To Bootleg or Not To Bootleg Theatre

Doing things a little differently this week, and changing up the usual format of Monday’s Review, Tuesday List, Wednesday ‘Why Aren’t You…’ and so on.

Yesterday’s review of The Motherf**ker with the Hat seemed to go down well, and I’ve been writing some more opinion pieces on my days off, so I thought I’d see how these are received.

Today’s one is a bit of a contentious issue: bootlegging theatre shows. Even I’m torn, as you’ll see why.

What is bootlegging?

Bootlegging is basically when someone records a musical, play or any other theatrical event, but without the permission of the show/venue. So it’s basically illegal, because this content hasn’t been officially released by the venue themselves, and there’s a ton of copyright infringements you get into with recording.


Why do people do it?

As technology advances, bootlegging has become more popular and more common place. Some people do it because they are fans of a show/performer and want to rewatch a performance. Some people do it so they can share it online for free within the theatrical community, I guess for posterity. And some people do it for their own profit, so they can sell it on to people who are unable to attend a show, or trade it for another rare recording.


What are the repercussions of bootlegging?

For the people who are actually recording shows, they could find themselves in trouble with the theatre, director, law, basically everyone. Everything on a stage is copyrighted: sets, costumes, any video or image of an actor especially a young actor, all of this copyright. So if you share a video online and the authorities are able to trace it back to you as the original recorder, you could find yourself in serious trouble.

If you share or distribute it, you could be in trouble too. It’s basically like sharing or hosting illegal downloads of songs, which the Government are really cracking down on. And if you watch or stream it…well that’s a bit of a grey area to me, I’m not sure what that would entail.

And it doesn’t just have repercussions on yourself, but theatre staff too. If repeated bootlegs appear for the same show or one is posted with a date on it, the ushers or stewards could lose their jobs. It’s their job to enforce the theatre’s rules and even one video or photo could suggest they’re not doing it up to scratch.

Phew…that was fun reading, wasn’t it. But here’s a little more opiniony stuff, basically a FOR and AGAINST bootlegging.

For Bootlegging:

Only a handful of shows transfer from Broadway to the West End, and vice versa. Fortunately for the theatrical community, transfers are becoming more frequent although more often from West End to Broadway: Matilda, War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Wolf Hall, The Audience, just to name a few in the last few years. Of course, we here across the pond get the big musicals transferring: Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, and American Idiot which is about to start previews. But generally play wise, we don’t get a lot; I can only think of Bradley Cooper’s Elephant Man off the top of my head.


Certain theatres are trying their best to make limited-run shows more available: most notably The National Theatre Live initiative, which has brought shows like Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein, and more recently Treasure Island to international audiences. But, ultimately, there are certain shows which some people on both sides of the Atlantic may never get to see.

Which is where bootlegging comes in.

Bootlegging makes theatre accessible for the masses. If you can’t afford to see a show (because, let’s face it, tickets are fuckin’ expensive), or you don’t live in the same country let alone the same continent as the theatre, you are now able to watch it.

I will admit I have watched 2 recordings. But only shows which are no longer being performed on/off Broadway or in the West End, and which I haven’t downloaded but watched on YouTube: Peter and the Star Catcher and Spring Awakening. Spring Awakening did have a London transfer and tour (I believe), but I never went or was even aware of it, being too young to appreciate it. And Peter and the Starcatcher never transferred, and it is one of my favourite children’s books. I know neither of that makes it particularly justifiable, but both were readily available on YouTube, again accessible to the masses, not hidden away in some corner of a broadway forum for trade or purchase only.


Yes, bootlegging is awful. But for those who can’t afford to go to the theatre and experience that magic, bootlegging does make theatre accessible to a younger, international generation.


Against Bootlegging

Well, thus far I think I’ve made a pretty compelling case for not bootlegging: possible fine/jail sentence, someone losing their job, etc. etc.

Working in the theatre, I can’t stand it when I see people with their phones or cameras out. There are normally signs everywhere on your way in, instructing you against such behaviour. And on the tours in our theatre, we frequently have to ask for no photos even during rehearsals. Because the second an actor steps on stage in costume or set appears, that’s copyrighted content right there.

Bootlegging is wrong. It is illegal, improper and impolite.


If you’re sitting there trying to bootleg a show, you risk distracting the rest of the audience and even the actors. It’s not that hard to see a little red light on a phone, which shows it’s recording, especially in a pitch black room. And it’s even easier to see a flash go off on a camera if you take a picture. If an usher sees it, they will come running over, even if you’re in the middle of an aisle to ask you to turn it off or even escort you off site. That’s disrupting the audience, people who’ve paid a damn lot to watch something. We’ve even had actors come offstage and complain to Front of House that they’ve seen someone recording or repeatedly taking photos. It’s not cool and it’s takes everyone out of the moment.

So yeah, don’t bootleg for your sake, the sake of an audience and actors, and the sake of the ushers.

Final Thought

Admittedly, the defence is less for actually recording a show yourself, but for watching bootlegged content. In my eyes, honestly, it’s indefensible to record a show. But it’s slightly less bad to watch a show which someone else has bootlegged. And I know that makes me the biggest hypocrite in the world.

Bootlegging is always going to be contentious. Morally and professionally, I don’t like it and I don’t get why someone would record a show which is slated for a long run.

But I do understand why people watch bootlegs.

What do you guys think?


10 thoughts on “To Bootleg or Not To Bootleg Theatre

  1. I watch bootlegs… so it is kind of difficult for me to comment on this issue. I thought it is already considered kind of lucky that you live in the UK. Think of me (think of me fondly), who lives in Asia. I have ONE show coming to my local theatre in THREE MONTHS. Assuming the show has a three week run, that means there are two weeks in between where I have really no shows to catch. Of course, since we’re on the topic of ticket prices, that helps me moderate my show-watching schedule as well, which controls my spendings on theatre. Imagine if I stay in London, and watch a show every month. Hang on, I realized I HAVE been watching either a show or concert every month this year… LOL. Anyway, bootlegs are for people like us, though I never liked trading of bootlegs; I find it very unethical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah- for those in UK/US, it is much easier for us to go to shows! Even if they are a bit pricey, they’re much more accessible. Which is why I said and agree that bootlegs are good for those international fans of stage, plus NT Live only reaches so many countries.
      I think filming productions professionally is something the wider theatre community has to address- so when shows stop or are only playing in UK/US, other countries will have a chance to catch them. I can understand why theatres don’t film and distribute shows like Wicked or Book of Mormon which are still running, but why not plays like Mojo revival last year in the West End? Or even release NT Live DVDs, like Frankenstein for home viewing?
      And completely agree about trading/selling- not ethical at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sometimes they do film professionally. At least we have a 25th RAH show of Phantom to watch. I believe a staged version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was filmed as well. I recall vividly that Curly was played by Hugh Jackman. Cats also had one. Tough luck for long-running shows though. Say goodbye to the DVDs of Wicked, Mormon or The Lion King. Aladdin is a musical that is going to join the ranks as well, after it broke box office records in New York.


      2. Yeah- they’ve done a few of the long running ones: Les Mis Concert, Phantom, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar Arena Tour in the UK. Which is a step in the right direction. But that suggests, yeah, we’ll have to wait for the 25th anniversary of Wicked etc. before we get a recording! At least the Tonys and Oliviers show us some of the clips of new shows, which we which can just pop on repeat! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Nothing related, but your comment just reminded me that I have a long overdue review of the JCS Arena Tour… I promised to do it since March and I never had the time to write it.


  2. It is true that, of course, the show creators and theaters don’t want you filming their shows — it is copyright infringement, being most people do use them for personal profit, anyway — but bootlegs can also be a valuable possession. I have to say that, as an actor, being able to watch rare and otherwise lost performances done by late, great, and upcoming stars, is a gift. While I don’t approve of the distractions most bootleggers cause in the theatre at the time, you cannot say that these recordings aren’t an invaluable tool for anyone that cannot see these shows and are looking to study these performances in order to better their craft. Over the years, I’ve been in touch with many show traders. Actually, I’m not quite sure what is so wrong with it in regards to ethics; I see it as collecting, really. While it is most helpful to post shows on youtube, most of them get taken down anyway, due to copyright infringement. And there truly is something special about getting a brand new performance with one of your favorite actors. I completely respect the views and complaints expressed by the theatre heads, and by those who have already commented, but I personally believe that for every downside of bootlegged shows, there is a benefit as well.


    1. Good points. I completely agree on their having a merit, particularly for those learning the craft or studying the shows academically. And I think that and the shows being inaccessible for wider audiences is something which is starting to get recognised and acknowledged. Theatres are working on distributing their content digitally: we now have NT Live, Digital Theatre and Globe Player in the UK, and Broadway HD just launched in the US. But we know not every show will end up on there and, yes, that’s an upside of bootlegging. In terms of ethics, I think we’ll agree to disagree though! 😉


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