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Price Fight

There's more than one way to scalp a ticket

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There is an age-old question, right up there--in terms of significance and endurance--with such perplexing questions as "What do women want?" and "What exactly is Spam?" Those are both excellent questions, and while enterprising authors and playwrights are hard at work answering them right now, the question I hear all the time is "Why are theater tickets so expensive?"

The North Bay currently boasts more than 60 stage companies and dozens of live theatrical venues that each roll out new plays and musicals on a regular basis. Still, whenever I attempt to wax eloquent in public about the joys and pleasures of local theater, perhaps launching into a spirited description of a show I've just seen, somebody always says something like, "I'd go to theater more often, but . . . why do the tickets have to be so expensive?"

There are many answers to this question, but they are boring ; they are technical and political, and have to do with royalties and rent and publicity costs, and frankly, most people don't really care why theater costs between $15 and $46 a seat, depending on the show and the venue. What people really want to know is how they can get the tickets for less.

Fortunately, there are ways.

Most of the Bay Area's theatrical groups understand that not everyone can afford the price they must charge in order to break even, so they offer various programs and systems that make it a little easier for some of us to go to the show. Nearly every company with a regular season has subscription rates, which are discounts made available when you purchase tickets for the entire season. For example, the Sonoma Country Repertory Theater offers generous budget-balancing subscription packages: seven $18 plays for $105 (a $21 savings!), with seniors getting those seven shows for $85, and students and educators stealing them at a mere $55. If you can pay for a season up front and you like a particular theater company's offerings, season tickets are the way to go.

Children and seniors are almost always offered tickets at a discount price, but what about high school and college students? Many theater companies, including Actors Theatre and the Santa Rosa Players, offer what are called "student rush tickets," making unsold seats available for $8 to $10 just minutes before curtain for those bearing student IDs.

Additionally, some companies (including the Marin Shakespeare Company and the Sonoma County Rep) are beginning to offer "pay what you can" days, usually held on off-nights--Sundays for Marin Shakespeare and Thursdays for the Rep--when patrons are allowed to literally pay whatever they can for a seat. The Ross Valley Players have a regular Thursday night "all tickets for $15" program.

Perhaps the most radical development in theatrical discounting, though, is based on a program that the San Francisco theater community has been experimenting with for a while now: half-price tickets for same day shows. In a welcome collaboration between the North Bay Theater Group--which is an alliance of theater companies from Marin to Ukiah--and the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Santa Rosa, a half-price ticket window has been established at Santa Rosa's Visitors Center in Railroad Square.

Participating theaters make unsold tickets available the day of that show, and thrill-seeking theatergoers can snap them up for half of the regular ticket price by showing up in person at the Visitors Center.

There is always a chance, of course, that the show you hope to see will be sold-out or that the theater company in question, in anticipation of selling out, has chosen to hang on to its remaining tickets in hopes of selling them for full price at the door. But if you are willing to take a chance, the half-price ticket booth is the way to go, and it's especially handy for anyone entertaining out-of-town guests and looking for a frugal way to spend an evening at the theater.

There's one other way to see low-cost (OK, completely free!) theater, and it's shocking that more people haven't figured this out. Theater groups from Spreckels to the Marin Theater Company always need volunteers to usher and handle concessions, and volunteers get to see the show for free. It's fun, and it doesn't get any cheaper than that.

Any more questions?

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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