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Commentary By Norman Allen: Making Theater Experiences More Affordable For All

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Arena Stage in Southwest D.C.
Bing Thom Architects, photo by Nick Lehoux
Arena Stage in Southwest D.C.

The theater community, which has grown exponentially in the last decade, helps fill city coffers through the employment of carpenters, seamstresses and suppliers, not to mention administrative and artistic staffs. Even more lucrative are the revenues generated by the shops and restaurants that sprout up around each successful venue. Petitions are being circulated by artists and patrons to help stop a tax that threatens the very financial benefits that the theatre community provides. Fine.

But there are two groups that should be shouting louder than anyone else – and we have yet to hear from them. The people most threatened by a rise in ticket prices are the parents and educators intent on introducing young people to the challenges and rewards of a quality theatre experience. For many in our community, the cost of attendance already puts the theatre in an elitist camp. Mayor Gray seems intent on placing the performing arts even further beyond the reach of District youth.

When my parents first took me to a touring production of a Broadway musical we sat in balcony seats for about $8 a piece. Today a similar spot at the back of the National Theatre runs $50 bucks – already prohibitive for many of us. For a family of four, the new tax will add $12 to the cost of that experience. Many District theatres offer special programs that make theatre outings more affordable. For its summer run of Oklahoma!, Arena Stage offers both Family Fun Packs and Pay-Your-Age discounts. And the Shakespeare Theatre’s Free for All is, well, free!

But the message is still there – our city proposes to tax the enlightening, formative experiences that our youth should encounter as they struggle to become critical, creative thinkers – and responsible citizens.

Teachers and parents in the District should elbow their way to the front of this debate. They should refuse to let the Council propel the theater further into an elitist camp. They should fight to keep theater experiences available to all.

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