that anyone interested in following along -- in the balcony or online -- can find the commentary.
"It's about being part of a bigger conversation," said Beckman, who relishes the immediacy of Twitter for sharing his thoughts with friends.
He tweeted every few minutes in the first act, highlighting his favorite quotes and heaping praise on the production: "Great mix of modern and classical. Brilliant farce!"
Getting in on the act
The Guthrie staff also got the permission of actors, some of whom have opted to join those tweeting during the show.
"I felt this wonderful connection with the audience," said actor Adina Verson, who plays Clarice. "It was really fun."
She had enough downtime between appearances on stage to keep up with the Twitter conversation, asking questions and even announcing her entrance after intermission: "walking on stage NOW. #guthrieservant #omgivefogottenmylines!"
But she said it worked only because of the comical semi-improvisational nature of "The Servant of Two Masters." If she were in the audience of a more serious play, Verson said, she probably wouldn't tweet during a performance.
"You can't really suspend your disbelief if you're tweeting," she said.
That hasn't stopped more theater and orchestra patrons across the country from dabbling in real-time commentary during live performances, including those at the Dayton (Ohio) Opera, the Indianapolis Symphony and the outdoor Shakespeare Festival in St. Louis. Even Broadway has gotten in on the act, offering a few experimental "tweet seats" during a performance of the musical "Godspell."
The trend hasn't yet spread to movie theaters.
Tweet-worthy vs. 'anti-theatrical'
In the Twin Cities, people started tweeting at the Illusion Theater in 2011. Mixed Blood Theater also began the digital dialogue that year, then made "tweet seats" a fixture of at least one performance of each show in 2012.
People were wary at first and unsure what to tweet, said Jamil Jude, producer in residence at Mixed Blood in Minneapolis. Staff members moderated the discussion, sharing tidbits from behind the scenes or facts related to the themes of the play.
Now Jude regularly fields inquiries from people who want to come specifically during "tweet seat" shows, to sit in the back row and share in the live online discussion.
"There are times that you are feeling emotions that a live performance brings out of you that you want to share with people," Jude said. "What better way to do that in silence on my phone? Why can't theater be a participatory experience while we are living the experience?"
Sullivan, the retired critic, says that's not how theater should work. People need time to absorb an experience and reflect, he said, not be focused on tweeting an immediate reaction.
"It's such a dumb idea," Sullivan said. "It's so anti-theatrical. It's so anti-thought."
Beckman, who live-tweeted "The Servant of Two Masters" until his phone ran out of power after the first act, said the digital banter actually drew him further into the performance.
"I was more involved," he said. "I [was] trying to find tweet-worthy moments."
Once Beckman recharged his phone after the show, his enthusiasm was clear: "Amazing show tonight, @GuthrieTheater! Great to tweet about it! #guthrieservant"
Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758