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Equity Nixes Pirated Plays on YouTube

The lights go out. The curtain rises. The Broadway actors hit the stage, and within moments red lights appear, blinking at them from various locations in the audience. They're not cues from the stage manager or warning lights from lighting designers; they're the red lights of video cameras and cell phones snuck into the theatre to illicitly tape performances and perhaps share them online. Since the video-sharing site YouTube.com was born, in February 2005, the practice has become an epidemic.

"It's very distracting, the red lights we see out there. And we see them all the time," said actor James Ludwig, a member of the Monty Python's Spamalot cast on Broadway and chair of Actors' Equity Association's New Technology Committee. Ludwig said that because of actors' vantage from the stage, they can often see the exact location of people filming, and the responsibility usually falls on the actors to help enforce the "no cameras" rule by reporting it the moment they they exit into the wings. When Spamalot was a "hot ticket," Ludwig said, cameras would pop up several times during a performance. He isn't the only actor who finds the practice detrimental to his performance.

Tony winner Lea Salonga, who has starred in Les Misérables, Flower Drum Song, and Miss Saigon, wrote a blog entry titled "Say Cheese...NOT!" about the distracting practice: "I find myself zapped back to reality in a harsh way once I spot one of those incriminating lights and become very frustrated and angry."

In New York City, anyone convicted of making unauthorized recordings "in a place of public performance" faces a $1,000-$5,000 fine and/or up to six months in jail for a first offense, and a $5,000-$10,000 fine and/or up to a year in prison for a second offense within one year of the first. Offenders are also subject to civil penalties.

Though New York theatres post signs, make announcements, and state in programs that videotaping performances is illegal, house managers err on the side of caution when approaching and reprimanding tapers. David Vaughn, director of facilities and theatre management for the Nederlander Organization, which owns and operates numerous Broadway theatres as well as Los Angeles' Pantages Theatre, said those caught taping in Nederlander theatres first receive a warning. "They usually behave after one warning," he said. If they are caught taping again during the performance, their cameras are confiscated, the illicit recording is erased, then the equipment is handed back to them at the end of the show. Law enforcement is not usually involved.

"I haven't heard that any of our managers have called the police, so I don't think we have," Vaughn said. Tapers are not ejected from shows at Nederlander theatres for taping unless their behavior is outrageous. "We try to get [ushers] not to embarrass the customer [who is taping] or to bother the rest of the audience that's trying to watch," he said, adding that the theatres' primary concern is preserving the quality of the theatregoing experience for everyone around the tapers and to prevent the tapers from making a scene. "Anything that distracts from the show is just not acceptable," Vaughn said.

Christine Cox, house manager for L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre, said her theatre deals with illicit videographers by having them delete their footage in front of Ahmanson staffers. Cox said most illicit tapers are approached during intermission to avoid disrupting audience members during the show and that law enforcement is not involved.

Spurred by requests from many Equity members, the union has shut down 1,000 online posts of illicitly taped plays, 95 percent of which were on YouTube, according to David Lotz, Equity's director of communications. Ludwig said the problem has grown so large that the union now has a direct line to YouTube to demand, no questions asked, that content be removed. He added that YouTube has complied and takes down most illegal content within a half hour of Equity's calls. Ludwig strongly encourages actors to send Equity links to pirated plays that appear on YouTube so the union can contact the site and have the videos removed.

YouTube owner Google has also pledged to crack down on copyrighted material illegally posted to its site. In July the company announced it will implement anti-piracy technology that will block copyright-protected video clips from being posted to Google Video and YouTube. The company hopes to have the program in place in September.

Performers Want Professional Tape

Barbara Hauptman, executive director of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, said the posting of poor-quality footage of plays raises a sensitive subject for her members. She said many directors and choreographers would like to have their work professionally videotaped for their reels but cannot do so because of Rule 69 in Equity's Production Contract, which states, "There shall be no televising, visual and/or sound recording, motion picture filming, or videotaping, in whole or in part...without the express permission of Equity."

Director-choreographer Karen Azenberg, executive vice president of SSDC, said that without Equity's consent, choreographers and directors cannot tape even one performance of a show that runs for years on Broadway. "Even for our own personal archive we don't have access to it," she said. "Then you go on the Internet, and it's there for everybody to get."

When such videos are posted on YouTube, according to Azenberg, the performers rarely receive credit and the quality makes the show difficult to differentiate from a high school production. "My personal opinion is that the issue is bigger than we are," she said. "I would rather these Broadway shows perhaps be videotaped professionally and sold as DVDs and all the creative people get a percentage of the sale." One of the positives of illicit taping can be free publicity, she added: "It does create publicity and buzz about shows, and theatre needs all the help it can get."

But Ralph Sevush, executive director of business affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America, said, "The theft of services that [this constitutes] in my mind outweighs whatever marketing benefit it may have in some people's minds." Sevush added that his members are most distressed by online postings of their plays because -- unlike corporate giants such as Viacom, which struck a deal in February to give the online television service Joost.com access to Viacom content -- they are not receiving financial compensation.

Steve Coombs, an L.A. actor who has appeared in theatre productions such as A Picture of Dorian Gray and Orpheus Descending, said administering compensation would be tricky. "As far as to whether a stage actor should be compensated somehow for work distributed on the Internet, I have a feeling it would be a very difficult thing to do, given the Web's unregulated status," Coombs said. "However, if Equity could somehow control it and/or agree to provide compensation to legitimate taping, I would be the first to show support."

Los Angeles TV and theatre actor Sheila Shaw (Gilmore Girls, Mad Men), for one, isn't bothered by footage of her performances winding up on YouTube. "I think it is going to be very hard for the unions to police this and enforce some kind of compensation," she said. "If it is an Equity Waiver play, you're going to end up possibly getting some exposure you probably wouldn't get anyplace else."

Sevush thinks the experience of theatre, unlike the experience of music, can never be threatened by the Internet: "Theatre essentially is a live experience, and it's hard for me to believe that YouTube or any kind of technology can actually re-create that experience."

To report the URLs of illegally recorded theatrical performances, contact Dwane Upp at Equity: (212) 869-8530, ext. 341, or taping@actorsequity.org.

Nicole Kristal can be reached at nkristal (at) backstage.com.

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