ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Why Can't I Take Photos in a Broadway Theatre?

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27 Jun 2011

Bebe Neuwirth as Roxie Hart with a piece of the infamous gold frame
Bebe Neuwirth as Roxie Hart with a piece of the infamous gold frame

A question about why photographs can't be taken in theatres before the show begins.

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Question: I always see Broadway ushers scolding theatregoers for taking pictures of each other before the show, and I've seen theatregoers admonished for taking pictures of a show curtain or set before the show begins. If these pictures are not ruining the performance or endangering the performer, why can't they be taken? — M.A., Hartford, CT.

Few activities are more frowned upon by theatre managers than photograph-snapping inside the auditorium. Every theatregoer is familiar with the pre-show announcement that the "taking of photographs and use of recording devices" is forbidden by law. This is owing to various union rules concerning the safety of the actors, as well as intellectual property issues with regard to the shows' creators.



But what's wrong with taking a shot beforehand as a remembrance of the occasion? Well, a lot, it turns out.

"There are several reasons" why photographs can't be taken prior to curtain, said Carol Bokun, a business agent for IATSE Local 360, the union whose members include many back- and front-of-the-house theatre professionals, including those shushing ushers. "First of all, we're instructed in some theatres that the actual curtain of the show is copyrighted."

She's not referring to the red-velvet job we all associate with Broadway theatres, but the painted, decorative ones that have become common at some musicals and plays. Very often, these are the work of the show's scenic designer. Bokun works at the Ambassador Theatre, where Chicago has played for many years. That show has no curtain, but famously puts its orchestra on stage, surrounded by a large gilt frame. "We were told the frame is part of the show," and thus copyrighted, said Bokun. Thus: no pictures.

Laura Penn, executive director of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), echoed those contentions. "With the curtain, there are issues of intellectual property with the artists involved," she said. "As for someone wanting to photograph their grandmother, that is probably a theatre issue." Bokun said Local 360 gets its marching orders from each individual theatre owner regarding photographs, and often these dicta are made with an eye toward overall theatre security. "In some cases, there are security reasons for it," Bokun said. "It does vary from show to show." Bokun declined to elaborate about what those security concerns might be.

Penn suggested that the moratorium on pre-show photos might also be the theatre's way of enforcing a uniform, easy-to-understand policy. "Because it is completely not O.K. to take photos during a performance, we can accomplish that by encouraging people to not take photos inside a theatre at all. That is how we do it. It makes sense to say 'No photographer in a theatre.' Otherwise, how are you going to do it? Are you going to say, 'You can take pictures at this time but not at that time'? How do you control thousands of people in all of the theatres?"

Beowulf Boritt, a 2011 Tony Award nominee for his stark scenic design of the musical The Scottsboro Boys, told us, "The scenery is intellectual property, much like a book, or a song. While you may not be doing anything nefarious with your snapshots, if they end up on the web, that visual information is available to anyone with a quick Google search, and the designs can essentially be stolen.

"I just did a quick Google image search for productions of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Last Five Years. I designed the original productions of both shows, and my search yielded a pile of images that were clearly copies of my designs. It's hardly worth my time to start chasing down every high school or community theatre that does this. You might argue that my work being copied does me no harm, but it's work I have done that is being co-opted without my being compensated or asked permission.

"While these organizations presumably have paid the licensing fees for the rights to the scripts, I don't get a penny for their using of my designs. The prohibition on photos, at it's simplest, is an attempt to give the creative team a little protection from potential intellectual theft."