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BWW Blog: My Case for Bootlegs

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Nearly every modern theatre fan knows what a "bootleg" is. It's not homemade whiskey, or a pirated DVD, but an illegal recording of a piece of professional theatre. Taking videos at a Broadway show is strictly prohibited, but some brave souls manage to successfully sneak a recording from the audience. That being said, most theatre professionals hate bootlegs. Being caught recording or posting them can lead to ridicule at best and criminal charges at worst. So, the question is, are they really that bad?

The argument against bootlegs does have some justification. Nearly any theatre fan on social media has seen community members, particularly performers, angrily Tweeting and Instagramming about spotting an audience member filming the evening's performance. The main complaints about bootlegs are 1) it's distracting for the performers, 2) it's distracting for the audience, and 3) it's a form of theft. It is often the last point that holds the most contention from both sides.

Growing up, I watched countless Broadway bootlegs. I adored theatre, and even though I am lucky enough to live close to New York City, most shows were unaffordable for me. When I was younger, seeing a show was dependent on my parents buying me tickets for something, and that was for a rare special occasion such as my birthday. As I entered high school and began earning my own money, I would see shows a bit more frequently since I could decide to buy tickets myself. Nevertheless, that still took time to save up for and involved a round trip train ticket, travel, and the expense of dinner in Manhattan. I had a mason jar in my room labeled "Broadway Fund," which I would fill with loose change, babysitting money, and any extra cash I managed to get through working. There were so many shows over the years that I wanted to see, but I simply couldn't afford it. Later, I would discover student rush tickets, enter ticket lotteries, find deep discount sites, and learned the best ways to get good deals on tickets. Still, a lot of these options are only viable because I only live an hour away from Manhattan. Because of my proximity to Broadway, I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. A friend and peer of mine who can be considered a bootleg connoisseur, Ryan, put it best:

"While I support bootlegs, I think people are under a false impression that Broadway is inaccessible to many for financial reasons. There are cheap tickets for EVERY show. I got Moulin Rouge tickets for $99 and get student rush for as low as $30," he explained. "I think the issue comes with traveling to the city...if I was located in the city, I wouldn't have a problem, I would see everything for cheap."

There are so many other young people like me who absolutely love theatre but live across the country (or world). Spend one day in their shoes, and bootlegs become a lot more justified.

Let's face it: bootlegs aren't an ideal way to experience theatre. They're often blurry, the sound quality is okay at best, and the need to hide the camera leads to periods of darkness and loud shuffling during for the viewer. There isn't a theatre fan in their right mind that would choose to watch a bootleg over the real thing. For many though, these videos are the only way they can see the staging, performances, and the story beyond what is in the cast recording. If anything, bootlegs expose people to Broadway shows and professional theatre more than they would have previously due to geographical or financial restraints. Bootlegs aren't killing the Broadway industry, but rather giving it a wider reach.

These videos aren't just reaching average theatre fans - they are being seen by performers too. While this usually has negative consequences, in the current era of a prolonged Broadway shutdown, bootlegs are providing a new appreciation and sense of longing for theatre. Mean Girls cast member Tee Boyich stated in a recent TikTok, "When a bunch of bootlegs of yourself show up on your 'For You Page,'... it really makes you miss singing. I never thought I'd be excited to see bootlegs of myself. I miss Broadway." In cases like that, bootlegs have acted as a saving grace to connect people to theatre in a time when the world is shut down.

An unintended side effect of Broadway bootlegs is the sense of community they create. It's one thing to film a bootleg, it's another to share it. Online, people will trade videos, help each other find things they want, and even find friends through the Broadway bootleg trade. There are even TikTok and Instagram accounts dedicated to posting short clips from such videos, creating engagement between fans. There are entire virtual communities of fans who became friends through bootleg trading, and even a whole category of jokes and memes that have emerged from bootlegs alone. Only so many of these videos exist, so their circulation allows fans around the world to all experience the same performance and bond over it. In a lot of ways, the culture around those who indulge in bootlegs has a united sense of community.

Broadway is on pause right now, so live theatre isn't accessible for anyone. Digital platforms have been the only way to watch performances of any kind. At the beginning if the pandemic, many organizations and companies such as The National Theatre in London began releasing pro-shot shows for free. Earlier this month, Hamilton was released on Disney+ and created a resurgence of love for the Broadway sensation online. BroadwayHD offers a catalog professionally-shot performances for a monthly subscription fee of only $9. Filmed theatre is accessible and is found to be highly successful when launched on streaming platforms. Is this killing Broadway? The answer is no. True theatre-lovers would still always opt to see the real thing if given the option - so perhaps instead of shaming bootlegs, more accessible theatre on digital platforms is the key to unlocking a new, larger generation of theatre fans. Bootlegs aren't going to kill Broadway, but perhaps removing the stigma around them and providing more ideal alternatives will change that narrative.


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