The Price of Seeing Good Theatre
Being A Theatre-Lover In NYC Takes Creativity
For the first seven years I lived in New York, I saw a lot of theatre. That was a big draw of moving to the city: while I had never been particularly involved myself in the theatre community (there were some terribly unsuccessful auditions in high school, but never much more than that), I always loved the medium. My dad took me to see The Phantom of the Opera when it came to Hawaii at a very young age, and that was the beginning of my love of the performing arts. I watched the Tony’s every year leading up to moving up to New York, and I told myself that once I was here, I would do anything I could do expose myself to it.
When I first moved here, I mostly concentrated on Broadway. I was finishing my last year at NYU, so I did student rushes and lotteries, mostly because I was broke but sort of had the time. Tickets were $20–35, always paid in cash, if I was able to get them. All it usually required was waiting in a line or coming to the theater early to put my name in a hat and then waiting for them to draw. I also had a strong interest in concerts of emerging musical composers, which at the time were relatively cheap to attend. Most of these concerts took place in bars where the cover would be about $10 and then there was a food or drink minimum of another $10–15.
Once I started working in theatre at a play publisher, my show-seeing really ramped up. The office needed people to cover shows being considered for publication, especially when they started publishing musicals. As a lover of musicals, all sparked by my Phantom-loving childhood, I always volunteered to see things on behalf of the company. Around this time, I also started a musical theatre blog where I highlighted some of my favorite up-and-coming composers, hoping to both give them more visibility to my company as we started covering musicals and in hopes of helping these talented artists expand their audiences. As a result, I also got a lot of offers to attend shows for free if I covered them on my blog.
Many of the shows I had access to during this time were free, which meant that I was seeing at least one show a week and rarely had to pay for a ticket. The problem, though sometimes also the upside, was that a lot of these comps were for shows I had never heard of before. Some of these shows were incredible, even life-changing. Through a comp concert ticket, I discovered the gorgeous songwriting talents of Shaina Taub, I swooned at the lyrical and folksy production of PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Old Man in the Old Moon, I cheered on Ryan Scott Oliver seeing his visionary Jasper in Deadland, and I had perhaps my most transformative theatrical moment as a human and a writer seeing Playwrights Horizon’s production of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World. These were all shows that might have slipped off my radar had I not been invited to attend.
On the flip side, I was so grateful for the opportunity to see a lot of shows that I also spent a lot of time in theaters seeing things I wasn’t really interested in. There were a lot of fussy musicals that seemed more concerned about big production numbers than stories, two-person plays that went in circles, plays that attempted to be edgy but were just kind of offensive. They were all learning experiences, particularly for me as a writer and beginning playwright, but when I looked in my calendar and realized how many shows I was seeing a week and what percentage of it were things I really wanted to see, I realized that what I was saving in money, I was spending in time.
This was also why I stopped doing lotteries and rushes: in the time it would take me to wait in line or commute up to the theater only to lose the drawing, I realized I could probably just save up and buy a ticket if I really wanted to see it, at least in most cases.
As my career started transitioning away from theatre, I told myself that I wanted to strike a better compromise. I signed up for discount services like TDF and Goldstar, so that I could get discounted ticket events (which range from $20–30 Off-Broadway, $35–50 on Broadway). I also signed up for a lot of major theatre groups’ youth programs, which often offer tickets for under $30. I bought memberships to two of my favorite Off-Broadway theatre companies, Ars Nova and Playwrights Horizons, so that I could get discounted tickets to their (usually excellent) seasons for about $5–40 a pop. I still saw some shows for free if something interesting came through my inbox, and I still paid full price for some tickets, like the time I ponied up about $120 to take myself on a rather fabulous date to see Matilda not too long after it opened.
I also had friends in theatre and often ended up seeing their shows, which cost anywhere between $5–40 for a ticket.
When I was laid off in 2014, theatre sadly became one of my last priorities. I had neither time nor money, and even now that I’ve gotten in a more stable position, I just don’t find myself seeing theatre the way I used to. I definitely still keep up with what’s out, adore it, and get genuinely excited about it, but I find it harder to get my butt in the theater.
A lot of it just has to do with the economics of buying a seat: with limited resources, I have to find something I am genuinely motivated to see and is a good value for the time and money. This is why I haven’t seen Hamilton — I can’t pay $300 for a ticket. I hilariously abstained from buying a ticket when it was at The Public because I thought even $80 was too much. And I don’t have the bandwidth to brave multiple lotteries in a sea of hundreds of hopefuls, even if I know that the show itself would be worth the time and effort. A reader actually pointed out in my last article about New Year’s resolutions that I shouldn’t add seeing a show, even if I’m dying to see it, to my debt — great advice, and something I have no intention of doing. For now, I have to stick to my guns and weigh all the options. Maybe, like with Phantom, I will just have to catch Hamilton on tour in Hawaii, perhaps years from now if I ever move back.
Still, I also realize that sometimes all the stars align and great theatrical and financial moments can merge. Last year, I was feeling particularly upset about life and on a whim I asked my friend if she would try the Hedwig lottery with me. We waited for the drawing with a sizable but not crazy crowd and ended up not being called. However, we went back about a week later and miraculously won — two tickets for about $35 each. That night, we sat in our own private box where we were called out by Andrew Rannells multiple times from the stage, and I bawled through “Midnight Radio.” Good theatre itself is invaluable — it’s just about fitting it into your life, even as your life changes, that might take some slight adjusting.
Kimberly Lew is a published playwright and blogger living in Brooklyn. The last play she saw was Hand to God, and it was worth every penny. Check her out at www.kimberlylew.com.
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