Bootlegs: Inclusive or Destructive?

In today’s society, keeping in touch with Broadway has never been easier. You can tweet the actors directly. You can use websites like Playbill Vault and Wikipedia to learn about shows without having seen them. You can even see what life is like backstage thanks to Instagram and video blogs. With this technological revelation, though, comes something else – bootlegs. Specifically, bootlegs that are easily uploaded, downloaded, and shared with people all over the world.

Several members of the theatre community have voiced their opinions on bootlegs. Benedict Cumberbatch recently gave a heartfelt appeal to his fans to stop recording him in Hamlet, saying it’s impossible to do his job properly when all he sees are the red lights of recording devices. Other artists have also spoken up about the issue over the years, and as a whole, the professional theatre community seems to agree on this: bootlegs = bad.

But are they truly? Let’s examine the pros and cons between what is quickly becoming a controversial and widely discussed topic in the theatre world.

PRO: Bootlegs make theatre more accessible for everyone.

No matter how you feel about them, there is no denying this: the existence of bootlegs means that people all around the world are better able to enjoy live theatre. For anyone who doesn’t live in or near a large performing arts city like New York, London, or Toronto, seeing shows can be very difficult (not to mention expensive). With bootlegs, it doesn’t matter where you live – the magic of a perfectly riffed “Fiyero” can be enjoyed via the internet (and sketchy video quality).

CON: Bootlegs mean that you aren’t experiencing theatre the way it was meant to be seen.

Theatre was meant to be seen live. It was intended to be performed in front of a live audience, to give the actors a chance to truly connect with the audience without the barrier of a screen. As well, one of the best parts of live theatre is that the show is always just a little bit different each night it’s performed, with different actor quirks and different audience responses. By viewing shows through a screen, all of a sudden you aren’t able to feel the energy of the performers, experience the hush of an audience as the overture starts, or make that personal connection to the people you see onstage – you are just watching a show, with no magic involved. And that is tragic.

PRO: Bootlegs are way more affordable than tickets.

With the exception of trading sites, where you trade a copy of a bootleg you own for a copy of a different bootleg, bootlegs are free. How many people do you know that have said they would love to go to the theatre, but just can’t afford it?

The sad reality of live theatre is that for many people, ticket prices are just too expensive. Even offering things like rush tickets and student prices doesn’t change the fact that a night out at the theatre can cost upwards of $200. Bootlegs mean that people who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to the theatre are able to experience it – free of charge.

CON: Bootlegs take money directly out of the pocket of the hardworking artists involved in the show.

All shows rely on ticket sales to stay open; if fewer people buy tickets, the show doesn’t make as much money, and the run of the show becomes shorter and shorter. By choosing to watch a bootleg instead of attending a performance, you decrease the ticket sales of the show. You may think, “Well, one ticket less won’t kill them,” but when many people are thinking the same thing, ticket sales drop drastically and the show needs to close because they can’t afford to stay open. Which means that all of the artists involved in the show – actors, musicians, stage hands, etc. – are suddenly out of a job.

Seeing a bootleg for free means less money for the people who deserve it – the ones singing, acting and dancing their hearts out eight times a week for audiences, and the people behind the scenes that help them shine.

PRO: Bootlegs mean the opportunity to see performers you would never have seen otherwise.

One of the most amazing things about bootlegs is that so many of them exist – with all kinds of different performers. This variety means that people are able to see performances by people who have long since left the show – or even people who are no longer involved in live theatre. It also allows exposure for new and upcoming artists. It’s a lot easier to share a YouTube video than a theatre ticket, and sometimes that one video is all it takes to create a lifelong fan.

CON: Filming bootlegs is disrespectful to everyone involved in the show.

There’s no way around it – filming a live show is not only incredibly distracting to the actors onstage, but is also highly disrespectful. How would you feel if, in the midst of a particularly touching soliloquy or a delightful comedic moment, you looked out at the audience… and were only met with raised cell phones and red lights? These people work hard to make a live show enjoyable and moving, and to not be paying attention tells them that their work isn’t important to you, no matter the reason you’re filming it.

Are bootlegs truly the worst thing to ever hit live theatre? Or are they a way of exposing new works and artists to people everywhere, no matter where they live or what their financial situation is? Is it possible for them to be both?

I’m still trying to figure out where I stand on that, but I do know this: nothing will ever beat the magic of seeing a show live. Not even a bootleg of Kelli O’Hara.

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