Beyond TKTS: A User’s Guide to Cheap Theater Tix

When the Off-Off-Broadway movement exploded onto the New York theater scene in the 1960s, it went with the territory that noncommercial theater would be affordable theater. The reputation stuck: to this day, the affordability of downtown theater is often touted as one of its greatest selling points. Yet, with production costs on the rise, downtown ticket prices are also moving upwards. Even $15-20 tickets can quickly add up for anyone who sees a lot of plays.

The TKTS booths, which provide great same-day discounts to pricey Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, have long been a popular starting point for anyone seeking discount tickets. When the Theatre Development Fund opened its first TKTS booth in 1973, TDF was a newly-formed organization aiming to bolster New York theater revenue by increasing their audience numbers. Today, long lines of tourists and hometown theater lovers alike wait eagerly outside the two booths, now located in Times Square and South Street Seaport, which offer phenomenal discounts of 25-50% to some of New York's most popular Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

Navigating discount tickets to less prominent productions can be trickier, in part because downtown discount programs tend to be less centralized. There are, however, a plethora of discounted tickets available Off- and Off-Off-Broadway for enterprising (broke) theatergoers. These range from special cheap ticket performance nights held at individual theater companies to more traditional reduced rates for students and seniors, as well as promotional mailing lists and standard rush tickets.

Sundays in particular have become a great night for cheap theater. This season, SoHo Rep instituted the cheapest discount ticket program in town. On Sunday nights, all mainstage productions cost just 99 cents. Interested audience members would do well to purchase the 99 cent tickets in advance, as the performances have been known to sell out fast. Also special this season, The Joyce, founded as a dance theater 25 years ago, currently offers $25 Sunday evening tickets in honor of its anniversary season.

Another great Sunday theater option is New York Theatre Workshop, where regularly priced tickets range from $55 to $75, placing NYTW on the expensive end of the downtown ticket continuum (across the street, Off-Off- stalwart La MaMa has never raised its ticket prices above $20). To keep its programming accessible to all theatergoers, five years ago NYTW instituted CheapTix Sundays, through which all Sunday performances cost $20. These cash-only tickets are available only at the NYTW box office; however, unlike similarly priced rush tickets, CheapTix may be purchased in advance. NYTW Marketing Director Cathy Popowytsch notes that edgier productions, like the Elevator Repair Service's The Sound and The Fury (April Seventh, 1928), currently playing at the Workshop, tend to be especially popular with CheapTix audiences. Sunday performances attract a slightly different demographic than the theater does other nights. "The audience tends to be younger on Sunday evenings," Popowytsch notes, "but we also get many senior citizens."

Students and seniors can also find cheap tickets through a number of rush ticket programs targeted especially at their unique demographics. A comprensive list of student and senior discounts available for current productions is maintained by nytheatre.com at www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/discounts.php. Interested participants should note that, unlike theaters with official cheap ticket nights, these tickets are often sold only on the day of the performance. This is especially true of programs geared toward students. Some venues, such as The Vineyard Theatre, which maintains a $20 student rush program, reserve a limited number of student rush tickets to sell at each performance. Other venues, like Playwrights Horizons, simply turn any unsold tickets into rush tickets an hour before curtain, when student tickets are priced at $15. For student tickets, remember to bring along a student ID.

In recent years, a number of theaters have expanded student rush tickets to include wider demographics. Perhaps in part because twenty-somethings have long realized they could just hold onto their old college ID cards in order to take advantage of student discounts, and partly as a way to bring younger audiences into the theater, several theaters around town offer discounts aimed at young audiences. In addition to its $15 student rush program, for example, Playwrights Horizons runs HOTtix, $20 tickets for twenty-something theatergoers, based on availability an hour before each performance. Other theaters offer rush tickets to all theatergoers regardless of age, including The Public Theater, where Rush Tix are available to the general public an hour before each downtown performance. When planning a last-minute trip to the theater, investigating the production's rush ticket policy is never a bad idea. Because rush tickets are based on availability, they are always something of a gamble, so it's a good idea to arrive early, especially when rushing a particularly popular production. Some savvy rushers find it helpful to phone the theater's box office before setting out.

For anyone willing to sift through email, several mailing lists that compile promotional discounts are enormously useful. The TheaterMania Insiders Club sends regular emails detailing discounts to both commercial and independent theater productions. While the Insiders Club is free of charge, for fees starting at $99, members may join TheaterMania's Gold Club, which offers discounts and occasional comp tickets to Broadway productions. Information on both programs, as well as well as general discount ticket information, is available at TheaterMania.com.

Other good promotional email lists include Ticket Central's Student No Rush Program, which allows students to reserve tickets for preview performances of Ticket Central productions (www.ticketcentral.com/snr_home.asp) and Goldstar (www.goldstar.com) which offers discounts to live performances and events for about the price of a movie. Goldstar weekly emails offer discounts to an incredible array of events, the diversity of which make it unlikely that all of the Goldstar performance discounts will appeal to all Goldstar members. The fantastic deals Goldstar currently offers, including half price tickets to both trippy performance art spectacle Fuerzabruta and Disney on Broadway's sugary Mary Poppins, make the emails well worth perusing each week.

As a slightly longer-term solution, audience members who are particularly fond of the work of downtown theater companies and venues may find it helpful to visit these organizations' websites and sign up for their individual email lists. Many use these lists to offer their fans discounts or even free admission to previews and performances early in the run of a new production.

Signature Theatre, meanwhile, has taken a different approach to discounting tickets. Rather than include promotional offers on mailing lists or offer select discount ticket nights, Signature accepted funding from Time Warner to greatly reduce the cost of all tickets at every performance. What began in 2005 as a program through which, in honor of Signature's 15th anniversary, all tickets cost just $15, has today become the Signature Ticket Initiative, which pledges to keep all tickets to $20 through 2010. While naysayers express concern over the potential effects of corporate sponsorship on art, Signature proudly points to the program's successes. According to audience surveys, the Signature Ticket Initiative has resulted in consistently sold-out houses as well as 30% of audience members identifying as under 35 years old. The surveys also show that half of all audience members have not previously attended a production at Signature, indicating the discounted ticket programs, in addition to benefiting young theatergoers, benefit theaters as well.

At NYTW, Popowytsch concurs. She finds that, rather than detract from full-price ticket sales, the CheapTix program brings in a different audience. "It is helping us get new people through our doors," she says.

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