After Bostonians waited more than three years to see “Hamilton,’’ the blockbuster musical spent a whirlwind 8 1/2 weeks here before departing the city last Sunday.
“Hamilton,’’ we hardly knew ye. Now, I’m sure the touring production of the Broadway megahit gave audiences at the Boston Opera House plenty of fond memories, and maybe even nourished their souls. But given the big bucks patrons had to cough up for a ticket, I’ll bet there was also a lot of grumbling about their depleted wallets and purses.
So perhaps this is an opportune time to remind you that it is eminently possible to see great theater in this town without putting a dent in your bank account. As for your soul, not to worry: Nourishment – in the form of theater that will make you smile, cry, think — can be found on the cheap.
I’m speaking of Boston’s small and fringe theaters, that multitude of adventurous, homegrown, below-the-radar troupes where the price of admission is a fraction of that for “Hamilton’’ — but the possibility of being transported somewhere wonderful is just as real.
With income inequality still a grim reality and many of us bracing for a holiday season when we’ll have to overpay for culture along with everything else, Boston’s smaller theaters stand out as some of the best bargains around.
The cost of a regular adult ticket is usually less than $40, often much less. On their increasingly prevalent “pay-what-you-can’’ nights, you decide what your price of admission will be. Meanwhile, if you’re a college student or a senior citizen, you can see pretty much any show at any time anywhere for not much more than you’d pay for a pumpkin spice latte and a blueberry scone at Starbucks.
But hey, I hear you saying, at Starbucks I know what I’m going to get. What about the product at smaller theaters? Isn’t it a case of amateur hour? The answer is an emphatic no. While they operate on shoestring budgets and their non-Equity actors are usually paid a bare minimum and they are as subject to the law of hit-or-miss as any other endeavor built on live performance, the artistic aim of the smaller theaters is consistently high. In fact, they can be counted on to deliver some of the most memorable experiences of any given season.
You, the audience member, are a lot more likely to have those experiences if you make theatergoing a habit rather than approaching it as an event. Truly knowing Boston means knowing as many corners of its culture as possible. It’s not enough to occasionally sally forth to catch a brand-name show such as the splashy, big-budget world premiere of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical’’ at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. You wouldn’t consider yourself a true connoisseur of music if you listened only to Top-40 radio, right?
Smaller theaters showcase a wider diversity of voices and perspectives than you’re likely to find at commercial-minded large theaters, and they afford you the chance to experience the thrill of discovery: a hitherto-unknown playwright, a young actor or actress launching his or her career with a breakout performance, an audacious designer who somehow stretches scarce dollars to create a set that seizes the imagination. It is in the smaller theaters that trends often emerge first before manifesting themselves in the midsize and large theaters, such as the striking number of productions directed by women in the Boston area over the past few years.
Thanks to the top-notch training offered at Boston’s conservatories and theater programs, the caliber of talent onstage at smaller theaters is consistently impressive. As for the work, it tends to live at or near the cutting edge, since smaller theaters are more willing to take a chance on new dramatists.
Against the backdrop of the price-gouging that audiences are routinely subjected to elsewhere on the entertainment landscape, the deals offered by Boston’s smaller theaters can seem too good to be true.
For instance, two of the best productions I’ve seen in the past year — Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig’’ and Jennifer Haley’s eerie, unsettling “The Nether’’ — were presented by tiny Flat Earth Theatre, which charges a paltry $25 per ticket. Flat Earth also offers at least one Monday performance during every run that features $10 tickets.
At Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, you can see new work by Boston-based dramatists such as Kira Rockwell (“The Tragic Ecstasy of Girlhood’’) for $35. Pay-what-you-can preview performances, with a minimum of $10, will be presented of BPT’s upcoming production of Laura Neill’s “Winter People’’ (Dec. 6-16).
Heart & Dagger Productions charges $20 per ticket along with one or two pay-what-you-can performances during each show’s run, while at Israeli Stage and Sleeping Weazel tickets are $25. Sleeping Weazel often gives free tickets to “groups of students and others who cannot otherwise afford the cost of a ticket,’’ according to artistic director Charlotte Meehan.
An innovative and audience-friendly “Choose Your Own Price’’ approach is under way at Liars & Believers. According to artistic director Jason Slavick, tickets will range from $8.50 to $38.50 for general admission to its upcoming production of “A Story Beyond’’ (Dec. 6-22). “We tell our audience that a regular ticket would cost $25,’’ Slavick says by email. “Choose the price that suits you. If you can’t afford $25, pay what you can afford.’’
Let’s pause briefly while we all try to imagine Ticketmaster telling someone looking to buy a ticket to “Jersey Boys’’ or “Mamma Mia!’’ to simply pay what they can afford.
OK, now that our bitter laughter has stopped echoing through the house or office, consider the case of Company One Theatre. A fixture in the artistic vanguard, Company One has also sought to be a pioneer in terms of price: This past summer, the troupe presented the world premiere of Josh Wilder’s “Leftovers’’ at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre on a “pay-what-you-wish’’ basis for every performance. Minimum payment: Zero, zip, zilch, nada.
When Company One produces shows in its customary venue, the BCA Plaza Theatre, the cost is $25 for a full-price ticket for the first two weeks and $38 after that, with several pay-what-you-wish performances scattered throughout the run. “Our long-term hope is to push toward more fully Pay-What-You-Wish productions in the future,’’ Company One spokesman Tyler Prendergast says by email.
Bridge Repertory Theater employs a tiered approach in which patrons are allowed to choose their ticket price. Full-price tickets range from $35 to $45 per production, and $10-$15 subsidized tickets are available not just to seniors and students but also to “other artists, or anyone else who is served by this offering,’’ artistic director Olivia D’Ambrosio says by email.
Zeitgeist Stage Company, which under David J. Miller’s leadership has long excelled at politically or socially pointed dramas that get under your skin — like the recent production of “Vicuña,’’ a blistering Trump satire by Jon Robin Baitz — charges $30 for a regular ticket. Zeitgeist also offers a pay-what-you-can performance ($10 minimum) each Wednesday during a play’s run. However, Miller has announced that this season will be Zeitgeist’s last, citing financial problems stemming from lagging ticket sales.
Zeitgeist is one of several fringe troupes in the Boston area that have gone dark in the past decade, underscoring the ongoing challenge the remaining companies face. It’s a precarious existence, with lot of small troupes hanging on by their fingernails, but nobody who works for or with them is in it for the money. Like the protagonist of a certain Broadway musical, many of them are “young, scrappy and hungry.’’
They do it because they love theater, they believe in the power of theater to transform lives, and they don’t think anyone should be denied a chance to experience that power on the basis of income. That seems like a pretty worthwhile vision, no? So if you’re looking for Christmas gift ideas, you could do worse than a subscription to a small theater. For whomever you give it to, that subscription could be Act One of something special.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.