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Got a buck? See a show

'Pay what you can' means frugal entertainment. A dollar (or even less) can get you through the door at a theater, comedy improv show or museum.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 6, 2012 12:21PM
Hungry for a little diversion despite your skinny wallet? Four words can help: "pay what you can."

Admission by donation at a museum or live theater is like happy hour for the lively arts. It's a chance to get out of the house without going over your budget.

A few years back, while still a broke midlife college student, I paid $3 on pay-what-you-can, or PWYC, night at Seattle's Intiman Theatre. As I apologized, the ticket agent told me not to sweat it -- some people had paid as little as a quarter.

Sometimes a PWYC show is actually the last dress rehearsal before opening night -- i.e., "pardon us while we work out potential glitches with the lighting and sound effects." I've never noticed a problem, and I wound up paying half what an opening-night ticket would have cost. (Post continues after video.)
In return, the theater or comedy companies or museums get customers who might otherwise have been home watching television. They get free publicity via word of mouth or social media. They might even get season subscribers some day when PWYC audience members start to earn more money.
Some theater companies add one or two additional PWYC nights during a run. I attended one such show here in Seattle and watched the guy ahead of me pay $20 even though a full-price ticket would have been only $18.

The theater manager told me that most donations were between $5 and $10. (I paid $10 myself.) Some people, he said, pay nothing at all. Obviously the company would prefer some donation, but making art available to everyone -- not just to the 1% -- is part of the job description.

Supporting the arts

Look around in your own neighborhood for these reduced-price options. For example, a quick Internet search turned up PWYC previews of "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure" in Long Beach, Calif., and "The Robbers" at Florida State University in Sarasota, Fla. Every Sunday is PWYC for the Go Comedy! improv troupe in Detroit.

Some museums make admission-by-donation the standard policy, and others do PWYC once a month. Or even twice: The Art Institute of Chicago is free for Illinois residents on the first and second Wednesdays of each month.

My search also turned up previews that were PWYC in name only; a minimum price was "suggested." A theater in Washington, D.C., actually specified a $10 minimum. Calling it "pay what you can" and then telling you what to pay seems a bit bait-and-switch to me.

Yes, there are cheapskates out there who can afford $10 but would put down a buck if they thought they could get away with it. There are also people who have zero entertainment budget because times are tight.

Members of the second group shouldn't feel bad about dropping a quarter on the counter. But if you can shake loose even a few dollars, I'd urge you to do so. Theater companies and comedy troupes need to pay rent, utilities and maybe even stipends to the cast and crew who give up big chunks of their lives to rehearse, build sets and produce these shows. Museums must pay operating costs plus actual salaries for the staffers who keep the institutions running smoothly.

The arts won't survive unless we support them -- even just $5 at a time during dress rehearsals.

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Mar 10, 2012 4:13AM
Smile Got a buck save it for rainy day. Opps buck is only worth a dime or less actually. It won't make one tiny dent on couple of grand budget. A buck is a buck nevertheless a principle that counts.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.