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The Cheaper Seats

Getting By: How Vermonters Are Surviving the Recession


Published September 16, 2009 at 6:00 a.m.


In Shakespeare’s time, theater was for everyone. The plebes in the peanut gallery probably clawed at their open sores and ate stale bread as they took in the premiere performance of Troilus and Cressida.

It’s not the 17th century anymore. Sure, we have advantages, like the Internet and hygiene, but these days, theater tickets are more likely than leprosy to cost you an arm and a leg. If you want to catch the national tour stop of Camelot at the Flynn in January, be prepared to fork over a Broadway-level $60. Even community theater shows can run you more than $30.

What to do? If you’re a senior or a student, start by presenting your ID. It could save you about $5 at many performance spaces.

The rest of us have to be more creative. According to Catalyst Theater Company Director Veronica Lopez, volunteerism is key. “Any kind of involvement people can have with the process should ... allow them to see the production,” she says. Lopez suggests offering one’s services hanging lights or making costumes for local productions. Higher-level performances that don’t require that kind of help still need folks to run the front of the house, selling snacks, taking tickets and helping audience members to their seats.

At the Flynn, anyone who wants to fulfill those roles on a regular basis signs up for the Spirit program. Members are expected to serve once or twice a month, and they won’t always have their choice of shows, says Carol Goodrum, the Flynn’s finance and front-of-house manager. “People can try to get what they want, but sometimes when they get something else, they end up really loving it without expecting to,” she adds. Her recommendation: “If there’s something you’re really dying to see, buy a ticket.”

This year’s team of Spirits has just been trained, but other groups are still welcoming helpers for their upcoming seasons. Equity theaters such as White River Junction’s Northern Stage and Rutland’s Paramount Theatre seek volunteers year-round. Lauryn Axelrod, director of education at the seasonal Weston Playhouse, says her theater offers lots of options. Winter is the time to sign up to usher next summer’s performances. The commute to Weston exceeds two hours, but, as Axelrod puts it, “We go to Burlington for fun, so why not come here for fun?”

For those who want their fun to come with less of a commitment, the Weston offers a program called VTIX, which gives state residents “deep discounts” on tickets purchased at the box office on the day of the performance. Axelrod also touts Weston’s year-round free performances “like lectures and music that are related to the plays coming in the in-season.”

You may need a trace of the acting bug to catch the greatest variety of shows gratis, courtesy of the Vermont Council of the Blind — but the rewards go beyond free tickets. Michael Richman, a sociology professor at CCV Burlington, who is blind himself, spearheaded the Council’s effort to make all theater accessible to the visually impaired. His program uses tiny closed-circuit transmitters and audio describers, who narrate the visuals, to make the stage action clear to blind theatergoers. Richman rattles off a slew of participants in the program: the Royall Tyler at UVM, the Flynn, St. Michael’s Playhouse, the Weston Playhouse, the Stowe Theater Guild, the Essex Players, Lost Nation Theater and the Barre Players.

On November 14 at 9 a.m. at the Royall Tyler Theater, Richman and a group of experienced describers will demonstrate the skill. Richman says the training involves watching films such as On Golden Pond and learning to fill in the sightless on details as small as Henry Fonda raising the blinds. Describing rapidly, without detracting from the lines spoken onstage, is “harder than it sounds,” he says.

Besides a heightened sense of community and free theater tickets, audio-description volunteers get $25 in gas money. To ensure that transportation issues don’t make sightless community members miss a show, free tickets are also available to anyone who drives visually impaired audience members.

If all other tactics fail, Lopez of Catalyst has one final suggestion: “Just ask for a ticket.” As the head of a theater company, Lopez says she understands the importance of revenue, but believes culture should be accessible to all. And she doesn’t think that’s an uncommon attitude. “If you are unable to pay for a ticket, just say, ‘I would really like to see the show and can’t afford a ticket at this time,’ and see what you might be able to do for them,” she says. “I can’t imagine too many people saying no to that.”