If you have ever gone to see live theatre, you have probably heard a pre-show announcement asking you to silence your cell phone and remind you that the use of photography and recording devices is strictly prohibited.

Have you ever wondered why these rules are in place?

Before COVID-19, I worked an usher in theatres across the GTA, and it was my job to enforce these policies. It was normal for me to wander down the aisles throughout the duration of the performance, spying dozens of little white screens and remind people to kindly put away their cell phones. During these interactions I would often be asked why phones were not allowed. Well, here’s the reason. Using a cell phone inside a theatre is considered impolite and against theatre etiquette. If a cell phone rings during a performance, it will interrupt he audience and the actors. In the dark, bright screens can be distracting. It is considered highly disrespectful to actors if you are on your phone during a show. It may even be dangerous. I once caught a patron using their flash to blind an actor onstage. However, the biggest reason why cell phones are a big-no-no, is because they can be used to take photos and recordings of the production.

Just like it is illegal record a movie in a movie theater, it is also illegal to record theatre shows.  A theatre production is someone’s intellectual property, and the Copyright Act in Canada is in place to protect that intellectual property from being illegal recorded and distributed without the expressed permission of the rights holder. Copyright law is most commonly enacted when it comes to intellectual property of playwrights, but copyright laws and/or similar contractual obligations prohibiting unauthorized recordings can extend to directors, designers, choreographers, actors and anyone else involved in the creative process of a show. It is important to remember that the practice of prohibiting filming, photography and cell phone use is not standardized, and can vary depending on the show. It is always a good idea to ask a staff member, or consult the theatre’s website, if you don’t know what a theatre’s policies are.

Many theatres have struggled to combat the prevalent use of smart phones. It would have been easy to spot someone recording a show twenty years ago, but now that everyone is equipped a tiny camera in their pocket that is easy to conceal, it’s become much more difficult. Combined with the emergence of video sharing platforms, such as YouTube, bootlegs of theatre shows, comedy shows, and concerts have popped up all over the internet. The West End has considered adopting the practice of pointing a laser at theatregoers using their phones during the performance. Some performance venues are tackling the issue by banning phones.

Why is bootlegging such a big problem anyway?

The worry is that if bootlegs are distributed to online video sharing platforms, audience members will not want to pay to go see the show, preferring to watch it online for free, thus taking away potential revenue from the theatre.

Another issue with bootlegging is that you are watching a performance through a screen that is meant to be seen live.  An integral part of theatre is the fact that it must be experienced in person in order to be fully appreciated.

Theatres across Canada and the US are in a financially precarious position. With dwindling audiences, some fear the wide spread of bootlegs is the death knell for the theatre industry

Bootlegs may actually be the solution rather than the problem.

Theatre is in a precarious position. It needs audience members to thrive, and the demographic of people who go to see theatre is shrinking.

There are barriers restricting access to theatre, the two most wide reaching being cost and location. It costs a lot to run a theatre company and as a result tickets cost a lot of money. Not all theatres tour, and it is time consuming and expensive to travel to see a show if you live across the country, let alone across the world. Let’s be honest, would you rather drive to your local Cineplex and pay $14 for a movie ticket, or $10 for a monthly Netflix subscription and not leave the comfort of your home, than go to the theatre?

Bootlegs offer a solution to both issues. They don’t cost anything to see, and you can view theatre productions from anywhere in the world. People who do not have the opportunity to see live theatre, are now able to see theatre from all across the globe online. Bootlegs generate interest and boost engagement, for a particular show, a company, or for theatre in general. In fact, people might be more likely to see a show in person, if they’ve seen a bootleg first. Bootlegs are becoming an essential part of the theatre ecosystem, nurturing communities of young theatre goers. Bootlegs are an extremely effective marketing tool, and it would be wise for theatre companies, instead of shaming the practice, to start examining how they can be used to reach a global audience.  

During the pandemic, scores of theatre companies have taken the opportunity to stream professionally recorded full length productions of their shows online for free or a small fee, the most prominent Canadian example being Stratford Festival. It is yet to be determined how streaming theatre online, will influence ticket sales when theatres reopen, but there is hope that there will be some correlation. It might also be beneficial for smaller, not yet well-known Canadian theatre companies to stream their performances online as well.

Canadian theatres should also be examining how cell phones can play an active role in the theatrical experience and increase an audience member’s engagement in the show rather than take away from it.

I’m not suggesting that you sneakily record the next show you go to and post it on YouTube. Please don’t. I don’t believe in legalizing bootlegging, nor do I believe bootlegs will completely solve the precariousness of theatre. I believe that if Canadian theatres want to thrive in the digital age, where nearly all media content is consumed online, they can’t waste time contending with cell phones, but use cell phones to enhance the theatrical experience. They are powerful little devices that aren’t going away anytime soon.  


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