From 140 characters to the stage

By Colin Shively

The art of improvisation relies greatly on the audience giving small suggestions to the improv performers so they can create scenes for the onlookers’ enjoyment. But what if the suggestions were already in place—and were 140 characters or less?

Social networking has come out of the digital world and into the theater world at The Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St. Every Wednesday night, The Playground Theater creates improv scenes by using the tweets of a user from the micro-blogging site Twitter. The results are short scenes which bring that Twitter user’s 140-character quips to life on stage, called “The Tweet Life.”

“It hit me that the way we could use [Twitter] is by doing a show that allowed people to connect with us and for us to connect with them,” said Matt Barbera, producer of “The Tweet Life” and president of The Playground Theater. “The tweeters have had a great time.”

Twelve years ago,  The Playground Theater started as a 10-to-12 member team of actors. It has now grown into a well-known improv and sketch comedy theater, where all the performances are produced and marketed among the actors. But with social media and networking becoming mainstream, The Playground Theater changed its routine.

Barbera said that the combination of the performing arts and social media is a new way for people to connect and share their experiences in a drastically different way.

“When we realized the potential of Twitter and social media, we had to act now or else someone else would take up our idea,” he said.

In order to be featured on “The Tweet Life,” Twitter users go to The Playground Theater’s Twitter account, @the_playground, and post “I want in on The Tweet Life.” From that point on, The Playground Theater looks through the individual tweets and decides on a user whose posts portray an interesting and unique individual.

“As far as Twitter goes, we will look for tweets that are more personal and less technical—something that will tell us about who the [Twitter user] is; someone that is fun and silly,” Barbera said.

In their third week, The Playground Theater has showcased three Twitter users: Landon Jones, Steve Heisler and Joe Avella.

“When I heard about the show, I was all over it,” said Avella, whose tweets were performed on Sept. 16. “I was constantly retweeting them and I said, ‘You guys have to get me on this show.’”

For Avella and Heisler, their tweeting styles never altered once they heard that The Playground Theater would be creating improv scenes suggested by their personal posts.

As the actors take the stage, they begin their improv routines as they normally would. Yet, at any moment they can pull out one of the chosen tweets, read it aloud from a piece of paper and then alter the show based on the feeling or observation they get from the 140-character post.

“It is a little strange to [hear the tweets] out of context, because at the time it makes so much sense,” Heisler said. “But it actually gave me a lot of perspective as to how people read your tweets. I thought it was really cool.”

The audience, Barbera said, loved it because most of them are on Twitter or other social networking sites and it adds a bit of excitement at the end of the show when the performers are able to announce who the author of the tweets was.

“In the [three] weeks we have done it so far, we have had people in the audience with over 5,000 followers on Twitter,” Barbera said. “The people who are in this market are interested and are coming out to see what this is and what is happening. We always ask how many Twitter friends they have, and they are proud of it.”

As each week passes, Barbera believes that “The Tweet Life” will open up a new method of communication between artist and audience,  giving the theater something new and exciting to work with.

“The Tweet Life” begins at 8 p.m. every Wednesday at The Playground Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St. For ticket information or how to be featured check out their website at Student discounts are available.