Industry Editor Exclusive: Inside Broadway's Social Media Problem; What Can and Can't Go Up
Social media is an increasing part of every business, including the theater business. There is some debate about what it means for ticket sales, but it is clear that it can mean a lot to increase actors' profiles. Actors who would have only been truly known by a select group of theater insiders have thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram. Some report being asked about those numbers, and Facebook fan page likes, by casting directors and directors. But it's not necessarily easy for actors to share on social media. There are some impediments.
First, actors aren't typically allowed to post footage from shows. Actors' Equity has contracts with the Broadway League and various producers that constrict what can be recorded; these also make it clear who owns the footage, and it's not the actors. They can retweet or share something posted by the show or a news outlet, but they typically can't just go on their own for self-promotion purposes. In recent years, because of the growing importance of social media, actors have been grumbling that they need footage rights. But change is slow in all industries and especially in a vestige of times gone by like the theater. A spokesperson for Actors' Equity acknowledged that the union has received numerous inquiries from members eager to use this footage, however he noted that one union could not make the difference. "It involves many right holders," he said, adding that Equity was working with its sister unions to make progress on this front. (There are intellectual property issues with posting photos too, as rights of costume designers and set designers might be implicated, but the enforcement of those has long been lax.)
Then there is a tricky thing about confidentiality. Usually press agents attend an all company meeting at the start of a rehearsal process and tell the cast not to post photos or detailed description of costumes or set pieces before the production has released that information about the show. There are exceptions to this--some shows want to engage fans (and hopefully boost advance) and encourage actors to post away. But the general policy is the show leads, actors follow. For highly anticipated shows, some producers want to whet fans' appetite in a controlled way. So FROZEN director Michael Grandage recently offered 10 days of backstage photos leading up to Denver previews of the Disney musical. Actors then reposted, often with comments.
And then still other producers go exactly in the opposite direction, wanting to all but silence their cast. For example, lead producer Scott Rudin had the cast of HELLO, DOLLY! sign riders that were essentially non-disclosure agreements. Note that Rudin, who declined to comment for this story, also took the unusual step of including non-disparagement clauses in investor agreements, so the move to limit his cast's public statements is not so surprising. (Though I think contract or no, the amount of people who would want to disobey Rudin's instructions probably can be counted on one hand and includes no one in the HELLO, DOLLY! cast.) Actors' Equity said these riders are still rare and, when presented with one, Equity recommends the actor consult a lawyer before signing.
There is a good reason for this advice, beyond the typical "don't sign anything until you show it to an attorney." The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found some broad policies forbidding employer-related social media posts in violation of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. Basically, the NLRB has said social media guidelines and policies are unlawful if they prohibit employees from engaging in concerted activities for employees' protection. So, hypothetically, if an actor posted on social media about how a certain producer was too cheap to keep ice bags on hand and was compounding actor injuries because of that thriftiness, and the producer tried to fire that actor, the NLRB might cry foul. It all depends whether the post can be viewed as one where the employee is possibly helping and/or reaching out to other employees. In a small, insider industry such as the theater, it is hard to imagine that many actors would take to social media to address such concerns, but it has happened. And there wasn't much prohibiting it, beyond fear of possibly being branded a trouble maker, because there wasn't a need. Social media has exploded so much in the last ten years that the theater is still catching up.
As part of that, we see middle road social media guidelines, with producers allowing some sharing, but not all. For example, Cameron Mackintosh made news in September when he distributed guidelines pertaining to his UK and overseas touring shows that prevented understudies from posting ahead of when they were to go on for a principal. At the time, his company said it just reinforced guidelines already in place. However it was controversial. Actors complained that it was stifling self-promotion and fans complained that it was giving them less opportunities to see others in principal roles. The guidelines did not pertain to his Broadway shows, but other shows on Broadway have similar policies in place. WICKED understudies report being told previously not to post when they were going on, however, under current guidelines, understudies are able to post on social media their show dates. (These policies likely do not violate the National Labor Relations Act because posting about going on is self-promotion, not a protected activity.)
Shoshana Feinstein, an original programming producer at 54 Below and founder of the Broadway Understudies Twitter feed, explained that she founded the feed because she was a fan who liked to see understudies go on in principal roles. Back eight or nine years ago, she used to talk to understudies at the stage door to find out when they were going on. Now, with a team of two others, she follows them on social media, retweeting to the @understudies over 18,300 followers, or creates independent posts when alerted that an understudy is being given his/her moment in the spotlight.
This all gets into what producers see as a tricky gray area. "I want my actors to succeed and be able to promote themselves," one said, "but I don't want people calling the box office to get refunds. When these things are weeks out, sometimes a social media post is picked up in a web search of the show, and people don't buy tickets because they don't want to see an understudy." Producers and general managers spoke to further highlight the confusion caused by these announcements, which have sometimes hit social media before the full cast is even notified.
But these arguments don't carry the day for many, who say these posts are in fact rarely picked up in generic web searches and the majority of those going to see long-running shows don't often follow understudies on social media. Additionally there are of course those that point out that Shirley MacLaine was an understudy when she got her big break, but that does little to prevent producers from thinking ticket-buyers want to see stars more than understudies and anything that advertises that may not happen is bad for business. Many think that is true whether the star is a box office draw or simply the 27th Phantom. And there is probably proof that they are right--if you are paying $150 per ticket for a show you want to see who you think the director thought was the best person for the role. Now I'm fond of telling people how I hated the last 42ND STREET revival until understudy Meredith Patterson took over the role of Peggy Sawyer. With her, instead of original lead Kate Levering, I could have watched it ten more times. But would I have known that going in and seeing an understudy slip? Would I have always wondered if Kate Levering were better if I had never seen Kate Levering?
That said, it is easy to see the other side. Actors want to tell theater fans they are going on--they want fans to come and like them and support them in future shows. Plus true fans often want to know. There are some people I personally want to see go on in roles. I often reach out to actors (some friends and some strangers) with a: "Tell me when you are going on..." But does that outweigh a show's right to control the message?
And what of the actors who don't want to participate in social media? There are those too. While Equity says complaints to the union are rare, some actors spoken to for this story say they have been pressured to join and participate in social media to promote a show. Some people stay off it, despite the badgering. Others, such as NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812's Lucas Steele, bow to the pressure and join, knowing an opportunity to promote themselves and their shows might be lost if they stay away.
It is a new world we live in. As someone who believes in the magic and surprise of live theater, I lean on the side of less social media sharing. I see both sides of the understudy debate and I sort of think, until Equity and the Broadway League come up with a consistent rule, it is a producer's choice. I do not want to see Elsa's transformation until I see it live. I was thrilled 97% of HELLO, DOLLY! was completely new to me when I walked in the Shubert. Of course I had read some details and spoken to friends about it, but that is different than seeing it ahead of time. I had only seen but one picture; all the rest was fresh and marvelous. That is part of the wonder of theater.