February 22, 2019 | Narrative
a door to musical theatre
Picture this—a young Native girl sitting in her bedroom quietly cursing her limited internet connection. She scrolls through YouTube, clicking on videos with bizarre names: “Autumn going to bed (definitely not the Deaf West production of Spring),” “don’t do drugs part 1,” “Mean Girls Make Pink Slime On Wednesdays!!! (SHOCKING).”
Yes, this girl is scrolling through YouTube’s mini collection of illegal theatre bootlegs. And she does not regret it—in fact, she revels in it.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this girl is me. Growing up on the reservation involved living through a variety of unique experiences—walking down to the flea market, feeding Rez dogs table scraps, and breathing in the soft scent of burning cedar mixed with frybread grease from dinner. I love these experiences. They’ve turned me into the person I am today. But there are also experiences I’ve missed, things I’ve never gotten to do.
I watched with envy as parents in films went out to Broadway shows every other evening with toddlers and reluctant teens in tow. My frustration was intense—I wanted those experiences. I craved those experiences. But they never came. My life was limited to dirt, yucca plants, and steamed corn stew.
My first exposure to musical theatre came from my mother’s scratched disc of Phantom of the Opera. I loved it. I carried around a beaten CD player, thick and covered in peeling VeggieTales stickers. As my obsession grew, I craved visual content. Thankfully, Phantom was adapted into a movie, and it hooked me instantly. I watched that movie over a hundred times (no exaggeration). Soon, my tastes expanded into The Sound of Music, Hairspray, and Into the Woods. Thankfully, each of these productions was adapted into a film that was, by most means, more accessible.
This luxury lasted until my interests shifted to a new musical—Spring Awakening. There is no movie adaption for this production. At first, I accepted this and focused on the soundtrack instead. But soon, a craving developed. I wanted to see the set, the actors, the costumes, the blocking. I wanted to see the lighting and hear the band. I wanted to sit in a theatre and see the show play out on a stage. I wanted the full experience. But as a girl from the Rez, such desires were far out of reach.
That is, until I opened YouTube.
The internet is a pool of entertainment and information. You can find cooking videos, craft DIYs, and college lifestyle vlogs—the whole world at your fingertips. So, it’s no surprise that I found an online community providing the theatre experiences I craved. I watched these videos late into the night, squinting at the small screen of my cell phone. I sat at lunch tables, shushing friends who attempted to talk over Ben Platt’s opening monologue in Dear Evan Hansen. I walked through parking lots lip-synching along to the songs in Rent. And as I applied to colleges and the stress of essay-writing became overwhelming, I turned to Waitress, tearing up at the tender moments and smiling softly at Sara Bareilles’s witty writing.
And I’ll admit, nine times out of ten, the video quality is awful. Shaky video footage, blurry and out of focus with inaudible dialogue and fuzzy pictures. But bootlegs became an integral part of my theatre experience. In some ways, they were my only link to an actual one. There weren’t many theatrical performances on the reservation. I was alone in my obsession.
But the YouTube bootleg community gave me a place to channel my ever-growing interests. It provided me access to what otherwise would have remained out of reach. Not everyone has the opportunity or privilege to attend one of these shows. Not everyone has the time or the resources to spend on travel or hotels. Bootlegs combat these disparities; they are the first step to equal access in theatre viewing. Who are we to deny access to those of low-income status? Who are we to deny access to those in rural areas? Who are we to deny access to young teens across the U.S. with no way to New York City?
Bootlegs shouldn’t have to exist on YouTube as illegal entities. Performances should be made readily available and distributed by a streaming service or as DVDs. Shows should be professionally recorded and shared, not contained and sheltered. These are experiences everyone should have the opportunity to partake in, whether that’s in the comfort of their own homes or within the theatre itself. Of course, such a platform can’t exist without the aid of artists, so we must ensure they are supported—whether that’s through purchasing a CD or blogging about their latest professional advancements.
Whenever homework becomes too much, or I’m looking for a good distraction, I turn to YouTube’s comforting collection of bootlegs. As a low-income Native girl from the Rez, I might never get the chance to see an actual Broadway show, but recordings, especially if shot professionally, can compensate for that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, a video titled “not a musical about a founding father Act 1” is calling me. I must answer, because who knows when YouTube will take it down.