Somewhere in the midtown Manhattan offices of the Actors' Equity building, a person is surfing YouTube. Big deal, right? — the same can be said of every office building in America. The difference is this individual is paid to spend time with the phenomenally popular internet clearinghouse of amateur, self-posted mini-movies.
The surfing is not random. Said Equity employee tends to type in the same words week in and week out: Spring Awakening, Wicked, Rent, Legally Blonde, etc. What they're looking for are clips of said Broadway shows, recording by overzealous, often teen-age fans armed with video cameras or cell phones and then transferred to YouTube so that they might be enjoyed by the world at large.
Actors' Equity and other unions do not enjoy these clips, for obvious reasons: they infringe upon copyrights and they are created and aired without requisite compensation to the artists involved. "As we're looking at this new media, we want to be careful to protect the actors if and when they should be compensated for the use of their image," argued David Lotz, communications director of Actors' Equity.
Though YouTube was only established in November 2005, it wasn't long before the site became a headache for the commercial theatre, its producers and its unions. Lotz said the union jumped into the fray early in 2006. Soon after, Equity initiated a campaign in which it encouraged members to alert them to the presence of any offending video. This deputizing of the rank and file had an immediate effect. "We noticed a significant uptake in reports and takedowns," said Lotz. "The average number a month has gone up from 12 in July to 21 today." One Click and It's Gone
From the first, YouTube has cooperated with Equity as it began to address the boom of Broadway-related internet clips. While the website is immune from copyright infringement charges provoked by user postings, it will take down an illegal clip at the request and/or demand of the copyright holder. For a while, this is how Equity would contend with videos featuring its members in performance. The YouTube patrol person at Equity (the union declined to name the specific individual) would copy and paste a clip and send to YouTube, asking that it be removed. The website would then review the material and shut the mini-movie down.
Though no one in the theatre has been as aggressive about the issue as Equity, everyone appears to be on board as being against the spread of illegal videos.
"Unauthorized recording in legitimate theatres has grown to be a huge and frustrating problem for the theatre industry," said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, in a statement. "Whether it's a 30-second snippet or an entire performance, whether it's bought or traded or shared over the Internet: these are outright thefts. Unauthorized, illegal photography and recording is stealing the work of those who legitimately create it: actors, designers, directors, playwrights, composers and the producers who financially invest in putting it all together."
"We're concerned about our members' property right," said Barbara Hauptman, executive director of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, though she added, "but I'm pretty flabbergasted in terms of what one does about it."
A Status Thing
The bulk of YouTube Broadway clips are of segments of musicals popular with the young crowd — shows such as Wicked, Spring Awakening, Rent and Legally Blonde. So it's no surprise that the boom in illegal Broadway clips on YouTube is fueled by teenagers.
"It's obviously a lot of young people," observed Hauptman. Echoed Lotz, "It seems to happen more in certain shows, where the demographic is different. You hear the warnings [against videotaping], you see the warnings, but these electronic devices are so much part of the youth culture, that I don't know if they're even thinking about it."
The video pirates' relative inexperience as theatregoers would also explain their ignorance of theatre etiquette. Weaned on cellphones, video cameras, cable, computers and iPhones, and accustomed to attending personal and public events that are recorded for posterity by someone in one way or another, the youths perhaps perceive nothing amiss in whipping out a piece of silver electronica when attending a performance in a legitimate theatre. Those sitting around them, however, may have a different reaction.
"First of all, there's the incredibly disturbing element of cell phones and cameras pop up during a live performance, which interferes with the artistic performance," observed Lotz. "It certainly destroys concentration. As an audience member, I'm incredibly annoyed when someone flips one these things and there's a light shining next to me."
That answers the "who" of the problem. But what about the "why?" YouTube posters have seemingly little to gain by posting a 90-second clip of "The Bitch of Living" from Spring Awakening. There's no money to be made, and no one's about to hire them as a budding filmmaker based on their posting. So why do it at all?
According to Broadway observers, the habit is primarily a status issue. "They're swapping them, they're trading them," like baseball cards, said Hauptman. "I was on the train the other day and I heard someone say, 'I've got a brilliant copy of Spring Awakening. You've got to come over and watch it.'"
"We think it's a benign occurrence," said Lotz. "They're traded back and forth. It's a fad. It's their social network."
If Equity has its way, however, it won't be a fad for long.