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Handy Tips for Attending the Theater on a Budget

Theatre ticket booth on the northern side of Covent Garden market. © Copyright Colin Smith
Theatre ticket booth on the northern side of Covent Garden market. © Copyright Colin Smith

As anyone who goes to the theater on a regular basis knows, it is not always the cheapest pastime to have. You might want to see the latest smash hit, or maybe a fringe production that has received rave reviews. But, unless, you are rolling in money, what are the best ways to visit the theater on a budget?

In 2015, Broadway had 13.32 million* visitors to its theaters, while London’s West End saw 14.7 million† theater-goers coming through its doors. But with ticket prices continually on the increase, audience members are paying more and more. The average ticket price in the West End last year was £42.99, while the average price for a Broadway show was $103.11. However there are several ways to get to the theater regularly on the most modest of budgets and I have compiled some top tips, designed to protect your purse but continue to increase your love of theater!

Don’t Be Put Off by the Cheaper Seats

Of course the cheaper tickets offer good value and the opportunity to see a show we might not otherwise be able to afford. However, they are still expensive, and let’s face it, we’ve all experienced this–a production of Wicked in London almost ten years ago cost me a pretty big sum of money for two tickets, which allowed me to gaze at the top of tiny people’s heads for two hours. Sure, the music is amazing and the experience was brilliant, but I was frustrated by the limited view on the very back row of the Upper Circle (aka, the Balcony) in a particularly large theater.

View from an Upper Circle (aka Balcony). Photo Credit: Mikehume at English Wikipedia
View from an Upper Circle (aka balcony).
Photo Credit: Mikehume at English Wikipedia

However, I have since realized that, if you are savvy, the cheaper tickets can work to your advantage and here is how.

  • Check out the size of the theater:

It’s not much to do the math: the cheapest ticket in a large theater will probably result in you being sat in the gods, BUT if you consider the smaller theaters, a cheaper ticket may actually result in a good view and the satisfaction of knowing that you haven’t spent the earth. Having figured this out, a birthday trip to see One Man, Two Guvnors in London’s West End two years ago resulted in brilliant front row circle seats (in a small theater) with an excellent view and over half the price of the stalls.

  • Consider what ‘restricted view’ really means

Many seats are cheaper because they are listed as restricted view. However, most of the time, this does not mean that you lose a large proportion of the view. Instead you may lose the very top of an elevated head (case in point: the floating singers in Priscilla Queen of the Desert) or lose characters behind a flat two seconds earlier than those in the stalls.

Pay What You Can

In addition to looking at the cheapest tickets available, also keep an eye out for any Pay What You Can (PWYC) schemes. Some theaters run these, normally on a matinee or Sunday, and they offer a limited number of seats for an affordable donation. However, you have to be quick, as these tickets are first come, first sold!

Check Out Local Theater Schools or Drama Schools

If you are fortunate to live near a good drama college or university with a theater course, take a look at their graduate shows. These up and coming performers produce outstanding, professional shows as the culmination of a lot of hard work and training. If they are open to the public, these shows are a great way of seeing a production of quality at a reduced price. One of the best colleges in the UK to offer public graduate shows is the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA). Their graduate productions of Spring Awakening (my first time seeing it) and Cabaret (definitely not my first time) were not only great shows, but also served as a reminder of what talent there is in the next generation of actors.

Discover the Festivals

Now, of course, going to a performing arts festival is not necessarily a cheap option. Some of the biggest and most well-known festivals, such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, offer a wide variety of different plays, musicals, comedy etc in differing price brackets. Yes, many productions still cost a large amount but, equally, you can stumble across well-known classics performed affordably as a fringe show. However, if you choose to go to a larger festival, don’t be afraid to put in the research and go in with an open mind. For a couple of dollars, or possibly even for free, you may well discover a piece of performance that astounds the senses and makes you think differently about the theatrical experience. The Rhubarb Festival in the heart of Toronto is a perfect example of the opportunity to experience new writing that aims to explore contemporary theatrical discourse, and produce innovative and exciting pieces of work.

Advertising at the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus in London's Theatreland. © Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.
Advertising at the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus in London’s Theatreland.
© Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

If You Can, Be Flexible in Your Dates/Times

For the most part, prime seats in the stalls are going to be just as expensive on a Saturday night as on a Wednesday matinee, BUT there are potentially more opportunities to upgrade your ticket when the house is only half full. Now, this will not always happen, particularly if you’re going to a show during peak tourist season, but I have had several experiences where my back row ticket has been exchanged for a much better seat in the middle of the week. Often, if only a couple of tickets have been sold in the upper circle/circle, theaters will close this area off and upgrade you to the next level down. Several years ago, my circle ticket for Oliver! at the Theater Royal Drury Lane, London, was exchanged for a seat in the centre of the stalls, row G. Thank you very much! This also happened during Singin’ in the Rain and La Cage aux Folles, so it definitely was not a fluke, although it is by no means a fool proof method!

Although these tips cannot guarantee a cheaper ticket, every little helps in making a trip to the theater more affordable on a limited budget. Because, after all, we all need more theater in our lives!

*Broadway ticket statistics are taken from www.broadwayleague.com

†West End ticket statistics are taken from www.thestage.com

YOUR MISSION

No Summer Gig…No Big Deal

When last we met, I was extolling the virtues of summer stock theatre, that magical place where you build your skills as a performer, meet fascinating (and not-so fascinating) people, and try very hard not to embarrass yourself at the closing night party. But what if you’re not doing stock, what if you’re in the City (or elsewhere) for the summer, not necessarily performing?

Time is gift given lightly and rarely appreciated. We (humans) are one of the few creatures on the planet with a system for measuring time, both spent wisely and wasted. We always think there’s more time, that the sun will rise tomorrow no matter what we do today, so why worry about how much we get done in a day? Procrastination is the enemy my friend, and while I don’t live my life by the clock, I’ve learned to recognize when time has been gifted to me, and how valuable it can be.

So you’re not doing stock. Maybe you were too afraid to audition, maybe it doesn’t pay enough to support your basic needs in life, maybe every summer theatre was doing The King and I and A Chorus Line, and you’re basically a Gordon MacRae clone (look him up, kids) and there is no job for you to have. Or maybe you chose to stay where you are and pursue other avenues. Stock is great, but there’s more to being an actor than chasing a job. There is more, right? Guys? Anybody?

Maybe I’m optimistic, but this time is a gift. This post is certainly NYC-centric, but I encourage you to apply it to wherever you are.

The first and most obvious answer to “What do I do with all this time?” is STUDY. There are acting classes, dance classes, voice, yoga, personal training—all tied directly to the care and well-being of the actor’s instrument. So care for it! Years ago I was in a seminar with a now-retired agent who gave this plain, simple advice:

If there’s something you don’t like about yourself, change it. Need to lose ten pounds?  Need to gain it? Always wanted to be a blonde? Do you wish you were a better dancer?

Is it time for an acting class? Whatever it is that you feel is holding you back, you probably can change it. The only thing you’re really stuck with is your height.”

I’ll admit, the Frankenstein in me sunk a little at that last part.

dontbumphead

We currently live in a “love yourself” society, a society of “I am enough just as I am.” And believe me I am all for that, but you have to carry a bit of realism with you on that journey. Yes, you are enough sir, but if you want to play Superman in the next big summer blockbuster, you probably want to put down that donut. One of my favorite things to say to clients (in the personal training world) is this: June will eventually be September. Should we spend that time pursuing our goals, or spinning our wheels?

So study. Exercise. CARE for yourself; we forget that so easily. If you can’t afford certain classes or feel that what is offered currently isn’t for you, then read plays, movie scripts, great novels, whatever. Sing in your shower, dance in your living room. See movies—not just the blockbusters in the theatre, but the greats. Citizen Kane is typically hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. Ever wonder why? Maybe you should see it. And Casablanca, All About Eve, East of Eden, The Dirty Dozen. The word study has a wide, wide interpretation.

YOUR MISSION

CHALLENGE YOUR FRIENDS!

Form a group of peers…some kind of…peer group (I really hate myself sometimes). Meet once a month, bring your monologue or song you’ve always wanted to try, enlist the help of some better dancers to fix the hitch in your time step. (Is it obvious I can’t dance? I think so) Get everyone together and read a play aloud. Find ten friends and have a “great movie” party, then order pizza and talk about it!

In my early years in New York City I organized such a group, cleverly called…The Audition Group. We met once a month. I lived in a building in Manhattan that contained a studio with a baby grand piano, and I could reserve this room basically at my leisure. I would grab an accompanist friend (several, over the course of the year), and nine of my actor friends and I would each pay them $15 dollars to play for us for three hours. Our piano-playing pal would make $150 bucks for the night, and we would do our audition pieces for the group, and take suggestions, criticisms and occasionally even praise. It’s a great way to get your material up to snuff before you sign up for that casting director’s workshop.

ticketstub

GO SEE STUFF!!

Do you have any idea how much free theatre there is in this city? Go to your magic Google machine and type in “Free theatre in NYC.” Seventeen million results come up. There are numerous free Shakespeare companies in the city, not just the really popular one in the park. Summer is the home season of the New York Musical Festival, The Fringe Festival, The Midtown International Festival for Crocodiles (okay I made that one up), but you get the idea. Not all of it is free but a vast majority is either free or super-cheap. And of course, some of it is…let’s say, variable in quality. But there’s always something to be learned.

And if you’re not already doing this, start playing the Broadway Lotteries. Hey, someone’s gotta win.

WORK. This one may not sound like much fun, but you might as well make some money. Summertime is big for the restaurant business, and if you’re a waiter it can be big for you too. Pick up the extra shifts, stash that money away so that you can breathe a little easier when you have to give your own shifts away just to make it through the Fall auditions.

PLAY. All this focus can wear anyone out. Sign up for a bowling or a softball league, go on dates, visit your family, go lie in Central Park and stare at the sky (not while it’s raining).

sheep

New York is amazing in the summertime, people are out and about, sometimes they’re even happy. You see families having picnics, children playing in playgrounds, tourists staring at a billboard while we loyal residents silently curse their very existence…it really is a magical place.

Most of all, BREATHE. It doesn’t always feel like it, but we are lucky, lucky humans. Recharge your batteries, your spirit. You’re going to need them.

Time For Taxes Message Showing Taxation Due

Surviving Tax Season as an Artist

Time For Taxes Message Showing Taxation DueWhen you work as an artist, tax season blows.  With a slough of 1099s and income that is often earned from various states, artist taxes are some of the most complex.  While it would be great to have Leo Bloom on your side to give you personalized tax help, we unfortunately earn gross incomes small enough that often we can’t afford accountants.  Instead, artists are left to struggle through seas of forms, cross our fingers that we’ll avoid an audit, and hope against hope that we can eek out a refund.  Before panic sets in, take a moment to relish in the fact that YOU MADE A LIVING AS AN ARTIST.

Now, get smart, submit your paperwork, and get that refund.

A disclaimer before we go any further:  I AM NOT AN ACCOUNTANT.  I am, however, a geek, who has spent quite a few years dealing with a heap of 1099s.  So, here are some tips for survival during April – so aptly called the “cruelest month.”

Types of Income:

The trouble with the freelance lifestyle is income is paid to independent contractors, tax free.  Meaning, come April, you owe Uncle Sam the taxes he didn’t collect when you were initially paid.  Now, if you’re a regular freelancer, you should save a portion of every check you collect to pay out come tax season.  If you combine W-2 and 1099 income, make sure your W-4 claim is 0 or 1 (if you are single and childless).  More money is withheld initially, meaning you may earn a smaller paycheck now, but will also owe the IRS less later. Cash income is the trickiest—if you’re sure your employer isn’t going to report the income, then you’re probably safe not to report it.  But at the end of the day if the money you grossed doesn’t add up to the money you spent, the IRS will figure it out.  And, who knows?  Maybe someday you’ll want to run for office with a platform to get more funding for the National Endowment of the Arts – in which case, you want to make sure you actually have reported everything you earn.

What to Write Off:

Now that you’ve settled on types of income and how your income affects your taxes, it’s time for the best part: write-offs.

Thank yourself for those long nights spent binging on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, because entertainment expenses count as industry research.  Subscriptions like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and Amazon Prime are all tax deductible.  So are movie tickets.  If you’re one of the lucky ones who spent a month’s worth of rent on a Broadway ticket to Hamilton, rest easy—you can write off up to 50% of your entertainment expenses.

Keep track of all your theatre tickets!  They're tax deductible.
Keep track of all your theatre tickets!  As a professional theatre artist, you can write off up to 50% of your entertainment expenses.

Travel is the most time consuming write-off to calculate.  If you’re a type-A personality, you keep a mileage log in your car for every job you book, shopping trip, train ticket, and flight.  If you’re like the rest of us, you just need a few hours to sit down, and create a log of distances and dates you traveled for work.  Luckily. rehearsal calendars serve as the perfect starting place for an after-the-fact travel log.  The dollar amount per mile driven changes annually, so check the IRS website to know how many cents you can deduct per mile.

Food is one of the trickiest write-offs.  Technically, any business meeting meal is tax-deductible.  However, the higher the amount you claim, the more likely you’ll get flagged for an audit.  So be choosey—don’t write off elaborate meals that include bar tabs.  Keep it simple.  Pick concept meetings, production meetings, and simple coffee outings with prospective creative partners.  Remember, in an audit, you have to convince the government the meal was a business expense, so make sure it was.

Other write-offs include supplies and home office deductions.  Keep receipts for books, shipping costs, union fees, and the previous year’s tax prep fees.  If you bought new equipment, like a phone or computer, choose the option to claim a large portion this year as opposed to a small percentage over the next few years.  You’re more likely to get a refund now, and it causes less tax trouble in future seasons.  Never claim you have a home office, unless you have a dedicated space as your primary workstation that you’re willing to show the IRS — it’s always a red flag, and not usually worth it.

Filing:

Online filing through programs like Turbo Tax really is as easy as it sounds.  If you’re filing with 1099s, you have to pay more to file, but it is a lot less than an accountant.  Finding the accountant to handle freelance taxes is tricky, so ask around if you’re not comfortable filing on your own.  While generally discussing money with friends and colleagues is frowned upon, discussing tax tips with other artists is one of the best ways to smartly navigate the IRS.  Equity also has some resources available to you, if you are an Equity actor or stage manager.

If you find yourself owing the state or Feds this year, don’t panic; there’s always next year.  Set up these best practices now, so that you don’t run in to the same challenges in April 2017.  Open a Roth IRA and stock a grand or two a year — it will reduce taxable income and benefit the future you, when you decide to retire.  Give back to the arts by making tax-deductible donations — every dollar helps your taxes and the organizations survival.  Take the opportunity to boost your career by joining professional groups or unions.  Dues are expensive, but the deduction is worth it.

If you’re really panicked, file for an extension.  This isn’t college — the IRS won’t mind, just as long as you ask before the due date.

See Shakespeare in the Redwoods at Santa Cruz Shakespeare!   For more information on Much Ado About Nothing (shown here) and other shows in the SCS season go to http://santacruzshakespeare.org.  Photo by RR Jones.

Summer Theatre — Outdoors!

I think it is safe to say — at least, here in New York — that we have finally settled into the summer. It is warm outside, people are heading off to the beach, and the ice-cream trucks are playing their music loudly in the streets. After the winter we just suffered, I am so grateful for the summer sun! In fact, yesterday I was in upstate New York on a road trip to see the lovely Kate Baldwin in The Berkshire Theatre Group‘s production of Bells Are Ringing. As my friends and I were eating delicious soft serve and strolling through Pittsfield Park after the matinee, we stumbled upon a free outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet. It was packed with people – tourists, locals, and families — all eating picnics and chatting under the beautiful sky waiting for the actors to begin!  It got me thinking about how wonderful outdoor theatre really is AND how wonderful it is that outdoor performances are located in so many communities around the world.  For centuries, most theatre was performed in the open air, and plays come alive in a special way outdoors. Continue reading

etiquette

Theatre Etiquette 101

Playbill

When I first started coming to New York as a little girl, going to the theatre was truly an event. My mom, who was not one to dress up, would always put on a nice outfit and help me get ready. We would put on our Sunday best and walk to the theatre in the hopes of finding a bit of escape or, perhaps, a chance to reflect on something more difficult. Going to the theatre was different from going to the movies or going out to dinner. What truly made it different, aside from the form of entertainment presented, was the fact that it felt like something “grown ups” did. Men and women took the time to appreciate the art form and, most importantly, they showed it the respect it deserved. That means they showed up on time. They honored the beauty of the theatre by matching the lovely aesthetic with their own adornment. Most importantly, they left their work and lives behind them and focused on the show.

There were no sippy cups for wine. There were no cell phones. It was simply a chance for people to sit back, relax, and be entertained, communally.

Look, I get it. The times have changed. When I was going to the theatre as a kid in the early nineties it was VERY different from when my parents were going as children in the late fifties. The one commonality is the fact that cell phones were not really something people had to worry about going off in the middle of a show. I remember the first time I ever heard a cell phone go off in the theatre it was during a performance of Dance of the Vampires in 2002. The woman next to me got a phone call, answered it, and said very loudly “Oh yes, I’m seeing a show right now. Michael Crawford is singing very loudly…I can’t hear you!!!” That was when I knew we were in for some changes in regards to theatre etiquette! I guess it could always be worse.

Recently an audience member at Hand to God on Broadway decided that walking onto the stage and plugging his phone into an outlet that was A PART OF THE SET was appropriate. Let’s just say this: it most certainly was not.

For many of you, life without cellphones is something you cannot even imagine. Nor can you imagine a world where you felt the need to dress up for the theatre. And look, I am not an elitist. I fully believe that it is important for people to wear what makes them feel most uniquely themselves. However, I have put together a list of my etiquette suggestions for the modern theatergoer — in hopes that we can remember that we are all in this together!

  • Wear clothing in which you would be proud to be photographed. It will make going to the theatre feel like an event. That means no ratty shorts, no flip-flops and nothing you wouldn’t want a date to see you in! And bonus — you never know who you are going to run into! You might want to grab a photo with a handsome actor at the stage door!

 

Kate Lumpkin on Opening Night
Kate Lumpkin on Opening Night
Kate Lumpkin on a typical (non-opening) night out at the theatre
Kate Lumpkin on a typical (non-opening) night out at the theatre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • If you must have snacks in the theatre, do not eat them loudly during the show. The person sitting next to you will give you side eye if you unwrap you Snickers bar during the opening number.
  • Many theatres not only allow beverages now, they also provide them. If you plan on drinking during the show be subtle about it. Also, know your limits if you are drinking an alcoholic beverage. You can be (should be) kicked out of the theatre if you get too rowdy. 
  • Turn your cellphone off. Just turn it off. Don’t put it on silent. Don’t check it during the slower numbers. Don’t take pictures. Don’t record the show on your voice notes. JUST TURN IT OFF. You paid a large amount of money to be here (though, if you want to pay a little less, our insider ticket discount page might help!) The person next to you paid a large amount of money for theirs, too — they do not want to watch your face light up every time you receive a text message or miss a call. If you know that you can’t go for three hours without your cell phone — don’t go to the theatre.
  • Show up on time. Check your tickets several times and know when the show begins. Not all shows start at 8:00 PM anymore. Some start at 7:00 PM or 7:30 PM. Often, performances start at different times on different days of the week. There is nothing worse than missing the first hour of a show because you failed to look at your tickets! I always like to be there thirty minutes early. That way I can settle into my seat, go to the bathroom if I need to, and read through my Playbill! I love reading bios and knowing more about the actors I am going to see! 
  • Be respectful. Everyone has different opinions when viewing theatre. Some people might highly enjoy a show while others are bored out of their minds. If you find that you are not enjoying yourself, be respectful of those around you who are. There is no need to talk about your dislike. Simply wait until intermission or the end of the show and then leave, quietly. You never know who you are sitting next to. It might be the mother of the lead actress! It might be a producer or director associated with the production who you might be auditioning for in a couple of weeks. Because of this, I follow the “TWO BLOCK RULE.” I will not discuss a show until I am at least two full blocks away from the theatre. It protects me from putting my foot in my mouth in front of the creative team or someone’s loved ones.

If we all followed these rules I think the theatre would be a little more enjoyable for everyone. What have I missed? Do you all have any rules that make your theatre going experience easier and a bit kinder to everyone else? Leave a comment below and let me know!

News, thoughts, opinions and advice for the performing arts community.