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Got a dollar? See a show

'Pay what you can' shows are a boost to the entertainment budget.

By Donna_Freedman Jan 22, 2010 1:47PM
Want to see a play, have some laughs or absorb a little culture even when your wallet says "stay home"? The "pay what you can" concept is a frugalist's best friend.

Pay what you can is the happy hour of entertainment, a way to get out of the house without going off the rails. In my case, it was a Thursday night performance of "Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes" at Theater Schmeater.

Yes, that really is the title of the play and the name of the company.

Yussef El Guindi's satire concerns a serious young Arab-American actor who is lucky to earn a couple of hundred a week (before taxes and his agent's cut) doing theater. Then comes his big break, with a payday in the high six figures -- but only if he's willing to play a crazed terrorist in a script saturated with clichés and stereotypes.

The play dragged in spots because several of the characters speechified too much. (Yes, we get it that you're an Ethical Young Man, or a Cynical Starlet, or a True Auteur. We got it about four sentences ago. Enough!) But on the whole it was a sharply funny production -- and it cost only what I could pay.

Ten bucks, if you care.

A quick Internet search for "pay what you can" turned up all sorts of cheap fun nationwide, such as the mountaineering drama "K2" in Ann Arbor, Mich.; an improv comedy group in Washington, D.C.; and a historical museum in Richmond, Va. In my own back yard, the Seattle Art Museum is always PWYC.
When I lived in Anchorage, the PWYC performances tended to be the Thursday before opening night and were billed as "previews." Audiences were given to understand that a few last-minute glitches might be worked out. In effect, we were watching a really serious dress rehearsal but at that price, who could complain?

I don't remember any glitches or gaffes, incidentally. What I do remember is feeling pleased that I'd paid half as much to see the same show everyone else would see the next night.

Five years ago, when I was really broke, I attended a PWYC performance at Intiman Theatre. Somewhat sheepishly I handed over three dollars, a dollar more than I could probably afford. The woman at the ticket booth told me that it was fine. The average payment was $5, she said, but occasionally some people put down a quarter.
On Thursday I asked the play's director, Steve Cooper, about the box office on PWYC nights. He said it ranges from $5 to $10 per person, although a few people pay full price ($15 to $18) and some people pay nothing at all. "And that's OK," he said.

In my opinion, you'd have to be completely, utterly destitute to walk in for free. If that's the case, then the theater would be fulfilling its mandate to bring art to all members of the community, rather than just to the ones who can afford season tickets.

There are limits to most people's entertainment budgets. Folks who are in financial straits might not even have an entertainment budget. But plenty of us can shake loose a few bucks even if we're paying down debt. With PWYC we get to see a show or view an exhibit without breaking the bank. The improv group or the museum gets a bit more exposure, a bit more word of mouth -- and, maybe, a new subscriber once times are better.
Poke around in your own region for PWYC and take a chance on your own "Jihad Jones." But please don't pay a quarter if you're capable of more. Actors, improv comedians and museum curators need to pay rent and keep the lights on. The arts won't continue unless we support them, even a dollar or two at a time on a Thursday night.

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