IF YOU'VE GOT MONEY, Portland's art scene is your monocled oyster, stuffed with shiny, expensive pearls: Time-Based Art Fest patron passes, season tickets to Portland Center Stage and the opera.
But the arts shouldn't be the sole purview of the super-rich—if you're broke, Portland has plenty of options for getting your high-culture fix.
Three years ago, local classical music groups launched a pilot program that offered $5 admission to anyone with an Oregon Trail Card. The Arts for All program later expanded to theater and dance companies, serving upwards of 9,500 art-hungry people last year. More than 50 cultural organizations now participate, according to the Regional Arts and Culture Council, which houses the program—from Hand2Mouth Theatre to Portland Center Stage and BodyVox dance company. Others, like Imago Theatre, aren't on the official list, but also sell seats for a fiver with proof of participation in the food stamps program.
"There are way too many people who can't afford a $15 ticket," says Imago's Mona Huneidi. "Especially when you're poor, it's nice to have things that lift you out of economic depression for a little while."
Not on food stamps? Cheap shows still abound. For those age 35 and under, Artists Repertory Theatre has $25 tickets every second Friday of a show's run; students and folks who're under 25 can get $20 tickets to any performance. You can show up and hope for rush tickets (a flat $20 at Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep). And at venues across town, including Action/Adventure and Shaking the Tree, Thursdays are often pay-what-you-can nights.
Other options are flat-out free, but take more legwork. Sign up for theater mailers, scour websites, or call a theater to find free readings, previews, and dress rehearsals, or request tickets in exchange for volunteer work like ushering.
According to mask-maker Tony Fuemmeler, who has worked with Nomadic, Theatre Vertigo, and Oregon Children's Theatre, there are many reasons companies will cut you a deal. For starters, theater revenue is often based less on ticket sales than on grants, annual subscriptions, and donations—which means some theaters can afford to give you a break on individual tickets.
And then there are the benefits of a full house: It looks good for last-minute theater critics, boosts performer morale, and swells the number of first-time viewers.
But no matter how cheap the seat, Fuemmeler says enticing a young demographic is a struggle. "There's [been] a cultural shift. If at any moment of any day, you can find concert footage or a funny video, what's the compelling reason to make plans to go out?" he asks. "One part is cost, and the other part is letting [young people] know that this show is meant for them."
Which brings us to our dénouement. Redux! Act One: You might think theater is for rich old people, but in this town, a street urchin like yourself can still get a ticket. Act Two: Theater companies are happy to offer paupers a cheap seat. Act Three? They're really, really happy if you're a theater virgin.
That's because, from the nose-bleed seats, it sure does look like theater is for rich old people. Sources in the industry say that the previously mentioned reliance on grants and donations can create pressure to keep theater offerings bland, safe, and entirely unappealing to a younger crowd.
"We need to get the next generation in the door," says Valerie Liptak, who works front of house at companies across town.
Liptak says edgier offerings, like Theatre Vertigo's The End of Sex and Artists Repertory Theatre's The Motherfucker with the Hat are conscious attempts to attract new blood. Other companies—like Action/Adventure, Post Five, StageWorks Ink, and Funhouse Lounge—are staking their reputation on generations X,Y, and younger.
"If you go to certain theaters, you can see their audience is aging," says Liptak. "Who's going to go there in 20, 30 years?"
Imago's Huneidi agrees. "People who really, really want to see theater find ways. The challenge is to reach the people who would otherwise opt for a rock show."
SEARCH TERMS FOR CHEAP SEATS
RACC Arts for All: Up to two $5 tickets with an Oregon Trail Card: 56 participating organizations
Pay-what-you-can nights (often Thursday): CoHo, Theatre Vertigo, Action/Adventure, and others
Under 35 years old: Artists Repertory Theatre
Dress rehearsals: call theaters for options
Rush tickets: Portland Center Stage, Artists Rep, and others
Discounted tickets: goldstar.com, MercPerks, Chinook Book
Student and group discounts: call theaters for options
Student performances: Portland State University, Reed College, University of Portland, Portland Community College, local high schools
Volunteer: call theaters for options
Play previews and readings: call theaters for options
Shakespeare in the Park