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Mark Shenton’s week: Viewing politics and theatre through the lens of social media

Michelle Terry. Photo: Manuel Harlan Michelle Terry. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Last week, I was still living my theatrical life vicariously from Cape Cod, via the constant stream of news and reviews coming out of London and beyond, which reminded me just how important the job of theatre journalists and critics remains.

The social media streams I have been following have only presented me with part of the picture. In fact, I find the best use of social media is as a signpost to fuller, reliable journalistic sources.

But can social media be made a news and opinion source itself?

We’re seeing, for instance, how Donald Trump is using it as a primary channel of communication – a place where he often announces his policy initiatives first or sets the news agenda on the inner workings of his court.

The 140-character entry length doesn’t really facilitate a detailed discourse; but it’s enough to set the rabbits (or headlines) running. Multiple linked tweets can help to build a fuller narrative; I loved, for instance, this thread speculating on what’s behind Trump’s Twitter savaging last week of his first and formerly most loyal disciples Jeff Sessions, whom he appointed Attorney General but has now turned on.

The Trump story is proving to be truly Shakespearean and I’m entirely gripped by it.

Another Shakespearean court drama

There are also court dramas playing out regularly behind-the-scenes in theatre, and another reached a gripping climax last week when Shakespeare’s Globe announced the replacement for Emma Rice, who was forced to step down by the Globe board.

Lots of people, myself included, were genuinely surprised and delighted by the appointment of Michelle Terry, who has never directed a play before but comes with a deep Shakespearean pedigree, from the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and has also acted major roles on the Globe stage.

But I’m learning a lot from my social media feeds about some of the backstage intrigue there, too.

There were many rumours circulating on Twitter in the aftermath of the announcement of Emma Rice’s departure. They started up again following Terry’s appointment. One rumour is that former artistic director Mark Rylance and his wife composer Claire van Kampen are to be advisers to Terry. But when I checked this out with Globe chief executive Neil Constable, he replied: “I am delighted with the appointment of Michelle. Nothing formal as yet with Mark or Claire, though of course both are on a number of our Globe Advisory Groups already alongside many who have worked at the Globe.”

So, we shall see. But the shadow of Rylance – and potentially the bad blood over Rice – will loom large when Terry joins the organisation as artistic director designate in October, before her formal appointment next April.

Where does press stop and social media begin?

The boundaries are being blurred – not just by the US president, but all over the world – about what constitutes press and what constitutes social media. One is generated by paid guardians at the gate, who research and authenticate their sources; the other can be indiscriminate commentary without supporting evidence.

Yet all sorts of industries regularly and readily court and embrace social media ‘influencers’, and now it is reaching the theatre, too. Last week the Royal Court held its first social media photocall, inviting members of the public in to shoot and share images of its new production of Road.

According to the invitation: “A social media call is an exclusive opportunity to come into the theatre and take photographs of scenes from the play that would never be possible as an audience member. All you need is a smartphone and a way to share your images via social media.”

Of course press photocalls, where established press photographers are invited to take images of a show, have long been an industry-wide practice; but now this democratisation of the opportunity will release into the world potentially thousands of images of a show. While official press photographers will inevitably choose pictures of a show that best show it off, social media photographers won’t necessarily feel a similar responsibility; in fact, allowing this kind of access could actively damage a show more than promote it.

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