Local theaters are on a mission: make live performances of classic plays and experimental new works accessible to people of all income levels. But the local theater community often finds itself battling the notion that seeing a show on stage is a luxury or a pursuit reserved for the moneyed. So they’re experimenting with new pricing models, including “pay what you can” evenings at many theaters. We explore the affordability of theater in our region.

Guests

  • Rachel Grossman Ring Leader, Dog & Pony DC
  • Bob Mondello Arts critic, NPR
  • Pete Miller Board Member, Woolly Mammoth Theater

Where To Find Discount Theater Tickets In The Washington Area

It’s not hard to find a theater in our region that offers some sort of discounted pricing, whether regularly low-priced tickets, “pay what you can” evenings or free previews. Most theaters also offer markdowns on the single-ticket price if you buy a subscription package to a handful of performances for the season. And it’s always worth asking if a venue has a student, military, veteran or senior discount.

Taffety Punk and Flying-V Theatre are committed to keeping ticket prices low, with prices typically ranging from $10 to $25. General admission is $20 at the Anacostia Playhouse.

For those who prefer “pay what you can” tickets, Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., has adopted the pricing model for every show.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has “pay what you can” previews as well as a flex pass. It’s one price for six admissions to be used whenever you want.

WSC-Avant Bard in Arlington, Va., holds a “pay what you can” evening for each performance.

There are several discounted viewing options at The Shakespeare Theatre Company, including $18 tickets for those 35 years and under, cheaper preview evening tickets and discounted tickets for less desirable seats.

Folger Theater at the Shakespeares Library boasts “pay what you can” evenings and College Nights, where a student ID will get you a $15 ticket.

The Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage hosts at least one performance nightly, starting at 6 p.m. every day of the week. The best part? The events are always free.

Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., has discount tickets for those under 30 years old and a two-for-one ticket special going on now.

The under-30 crowd can also find reduced-price tickets at Studio Theatre and, when available, $30 rush tickets for shows not yet sold out.

In Arlington, Signature Theatre offers four-ticket family packages and $22 tickets on Tuesdays.

Transcript

  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. While many may see movies as entertainment for the masses, theater is often seen as reserved for the money. But whether it's local community theater or big budget Broadway style spectacles, there are as many types of cheap seats as there are styles of theater, including half-price ticket booths for big productions and pay-what-you can evening at smaller theater companies.

  • 12:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere are even a number of shutdown specials on offer this week. Yet, getting people past the perception of stage performances as a luxury is a challenge all theaters wrestle with. Joining me to discuss this is Peter Miller. He's a board member of the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company and an enthusiastic D.C. theater goer. Pete Miller, thanks so much for joining us.

  • 12:07:44

    MR. PETE MILLERGlad to be here.

  • 12:07:45

    NNAMDII should mention that Peter Miller is also a member of our arts council at WAMU 88.5 for which we are duly grateful. Also in studio with us is Rachel Grossman, ringleader at Dog & Pony DC, a theater ensemble. Rachel Grossman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:00

    MS. RACHEL GROSSMANThanks for having me.

  • 12:08:01

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from NPR headquarters here in Washington is Bob Mondello. He is NPR's art critic. Bob, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:09

    MR. BOB MONDELLOHey, Kojo. Great to be here again.

  • 12:08:11

    NNAMDIIt's a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. Do you go to the theater? If not, why not? Could it be you think it's too pricey? 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Bob, this perception the theater is a pricey entertainment option in some cases is not just a perception. What's a big commercial show run these days?

  • 12:08:38

    MONDELLOOh, well, I was just looking at the Kennedy Center and was kind of appalled to discover the top price for "Book of Mormon" this summer was $250. That's a lot of money for a single seat. See, I have the advantage of the best theater ticket discount on the planet, which is they pay me to go to see these things and that doesn't happen to everybody.

  • 12:09:02

    MONDELLOI have been going since I was a kid in the 1950s and I've watched theater ticket prices go up exponentially it seemed. But I just did just a check. My gut impulse was that inflation has probably accounted for a lot of this. And I was a little surprised to discover what a $9.90 ticket from 1957 for "West Side Story" would have gone for if it was in 2013. And it would have gone for about $84.

  • 12:09:35

    MONDELLOSo if $9.90 now equals $84, inflation has not been as extreme as we think. And that $250 ticket for "Book of Mormon" is that center section that they're now doing special pricing for. They do that up on Broadway, too. It's sort of to take advantage of the fact that some people seem to have unlimited funds for this kind of thing and so they're pricing to avoid people going to scalpers.

  • 12:10:00

    NNAMDIRachel, if you can't or don't want to pay full price, pretty much all theaters offer discounts in one form or another. What are some of the ways people can see theater without breaking the bank?

  • 12:10:10

    GROSSMANWell, I think all theaters in D.C. will offer at PWYC or a pay what you can performance or multi performances. Sometimes those are the first performances or the previews at the beginning of the run. Sometimes they're within the middle or on a certain day of the week. Most theaters in this area are also offering discounts to students, to seniors, to members of the military, as you mentioned earlier, to people who are being furloughed or affected by the shutdown.

  • 12:10:38

    GROSSMANYou're also seeing discounts that are what are known sort of as rush tickets so if you come at a specific time in relationship to when the box office opens, there are a small amount of tickets that are available for a low dollar amount that day. And really, it's just about when you know there's a show you want to see at a specific theater, or you're just sort of curious, getting on the website -- I think all the theaters in the D.C. area do a wonderful job of listing those specials and being really specific about how to take advantage of them.

  • 12:11:09

    NNAMDII know Pete...

  • 12:11:11

    MONDELLODid you say Ticket Place, too, because that's -- it's sort of old school, but yes, that's a way, too.

  • 12:11:15

    GROSSMANOh, yeah, Ticket Place as well, though I believe Ticket Place is operating and also Gold Star is offering a lot of offers through the local theater as well. Thanks, Bob.

  • 12:11:25

    NNAMDISame question to you, Pete Miller.

  • 12:11:27

    MILLERSo in addition to what Rachel and Bob have already mentioned, there are youth discounts at many of the theaters and in this context, youth sort of goes in quotes. Those go as old as 30 or 35 years old. Those are good opportunities. Most of the theaters will do group sales and, I think, for some shows it's more fun to go with a crowd anyway. And those kind of come in, I would say, two-flavors.

  • 12:11:57

    MILLERYou can either work with someone from the box office to assemble your group ahead of time and that may mean 10 or 12 people or most of the theaters offer flex pass or at Wooly Mammoth it's called a Six Pack, which is just some number of admissions to any show at any performance where seats are available for a fixed price.

  • 12:12:19

    MILLERAnd so if you wanted to bring 12 people to come see a show at one of these theater, buying two Six Packs is a very affordable way to do that.

  • 12:12:28

    NNAMDIAnd Shakespeare, it's my understanding, has a free-for-all?

  • 12:12:30

    MILLERYes. So there are also seasonal events in town. The Shakespeare theater company does their free-for-all in the fall and other companies I know have plans to do some things along those lines as well. There are also, in the summertime, the Source Theater Festival and the D.C. Theater Fringe Festival where there are very large numbers of productions with ticket prices all on the order of $20 or a little bit lower.

  • 12:12:59

    MILLERSo I guess that's the other thing that's worth saying. You know, you lead off with what a big commercial performance is going to cost and that's a reasonable set point, but there are many theater companies operating here in D.C. doing terrific work, much of it with local artists, which I think is a bonus, and their top ticket price on a Saturday night may be 10 to $20. So, you know...

  • 12:13:23

    NNAMDIBob.

  • 12:13:23

    MONDELLOAnd, you know, I actually think that the smaller theaters are the ones that I find more interesting anyway, the ones where I find the work more interesting and more fun to view. So I personally -- listen, any magic that theater has is about being in intimate contact with actors as opposed to watching them up on a big screen. And the miracle of theater happens in store fronts and church basements and all over the place and has for decades for me.

  • 12:13:53

    MONDELLOThat's the part that I get the most excited about.

  • 12:13:56

    NNAMDIAnd, you know, Bob, Pete notes that there are many theater companies that, in his words, Pete's words, are foolishly committed to cheap tickets in the rain all the time. What are you talking about, Pete?

  • 12:14:08

    MILLERSo Flying V Theater, which performs at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, they do work that's inspired by pop culture and geek culture, superheroes, pirates. They've got a terrific show called "Best of Craigs List" that they did over the summer and they tend to bring their work back around. They are committed to an every-seat-$10 practice and their work is a lot of fun.

  • 12:14:35

    NNAMDIAnd Rachel, there are a number of theater companies that use what you call pay-as-you-can models. How does that work?

  • 12:14:45

    GROSSMANYeah. Well, it's going to work differently for each company. I mean, I can speak specifically to ones that my company, Dog & Pony DC, has operated. Actually, I'll jump to a really classic example. Like, Wooly Mammoth, they have their first couple preview performances of any given show. You can line up at a specific time. The box office opens at a specific time and you will literally walk up, two tickets, it is pay whatever you can to pay for that price.

  • 12:15:14

    GROSSMANPay for the price of the ticket. So what we've done at Dog & Pony DC is a reserve online for free, pay at the door and we've also done, most recently, something we called Play Then Pay which was thematically linked to our production of "A Killing Game" where, again, people could reserve online in advance for free, but then they watched the show and the message is, what is the value of this experience?

  • 12:15:45

    GROSSMANPlay the game that is the play of "A Killing Game," and then say, how much was this worth to me? And what we found was interesting is that when you average out the numbers, we made $5 more per person over the average ticket price that we normally charge, which is $17.

  • 12:16:03

    MILLERThat's fantastic.

  • 12:16:04

    GROSSMANIt is. It was really super lovely to hear. I want to make sure -- I would be remiss if I didn't add, I know Forum Theater has started offering a forum-for-all program where there is a pay-what-you-can at the door available at every performance, a bulk of their tickets.

  • 12:16:24

    NNAMDIAnd you know, Bob, you had mentioned earlier that you started going as a kid and that there have always been ways to see theater cheaply. Talk about how you did it as a kid.

  • 12:16:34

    MONDELLOWell, there's one way I did it that I probably shouldn't admit. But the way that I can admit is that I used to do standing room all the time, especially at the National Theater. And back when I was doing it, I could see, say, Ethel Merman in a revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" for $2.50. And at that point, I mean, that was great. I don't know what the ticket prices are for...

  • 12:16:56

    NNAMDINo, no. Talk about that intermission thing you used to do.

  • 12:16:59

    MONDELLOAh. Well, that...

  • 12:17:02

    NNAMDIThe one you said you couldn't talk about.

  • 12:17:03

    MONDELLOThis is called second acting. I learned about it from Moss Hart in his autobiography "Act One." He used to go to the second acts of Broadway shows by sort of hanging out in front of the theater and when the crowd came out for intermission, he would, like, pick up a dropped playbill or a ticket stub or something like that and then just sort of drift back into the theater with them for the second act.

  • 12:17:26

    MONDELLOI confess I found that fascinating when I was 15 and I tried it and it works.

  • 12:17:31

    NNAMDISort of drift back in.

  • 12:17:31

    MONDELLOSo anyway, there was -- well, you drift back in and then there's always a couple of empty seats in the back of the orchestra that you can down in. So anyway, I used to do that at the National Theater and I did it for a good long time until I became a movie and theater critic and got to get tickets for free. This is, by the way, the best of all possible discounts is to start writing down your thoughts, put them on your blog or someplace and eventually get a following that makes theater companies want to invite you to their shows.

  • 12:18:03

    MONDELLOThat's a very exciting way to do inexpensive tickets.

  • 12:18:06

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. We got an email from Jackie in D.C. who says "for both great shows and cheap seats, I highly recommend local college offerings. Howard University, George Washington, George Mason, et cetera and community theaters, the new Anacostia Playhouse, formerly H Street, is particularly great." And we go now to Brian in Alexandria, Virginia. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:30

    BRIANHi, Kojo. Since you're talking about affordable ticket agency seats. I perform a lot in the D.C. area and I find that one of the most overlooked opportunity is volunteering. Often volunteers get a free or at least discounted (unintelligible)

  • 12:18:49

    NNAMDIYou should see both Pete and Rachel saying, how could we overlook that?

  • 12:18:53

    MILLERYeah. I can't believe I did, too. That's absolutely true. It's a great way to do it. Are you talking about volunteering as an usher or something like that?

  • 12:19:00

    BRIANAs an usher, sometimes they need people to come in and paint sets for them or sew a costume, help out in various shops and those people often get free seats or discounted seats at least.

  • 12:19:12

    GROSSMANAnd may I add...

  • 12:19:14

    NNAMDIPlease, Rachel.

  • 12:19:14

    GROSSMANYou know, Brian, what's really great about what you say is, at least in my opinion, particularly people that are working with the general public so ushering for instance, those volunteers are really become a key part of that theater's then community. So what's exciting is, yeah, you can get free tickets to, or be able to see, X, Y, Z show, but you are also serving as a representative to the general public for Wooly, for Area, for Dog & Pony DC, for Forum, for Taffety for any of those companies, which is a really great community-building opportunity for not only the theater, but also a way for the general public to get involved with the arts organization that they love.

  • 12:19:59

    NNAMDIPete, care to add anything to that?

  • 12:20:00

    MILLERYeah, that's definitely how I got started with play-going and volunteering in D.C. So I guess the warning is it might grow is it might grow on you and then start taking up more of your time. But it's all a lot of fun. And the added value that you get by entering as a volunteer beyond just getting to see the show for free is you meet the people behind it and I do believe that the playmakers here in D.C., the community we have, are some of the most fun people to know and spend time with.

  • 12:20:33

    MILLERAnd that's really the way in which play-going became not just a thing I do but kind of a hobby and an obsession for me.

  • 12:20:41

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. We're discussing theater affordability with Bob Mondello. He's NPR's art critic. Pete Miller is a board member of the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, and Rachel Grossman is ringleader at Dog and Pony DC, a theater ensemble. You can still call us, 800-433-8850. Do you take advantage of discounts for theater tickets? Share some of what you do, 800-433-8850. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org where you can see a list of kinds of theaters and ways that you can get into theaters for lower prices. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:22:59

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing theater affordability, taking your calls at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. Rachel Grossman joins us in studio. She is ringleader at Dog and Pony DC, a theater ensemble. Pete Miller also joins us in studio. He's a board member of the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and a DC theater goer. Bob Mondello joins us from NPR headquarters. He's NPR's art critic.

  • 12:23:23

    NNAMDIRachel, most of us are familiar with the way airlines price tickets. The same seat can have a very different price depending on when and how you book it. But most people don't know that theaters also use what's known as dynamic pricing. What the heck is that?

  • 12:23:38

    GROSSMANWell, I feel like I'm going to give like the layman's and then I'm going to defer to Peter for maybe a more technical -- I mean, dynamic pricing really is -- it's a large sort of formulaic way of looking at how to maximize your revenue. But looking at what you -- the number of seats you have to sell, what you need to pay to cover -- what you need to bring in as far as income to cover the costs that are associated with the production. And again, insert long algebraic equation about how many people will buy at what price and when. And it's about how do you adjust pricing to allow for the most amount of people to see and the most amount of dollars to come into the door in order to cover costs.

  • 12:24:20

    GROSSMANI mean -- and I'm looking -- that was my layman's. And as -- Pete, what do you think? Did I...

  • 12:24:26

    MILLERThat is essentially the case. The way that most people perceive it is that when a show is filling up, when a lot of people are choosing to buy tickets to a show at some of the theaters in the area, the price of the remaining tickets will start going up. And again, as Rachel was saying, this is a balancing act for all of us who are involved in governing theater organizations, that we have an obligation to keep the organization financially healthy, which encourages us not to leave dollars in the box office that we could've collected. But we also want to see that there's a lot of availability.

  • 12:25:12

    MILLERAnd so that's where a lot of the discounting programs we were talking about earlier come from, that even when we have a very popular show and we're taking advantage of the demand on the final seats that are selling for a Saturday night or something like that, there's still a way for many people to see that same show at a lower price.

  • 12:25:34

    NNAMDIWell, Bob Mondello, here's this email we got from Andy in Frederick, Md. "When the Kennedy Center opens the box office to the general public, I find the tickets gone. The tickets are bought by a reseller and sold for a higher price. This would be called scalping if I did it and I would be breaking the law." Know anything at all about that, Bob?

  • 12:25:53

    MONDELLOWell, what I know about it is that it happens a lot more in concerts than it does in theater, but it does happen in theater too for the big shows. One of the answers is to -- yes, that's true for like a "Book of Mormon" that comes in and is basically sold out before it even opens in town. It is going to be less true for a show that is not that level -- that doesn't have that level of popularity. But it isn't illegal. It is all about selling tickets in bulk.

  • 12:26:24

    MONDELLOAnd the -- actually, if I can twist that question to ask something of our other guests...

  • 12:26:32

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:26:33

    MONDELLO...about this dynamic pricing because essentially this is about dynamic pricing. The whole notion of having these central seats in the orchestra that cost more at the Kennedy Center or on Broadway, is about avoiding the price of scalping, or avoiding having the money go to scalpers and to hold it in the house. Does dynamic pricing work in the other direction? In other words, do you lower prices if the show is not selling well? Because if it works in both directions, I think it sounds like a wonderful thing. If it only works in one direction, which is the price goes up, I don't see the advantage for the consumer.

  • 12:27:10

    GROSSMANRight.

  • 12:27:12

    MILLERYeah, I can speak to that for theaters like Woolly where I've kind of seen behind the curtain in that way. Typically when a show is not selling strongly, rather than lowering the face price of the ticket, the company will offer discounts. There are a number of reasons that that's usually the route, but then they advertise those discounts very aggressively. And so it has the same effect as lowering the face price of the ticket.

  • 12:27:46

    MONDELLOOkay.

  • 12:27:46

    NNAMDIHere is Ellen in Fairfax, Va. Ellen, you're on the hair. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:27:51

    ELLENHi. My name's Ellen Young and I'd actually like to bring up a sad historic example was with a theater called Catalyst (sp?) Theater Company that our home was at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. We thrived -- we began around 2002. It was an actor-driven troop. And we, at one point, decided to just blanketly charge $10 for all tickets, opening night, any night. And it was because we felt that everybody should be able to be affording to go to the theater.

  • 12:28:22

    ELLENAnd our company really did thrive. And obviously it's a small venue that we had but we were nominated for Helen Hayes, won a Helen Hayes award. And very, very proud and happy with what we did. I think unfortunately we decided to make the move to a larger venue too early because it's right when the recession began when we moved to Atlas Theater.

  • 12:28:46

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:28:46

    ELLENBut this started a long time ago with us. And we were rather novel in doing it when we started the $10 tickets. And I just wanted to note that it was great to have full houses when people came. Not just because it was cheap but because they were seeing really good theater.

  • 12:29:01

    NNAMDIEllen...

  • 12:29:01

    MONDELLOYou know what...

  • 12:29:02

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Bob. Go ahead.

  • 12:29:02

    MONDELLOOh, I'm sorry. Well, it was one of those things that I so admire the small companies that take that approach. And do you remember Potomac Theater Project...

  • 12:29:12

    GROSSMANUm-hum.

  • 12:29:12

    MONDELLO...when it was here in town a few years ago? Because they actually had a policy after the first couple of seasons they did. They knocked it to zero. In other words, all tickets were free but they did a collection at the end -- it amounted to pay what you can, right?

  • 12:29:26

    ELLENRight.

  • 12:29:27

    MONDELLOAnd so they did a collection at the end of the thing. And they discovered that people were basically giving them 5 or $6, which was not as much as they would have charged but they had consistently full houses. What was odd about this, though, was that the placing it at free apparently convinced the public that it was not worth very much. And that was a problem that unless you got rave reviews, the free tickets didn't actually drop people. And that struck me as a really interesting problem.

  • 12:29:53

    ELLENOh well, that wasn't the case with us. That really wasn't the case with us. We were really thriving both dramatically and -- financially we were because we would have donors from our board of directors. But as far as the people coming to see the plays, we just flat out -- and no one was really doing it then, $10 a ticket. We tried to emulate Joe Papps Public Theater approach way back in the '70s. And it worked so well. And if we had stayed at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, I think it would've continued until the economy picked up. Maybe we could've made a move to a bigger venue. But as it was, it was lovely.

  • 12:30:27

    NNAMDIEllen, here's Rachel.

  • 12:30:29

    GROSSMANEllen, I miss -- I would say I miss Catalyst very much and I know that Taffety Punk also has made a commitment as well as Flying V and a number of theaters. And I would say Dog & Pony DC, we've set ours at $17. I want to say though what we've tried to do, which is another way that small -- and I can speak to sort of the smaller budgeted size theaters -- is to look at actually dynamic pricing. So your base ticket, your general admission is a set price of 10, 15, 17, 20, but that you actually offer then what we call a generous admission ticket, so our ticket's general admission $17, generous admission, $32.

  • 12:31:12

    GROSSMANAnd it's very clearly stated this is because you can pay more. There is nothing special other than that about it. And that's another way that you can sort of do some creative pricing, creative dynamic pricing.

  • 12:31:22

    NNAMDIEllen, thank you very much for your call. The fact that Ellen says their fortunes changed when they move to the Atlas Theater underscores another point, that while everybody loves a discount, there's a hard financial reality behind all of this. Working actors need to be paid and should be paid. Can you talk about that tensions between keeping prices low and keeping the lights on, Pete?

  • 12:31:44

    MILLERYes. And the keeping the lights on, sadly when you look at the budget for most of these theater companies in any given production, far more of the dollars are going to the practicalities of renting a venue, meeting utilities for that venue if that's separate from the rent, promoting the show so that people will show up. Those costs tend to be substantially greater than the dollars that are really flowing directly to artists, which I always think of as the sort of my favorite part of the ticket price is the part that's eventually going to go to an actor or a designer.

  • 12:32:17

    MILLERBut that is a definite tension in a lot of the terrific small like hundred-seat house theaters in town. Those actors you see working their hearts out are essentially being paid to meet their metro fare to and from the rehearsals and the performances. And they're not really taking home much beyond that. That's substantially better for the actors when you get into the larger theaters, the Woolly Mammoth Studio, Shakespeare Arena. Their people are at least -- if they could work 40 weeks a year acting in those venues, they could probably manage a studio apartment someplace near metro.

  • 12:32:58

    MILLERThese are -- you know, no one is being enriched in nonprofit theater here in greater Washington. And frankly, almost no one is enriched by commercial theater on Broadway. It's a very small sliver of people who make serious money out of theater. Most of the people who are involved in it are involved because they love it. You know, my own earnings from my theatrical endeavors tend to run about negative $50,000 a year.

  • 12:33:25

    MILLERYou know, that's an interesting thing about pricing when you look at the nonprofit theaters in particular. If you see someone like David Shiffrin, who I believe is still the chair of the board and Arena, if you see him sitting in a seat for a show at Arena, David probably paid on the order of $10,000 for that ticket. You know, that we have this group -- if you see Bob and Arlene Kogod in a theater anywhere in D.C., they may have paid 50 or $60,000 for that ticket. These are people who are incredibly generous to the arts and allow us to keep operating.

  • 12:33:59

    NNAMDIWhich brings me to this broader question, Bob Mondello and Rachel Grossman. Can you talk about the financial picture overall for theaters in our region?

  • 12:34:09

    MONDELLOI think you folks are better equipped to talk about that than I am. I have been looking at it for ages but from afar. I think one of the things that's happened recently is that people think that because theaters have these glorious new playhouses -- and we have a lot of them in the city -- that theaters are independently wealthy. And it doesn't really work like that. Ordinarily a theater ends up with more expenses when it has a big new house than it did before. And that can actually undermine its ability to do good work sometimes.

  • 12:34:45

    MONDELLOBut I think by and large, a theater in this city is healthier than it is anywhere else in the country. I keep hearing dire reports of what's happening in Chicago these days. And in San Francisco the theater community is much diminished. It's true all over. Washington, partly I guess because we're protected -- although, you know, a government shutdown could affect that rather dramatically -- but partly because we're protected from the vicissitudes of the economy in a lot of ways, our theater community has been healthier in the last few years than a lot of other places.

  • 12:35:20

    NNAMDIRachel.

  • 12:35:20

    GROSSMANAnd I would say -- that was at the top of my list, sort of three points to quickly touch on. One, which is what Bob said about the D.C. area being a really, you know, financially bubbly protected some. So you're seeing a lot of larger companies, budget wise, and smaller budget companies really thriving. I mean, space -- the second point would be space which both Bob and Pete touched on, is a real issue in D.C. because there are many -- the cultural of storefront theaters in Chicago is quite significant. That is not the case here.

  • 12:35:52

    GROSSMANAnd the number of acceptable places, meaning like there's electricity and a bathroom to perform in, let alone say chairs, you know, is quite small compared to the number of companies that could be producing. And I think the third thing, which is just -- you know, Pete mentioned the actors. And I really think, you know, we tend to, you know, good and bad, focus on the actors as sort of our main storytelling units.

  • 12:36:18

    GROSSMANBut really when you're looking at budgetary concerns, particularly the smaller the budget gets the more the people that are doing the administrative base work, the behind-the-scenes production work, everything from creating an email to building a set to finding costumes, they are significantly underpaid unfortunately, just do to practical needs in comparison to say maybe the actors but then certainly compared to the larger-budgeted organizations.

  • 12:36:51

    NNAMDIOnto Steve in -- I'm sorry, it's Jason in Silver Spring, Md. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:36:58

    JASONHey, everybody. This is Jason Schlafstein. I'm the producing artist if Flying V. Hi, Rachel and Bob and everybody.

  • 12:37:03

    GROSSMANHi, Jason.

  • 12:37:04

    JASONThanks so much for the shout out earlier. And I just was listening and I wanted to sort of give our perspective on why we do keep the $10 tickets so firmly in place. Because it goes back to what you guys were talking about at the very beginning of the program, which is it's a huge struggle to keep the $10 tickets in place in a lot of respect and something that we've been having a lot of internal conversation about. But there -- I definitely believe and agree that there's a major perception for people who aren't already play goers that theater tends to feel more like a genre than it does an actual medium.

  • 12:37:41

    JASONMost people when you talk to they wouldn't say that they're a fan of -- that they're not a fan of music or they're not a fan of movies. They would say that they like the specific kind. But that a lot of respect for this sort of mental stigma of theater as being a very specific sub genre of something as opposed to a giant medium. So for Flying V, we keep the $10 tickets because we really want to be, for lack of a better word, your gateway drug to theater.

  • 12:38:07

    JASONAnd we have very consciously picked the kind of material that we do, which we like to call sort of a pop savvy theater, which really does focus a lot on top culture and modern mythology. And the people that we want to reach are people that might not otherwise think that theater is for them and the kind of topics that they think that they would see, whether that's true or untrue. And we've decided that the best way to get them to come out in the first place is to make sure that it's extremely accessible price-wise for them to come out.

  • 12:38:33

    JASONBecause I think something that you guys talked a lot about that I very much agree with is that our competition is not with other theaters. I am thrilled for anyone to go see Dog and Pony or Woolly or anything because that means they're getting out. And I feel like the vast majority of our competition is loneliness . It's like my competition is not another theater company. It's people staying up all night on Facebook before realizing what's happened to them. And anything we can do to get people out of the house and sort of interacting with people and realizing that life itself is a precious commodity is important. If that means we sell you our...

  • 12:39:06

    NNAMDIHey.

  • 12:39:06

    JASON... tickets at $10, that's what we're going to do.

  • 12:39:10

    NNAMDIJason, thank you so much for your call. The fact that Jason says that he sees -- they see Flying V as a kind of gateway drug to theater allows me to raise this issue with you, Pete Miller. We cannot really talk about theaters in a single broad category. How do we break down or how would you break down the theater seen here?

  • 12:39:30

    GROSSMANOh, I'm excited to hear this.

  • 12:39:31

    MILLERYeah, so a lot of people treat these as boxes. I think of it as more of a spectrum that, you know, if we -- we've already had academic theater like high school, college student theater brought up in the course of the hour and community theater. You know, those I think are fairly well defined although community theater, you know, almost no one is paid in that. Probably few people have academic preparation in whatever discipline they're doing. Then you get into the smaller professional theaters in D.C., almost all of whom are non-profit.

  • 12:40:09

    MILLERAnd there most of the artists involved will have some academic preparation, they're paid a little bit, there may be one or two staff people who look after the company between shows and, you know, can actually get some work done even while you're rehearsing. Then you get to the larger non-profit theaters where you've got maybe a substantial staff taking care of marketing and the facility and things like that, where actors and other artists involved are members of the unions or professional associations of their various crafts.

  • 12:40:45

    MILLERAnd they're actually getting something closer to a living wage, as long as they can be in projects enough of the year. And then we ramp…

  • 12:40:53

    NNAMDIWell, no. I want you to define that even more clearly.

  • 12:40:56

    MILLEROh, go ahead.

  • 12:40:56

    NNAMDIYou have reportedly said that if they can actually act 40 to 50 weeks a year they might be able to afford a studio apartment near Metro.

  • 12:41:04

    MILLERAnd I think that's about what it comes to.

  • 12:41:06

    NNAMDIYeah, yeah.

  • 12:41:07

    MILLERYou know, now it is true that the larger the house you can work in -- as Equity is the union for professional actors in the United States, Actors Equity. If you look in a theater program you'll often see stuff about whether people are members or not, in the cast listing. The pay scale with Actors Equity is proportional to the number of seats in the house. So basically, the idea is that the actors should be paid proportionally to the revenue possibilities of the venue where the show is being done.

  • 12:41:38

    MILLERAnd so, if you see a lot of seats around you an Equity Actor may be making more money than I'm describing, but if you see, you know, 100 or 200 seats around you, that's probably just about what they're taking home.

  • 12:41:48

    NNAMDIAnd then there are the commercial theaters.

  • 12:41:49

    MILLERThen the commercial theaters. And I do not believe we have any large commercial theaters resident in D.C. The bulk of the commercial theater that comes here is very large and it's touring and it is, as Bob was talking about earlier, it's the "Book Of Mormon," it's those kinds of Broadway shows on the road. Now, there is an intriguing phenomenon to me of tiny commercial theaters that are opening. We actually had one for about a decade. It was called Cherry Red Productions.

  • 12:42:18

    MILLERThey did smutty work and they tend to perform in bars. And at the end of the night all the artists involved would just split the gate and I think they got a little bit from the bar if drinks sold enough during the performance. The Washington Rogues, who are just getting ready to open a show over at Flashpoint, are another example. They are not forming up as a non-profit. They're forming as a commercial venture and I think that's an interesting way for some of the smaller companies potentially to go.

  • 12:42:51

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back -- if you have called, stay on the line and we'll try to get to your calls. If you'd like to send us an email, do so to kojo@wamu.org. Or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Have you seen any shows you'd recommend? Anything you're excited to see this season? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:45:07

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about theater affordability with Rachel Grossman, Ringleader at Dog And Pony DC, a theater ensemble; Pete Miller, board member of the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and a D.C. theatergoer; and Bob Mondello is NPR's art critic. Bob, people talk now about D.C. as a theater town, which is exciting for those hoping to grow the local art scene here.

  • 12:45:29

    NNAMDIOn the other hand, claims of a theater boom might be somewhat exaggerated, but does attendance reflect that?

  • 12:45:36

    MONDELLOWell, a lot of people go to the theater here, 2 million people a year or 2 million tickets a year are sold in the area. I think this past year it was 2.2 million tickets. That's a lot more people than go to home Redskins games, for instance. It's a lot more people than go to all the Wizards games in a season. It's a tremendous number of people, but it has not changed much in the last two decades or so. And most of those people are going to the very largest of the theaters.

  • 12:46:09

    MONDELLOThe fact of the matter is that a single performance of say, "Wicked," at the Opera House, plays to about 2,300 people. To get that many people into a theater like say, Studio Theater, which has 220 seats per house, requires 10 performances. So it takes a long time for the smaller theaters and obviously for the really small theaters it would take even longer. So, you know, it's hard to say that theater is not booming, because we're selling 2 million tickets a year. On the other hand, it’s not growing, particularly.

  • 12:46:45

    MONDELLOWe are a population of about, what, 500,000 people in the District? And we support 2 million tickets a year. That's pretty substantial.

  • 12:46:55

    GROSSMANI would also like to add, though…

  • 12:46:56

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:46:56

    GROSSMAN…the number -- looking at those metrics, like the number of artists who have grown up and are making their living as an artist that are based here in the D.C. area or arts administrators. I mean, myself and my husband, who's a professional lighting designer -- we moved here right out of college, have been living here for 15 years and both of us are theater professionals. And I think that's homeowners and happy District residents.

  • 12:47:23

    MONDELLOYeah, that's right.

  • 12:47:24

    GROSSMANSo think, you know, that's another metric that we can look at.

  • 12:47:27

    MONDELLOIt also didn't happen 30 years ago. It was a really hard thing to create and actual job for yourself where you didn't also have to be a secretary or something to be able to support theater work.

  • 12:47:41

    NNAMDIHere is Walter, in Vienna, Va. Walter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:45

    WALTERHi Kojo and guests. How are you all today?

  • 12:47:46

    NNAMDIWe're well.

  • 12:47:47

    GROSSMANHi.

  • 12:47:48

    WALTERGood. My question was more about multi-year subscriptions. Whenever I go to a theater, whether it's Kennedy Center or Synetic or Studio or Woolly Mammoth, after I attend a performance I'm always on their mailing list to subscribe for the full season. But there seems to be no reward for going to one or two one year and then going back the next year. There's such good theater I have a hard time putting my entire budget with one theater.

  • 12:48:18

    WALTERBut I would like some kind of reward for, you know, going to Woolly once or twice every season and going to Synetic once or twice every season, but it seems like I start over every year with each one.

  • 12:48:28

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, Pete Miller, to Walter?

  • 12:48:29

    MILLERI can say that it is an idea I've heard before. One of my fellow board members, who since had to move away from the area, was really intrigued by the idea of building a community wide loyalty card program, where for, you know, someone seeing theater throughout the region at many venues, you could score up points and then do something with them. I'm very intrigued by that. That is not so far anything that has taken practical form, but I think it's a terrific idea and would do a lot to help someone who had already discovered one theater, discover more of them.

  • 12:49:12

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Walter. Rachel, there are a number of interesting shows on stages this fall. What's on stages now that we absolutely should not miss?

  • 12:49:23

    GROSSMANWell, I want to say that I have been really excited to see "The Laramie Project," over at Ford's Theater. I think it's important that Ford's is doing it. I think the cast is really fabulous and a wonderful director. And I know they have been having -- Pete and I were just talking, before we started the show that they had some space concerns because of the government shut down, but it seems like they've settled that. So they do have tickets. And they're offering, I think, tickets on a first-come, first-served basis, is what we said.

  • 12:49:54

    GROSSMANSo a really great and affordable way to see an amazing production that's happening right now.

  • 12:49:58

    NNAMDIAnything else?

  • 12:49:58

    MONDELLOAnd it's free, right? Are they giving free tickets?

  • 12:50:00

    GROSSMANYeah, that's what Pete said. I haven't seen their website.

  • 12:50:03

    NNAMDIPete?

  • 12:50:04

    MILLERSure. So these are two shows that are closing this weekend that are both terrific, all disclosure, you know, I'm involved in this one, but "Detroit," at Woolly Mammoth. It's a terrific show about two neighboring suburban couples struggling to hold it together in a tough economy. And they don't quite do it, but it's a great show full of guilty laughs. There's also one weekend left of "Don Juan," by Faction Of Fools, on the campus of Gallaudet.

  • 12:50:33

    MILLERThey do commedia dell'arte style of theater, which means they're wearing funny masks, they're doing a lot of slapstick. And the characters are basically the root of the stock characters that informed American sitcoms, nosy neighbors, braggarts, young lovers, dirty old men, all that sort of thing. It's always a lot of fun. I also want to mention going on for a few more weeks, the "Riot Grrrls: Titus Andronicus."

  • 12:51:01

    GROSSMANOh, yeah.

  • 12:51:01

    MILLERBy Taffety Punk over at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Particularly if you are a fan of both Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino, this is a production you should not miss. I don't know how many people are out there that fall into that, but none of them should miss it.

  • 12:51:17

    GROSSMANBut this is also -- I feel like this is the season for Titus because the company you just named, Faction Of Fools, is also doing a commedia version of "Titus," in May. So I think if you really want to see two totally different interpretations of Shakespeare plays, a Shakespeare play that's not frequently done, go to Taffety, go to Faction Of Fools.

  • 12:51:35

    NNAMDIBob, you look at the national picture. Is there any production outside of D.C. you're planning on going out of town to see in New York or elsewhere?

  • 12:51:42

    MONDELLOI just went to "Matilda," not too long ago and sort of flipped over it. And my guess is that that’s going to tour the country and probably come to the Kennedy Center or to the refurbished National fairly soon. I had a wonderful time at "Matilda." It's sort of a cross between "Oliver," and "Annie," and Roald Dahl. And it's kind of a lovely musical. And then, you know, like I'm looking forward to all kinds of things, but then I always do. I mean, the whole point of theater is that it's exciting to sit in that auditorium as the house lights go down.

  • 12:52:20

    MONDELLOThat's a feeling -- as long as I've been a critic for movies, I don't get the same sense of excitement when the lights go down in a movie theater that I do in a live theater. There is something electric about being in the auditorium. And that's why I used to stand at the back of theaters and it's why I used to sneak in. I just love it.

  • 12:52:43

    NNAMDIRachel?

  • 12:52:43

    GROSSMANYes.

  • 12:52:44

    NNAMDIYou, as I recall, promised us a performance.

  • 12:52:46

    GROSSMANI did. Oh, now I’m getting nervous. Well, I would say -- I would be remiss if I didn't add the Dog & Pony DC opens a repertoire run of our two shows, "Beer Town," and "A Killing Game," starting tonight. And speaking of dynamic pricing, other things you can do is offer special sales like today they're happens to be a one-day-only $10 ticket sale to all of our performances in honor of the third year anniversary of starting to create the show "Beer Town."

  • 12:53:18

    NNAMDINo performance?

  • 12:53:20

    GROSSMANNo. (singing) If you knew Beer Town like I know Beer Town, oh, oh, oh, what a town. And you'll have to see the rest tonight, at 8:00, at Roundhouse Theater, Silver Spring.

  • 12:53:32

    NNAMDIRachel Grossman.

  • 12:53:33

    MONDELLOWoo-hoo.

  • 12:53:34

    NNAMDIDog And Pony DC. Here is Sherry, in McLean, Va. Sherry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:41

    SHERRYHi, Kojo. I just want to let you guys know I was one of those people who spent $250 to see "The Book Of Mormon," worth every penny.

  • 12:53:52

    GROSSMANYay. Good.

  • 12:53:55

    SHERRYIt was better than the option of going all the way up to New York and then spending even more money, is the way I looked at it. I do have a question which I'll take off the air.

  • 12:54:03

    NNAMDISure.

  • 12:54:04

    SHERRYHow does Wolf Trap play into all of this? And I'll take that off the air. Thank you.

  • 12:54:12

    NNAMDIShe wants to know, Bob, how does Wolf Trap play into all of this. I should add that we got a tweet from Jose, who says, "D.C. is a bit far for those of us in Woodbridge, Va. How can we Virginians get closer to theater?" Here's Bob Mondello.

  • 12:54:25

    MONDELLOWell, there's how it fits into it. You can go to Wolf Trap. Wolf Trap has interesting shows every summer and they tend to be musical rather straight plays, for instance. But I, you know, one of the most powerful experiences I ever had in the theater was at a production, years and years ago, with Clamma Dale, of "Porgy and Bess," out at Wolf Trap. And I just fell apart during that show. It was absolutely gorgeous and was as powerful as anything I've seen in a theater ever.

  • 12:55:05

    MONDELLOSo it's a way you can do it and you can also, I mean, out there you have the advantage of being able to buy a lawn seat and sit way in the back on the lawn and have a picnic and enjoy the show for a relatively low price. That is another way to do it.

  • 12:55:21

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Christopher, "Just a reminder to you and your guests, that to major players in area children's theater, The Puppet Company Playhouse and Adventure Theater in D.C., are closed due to the government shut down."

  • 12:55:35

    GROSSMANOh, which is disappointing because both of those companies and Imagination Stage, they do…

  • 12:55:39

    NNAMDI(unintelligible) and Imagination.

  • 12:55:41

    GROSSMAN…such amazing, challenging, you know, work and are really trying to expose young audiences to a real diverse array of theater, of types of production styles. So I hope that (unintelligible) soon.

  • 12:55:52

    MONDELLOYeah, and talk about gateway drugs for theater.

  • 12:55:54

    GROSSMANYes.

  • 12:55:54

    MONDELLOAbsolutely. I mean, you know…

  • 12:55:56

    GROSSMANChild-approved gateway drugs.

  • 12:55:57

    MONDELLOAbsolutely.

  • 12:55:59

    NNAMDIYes. My granddaughter drags me to Imagination Stage frequently. But, Pete, this is a Shakespeare town. We've got two Shakespeare theaters. What's on there now?

  • 12:56:07

    MILLERSo we've got "Measure For Measure," at the Shakespeare Theater Company in The Lansburgh, a tense play about abusive government power. That might speak to some people right now. It is a nationwide cast, but there are a few local power houses, including Naomi Jacobson and John Lescault, who are another of our artist couples here in D.C. theater.

  • 12:56:31

    GROSSMANFavorites.

  • 12:56:32

    MILLERAnd I do not know. At the Folger, I believe we have a "Romeo and Juliet" there right now. Am I right? Or is it coming soon?

  • 12:56:39

    GROSSMANI think it's coming soon.

  • 12:56:41

    MILLERI'm not sure of the timing on that.

  • 12:56:44

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Robin, in Arlington. "This area needs to take a page from Chicago, in terms of theater. Many years ago Chicago amended its building code to create a non-profit storefront theater category. This makes it legal for any non-profit theater company to rent a storefront, do a little build out and open a small theater. It's been widely credited for creating Chicago's thriving theater culture." Bob, of course, we referred earlier to Chicago's theater scene as struggling now. But I just wanted to share that with you.

  • 12:57:13

    NNAMDIAnd let me talk about Imagination Stage and the kids' "Lulu and the Brontosaurus," by Imagination Stage. It's currently at Imagination Stage right, Pete?

  • 12:57:22

    MILLERYes.

  • 12:57:22

    NNAMDIThat's something you might want to see. According to the Washington Post, Wolf Trap is open. While the Filene Center outdoor area is operated jointly by the National Park Service and Wolf Trap Foundation, the indoor venue, The Barns, is run solely by the Wolf Trap Foundation, so upcoming performances will not be affected. Thankfully, the shut down didn't happen in early August when there could have been some very angry Keisha fans roaming around Vienna.

  • 12:57:46

    NNAMDII’m afraid that's all the time we have. Bob Mondello, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:57:52

    MONDELLOIt was a joy.

  • 12:57:53

    NNAMDIBob is NPR's art critic. Pete Miller, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:57:57

    MILLERPleased to be here.

  • 12:57:57

    NNAMDIPete is a board member of the Woolly Mammoth Theater and a D.C. theatergoer. Rachel Grossman, thank you for the performance and for joining us.

  • 12:58:04

    GROSSMANThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:58:06

    NNAMDIRachel Grossman is ringleader at Dog & Pony DC, a theater ensemble. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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