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Hang on there, Shutterbugs...


School plays are exciting events, especially if it's the first one that your friends or relatives have participated in. Most of us like to capture those magic moments for digital perpetuity with cameras, cell phones, and video cameras. If you're taking the camera along to an elementary school event, you can expect that pretty much everyone else in the audience will be snapping lots of photos and that's just part of the experience. However, when those kiddos get to junior high and high school, the rules of the photo game change. There are three major considerations: audience etiquette, respect for the performers, and legal issues.

Junior high is where we begin introducing theatre as an art form -- it's more than just getting kids involved in the 'school play.' It's also about teaching them all the conventions of theatre, including audience etiquette. We recognize the unique quality of the audience being in the moment with the performers on stage depends on not being distracted by things such as crying babies, ringing phones, crinkly candy wrappers, loud conversations, people arriving or leaving in the middle of scenes...and the electronic tones, whirs and illumination of a digital camera being readied for a shot. That glowing LCD screen is a distraction to those around you, and might even be blocking someone else's view.

Junior high students have so many distractions in their moment to moment existence. We directors spend six to eight weeks trying to focus them and move them beyond those distractions to create believable characters and captivating stories...which they do quite well until they are faced with the reality of going on stage in front of an audience. The flash of a camera can take the actor on stage out of the moment and bring a startling reminder that someone is watching very closely. These young performers take on a demanding task -- they only make it look easy, that's why it's called acting. They deserve to have their work seen by an audience who is practicing what the students have been taught about audience etiquette.

The last consideration is the least popular and most difficult one to explain to anyone who is not in my position, and that is the legal issue of copyright. Face it, most everyone is baffled by the complexities of copyright laws. Let me make it simple: I sign a production contract that gives me the right to produce a playwright's work. I do not automatically gain the rights to reproduce that work in electronic or recorded form (it says so right on the contract and on the inside of the script). A representative of a publishing company told a group of theatre teachers at a conference I attended that the theatre director would be the person held responsible for any breach of that agreement. My school board has a policy that says it won't be held liable for any monetary damages incurred by a teacher in any legal matter. In short, people take photos or video during a performance I direct that get shared and discovered by a publishing company and I am the one who pays the thousands of dollars in fines and possibly won't be allowed to get any further production rights from that company. That would not only be a blow to my family's personal finances, but also put a crimp on being able to do my job selecting plays for my students.

So, if you go to a school play and the printed program has a notice or the director makes a speech that requests no photos or videos be taken during the performance, please take the request seriously for the reasons mentioned above. If you desperately want photos, contact the director a couple of weeks in advance of the performance and ask to take pictures during dress rehearsals. Offer to share the pictures with the director, cast and crew and you'll ingratiate yourself like you can't imagine. Besides, when 'the play's the thing,' you should be enjoying the show from a wider vantage point than an LCD screen or viewfinder.


Ronda Miller 8 years, 7 months ago

Informative piece, Lisa.

I had a question for clarity, however. What is the difference between taking a photo during a rehearsal and one during the performance (I know the obvious about disrupting the audience and the performers) in terms of legalities?

Thanks! I am sure most people, myself included, had no idea of the consequences someone in your position holds.

mom_of_three 8 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, I don't understand why pictures would fit into the category, cause no one could really tell what play was being produced. YOu see a kid on a stage in a costume - could be from anything and anywhere.

Janet Lowther 8 years, 7 months ago

I can see a ban on video, but a ban on stills?

I would think still photos, representing as they do a fraction of a second of the play, would come under the fair use doctrine.

On the other hand, flash photography, as would be the usual case with most consumer grade cameras is just rude.

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