A few weeks ago I wrote a story on theater etiquette -- particularly the use of cell phones inside the theater. Many people agreed with me and emailed, tweeted, posted on social media, etc. words of support. These people are of course in the right. I applaud them. Then there were those that disagreed with me--most privately emailing me to tell me how essential it is for social media purposes that people be allowed to use photography inside the theater.
When I wrote the prior piece, I thought photography was not allowed in the theater as per house rules, it had simply become too widespread to enforce such a rule in a real systematic way. However, despite the language that appears in every single Playbill (shown below), it appears that photography is now officially permitted in at least the Shubert Organization's 17 Broadway houses and likely beyond. The recently departed Tuck Everlasting was even running a contest at one of those theaters where one of the requirements of winning was taking a photo inside the theater, ticket in hand. The Shuberts issued this statement upon my request (emphasis theirs): "To accommodate theatre-goers in the age of social media, audience members in Shubert-owned theatres are generally permitted to take photos inside the house prior to the curtain going up, during intermission, and after the show, never during a performance when the taking of pictures or the use of recording devices of any kind is strictly prohibited."
In light of the Shubert statement, I wanted to know the policies of Broadway's other two major landlords. (I did not reach out to theater owners beyond the big three, though I can tell you from my trip there last week that the Vivian Beaumont Theater still at least tries to be anti-cell phone.) Despite numerous requests for a statement from Jujamcyn Theaters press representatives, I couldn't receive official confirmation on their policy. I did some leg work though and asked ushers; I was surprised by what they told me. The Jujamcyn ushers I spoke with (representing 5 Broadway houses) told me they only enforce the stated "no photography" policy during the show, not at all before the show, during intermission or during the curtain call. I won't use any names, as it isn't necessary to cost people their jobs for this post, but one said to me: "The producers want to advertise. So we let them take pictures of anything as long as the actual performance isn't happening. If we see it when the performance is happening, we might walk down the aisle to stop it." (Though note that, without an official statement, it's hard to tell what the Jujamcyn policy is. It is also difficult to make a universal statement about how the policy is enforced--I didn't speak to every single usher. I was nevertheless struck by the fact that not one said anything different.) The Nederlander Organization, the other of Broadway's powerhouse theater owners, doesn't have a press rep, and an email to Nick Scandalios, Executive Vice President of the Nederlander Organization, went unreturned, but Nederlander ushers were more all over the place. Most said they would stop anyone taking photographs that captured the stage, even if it was before the show or during intermission.
This of course raises another issue--I didn't ask United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829 what they thought about these policy changes, but I can imagine designers' preference would not be to have everyone with a smartphone capturing and spreading their copyright-protected work.
I personally think that social media can be served by photos taken in the lobby with cardboard cutouts or in front of a step-and-repeat (ala Paramour). But I've clearly been outvoted by society at large. The Metropolitan Opera House has been allowing photographs in its auditorium for a few years at least.
Really, the truth is, even the strongest anti-phone policy is virtually unenforceable these days. When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed the New York City law that makes cell phone "use"--defined as dialing, talking, having it ring, etc.--in theaters a ticketable offense he cited the enforcement difficulty. The City Council overrode the veto and so it is law, but we all know the law doesn't do anything. Ushers can't issue tickets and the police have better things to do. (The theaters could of course make and enforce their own house rules, even perhaps ejecting disruptive audience members, but that will never happen with cell phone use.) The sponsor of the New York City law said at the time it was more about giving other audience members a real public right to say: "Stop."
So, despite the loosening regulations regarding photography in the theater, I urge everyone to encourage at least their companion (and maybe the strangers around you if you're so brave) to enjoy the show. Don't keep cell phones on. Don't take pictures. Don't check messages. Don't tweet about Audra's tapping. Just enjoy the show. Most have spent a lot of money to be there. As Adele said recently at a concert: "You can enjoy it in real life, rather than through your camera." The joy of live performance is just that, that it is live. Every single time you look away you miss something. That something won't exist ever again, whether it is captured on video or not.