The idea of accessible theatre extends beyond including people of all genders, races, abilities, and identities; it also extends to the poor communities of America who deserve and need to see theatre too. Now, when I say poor, I’m talking about genuinely poor communities in America. Many people living on low incomes often get left out of the accessibility discussions in theatre, but there are several ways to reach low-income communities with your theatre, and these communities are some who need theatre the most.
I vividly remember being the child of a single mom, and growing up paycheck to paycheck, seeing how we had to budget for extra things, and the juggling my mom did to keep theatre and art apart of our lives. Keeping theatre was, at times, easy, and in others, very difficult. I was fortunate enough for a time to live in an area that had a great children’s theatre with summer theatre programs for kids. They offered scholarships that allowed me to attend summer camp and participate in shows I otherwise could not have afforded. It was through this camp that I decided to work in the arts professionally.
We’re now getting into July, and the heat of summer, schools are out, and kids are around to see and participate in theatre. Many parents have written checks and signed their kids up for theatre camps and shows; others are staying home with their kids; some may be opting to keep theirs in a camp at school. Other families are faced with finding affordable childcare in a very unaffordable world. This is when the theatre can step in in a variety of ways.
Theatre companies can offer discounted and free tickets to shows, many already do! However, theatre companies could target schools and local neighborhoods when advertising discounted shows, not just local summer camps to bus their kids in, because some kids can’t afford summer camp. If your theatre has its own summer camp, there needs to be a variety of scholarships offered as well. Maybe your company can offer a couple of kids scholarships; maybe others can get partial scholarships. You can also opt to put commemorative show shirts and other extras to the side, and cover tuition for another child or two to attend. A child’s life could change because they attended a camp, but a camp shirt will likely be lost before school starts. Camps that extend to 5 or 5:30 pm also help working parents a lot when a single parent, or both, work a standard workday. Half-day camps are often not great options for low-income families because of the difficult hours.
Theatres can also partner with local companies in a swap; if there’s a local sandwich shop who wants to offer a discount for cast and crew, you can return the favor with inviting them to an open dress, or discounted tickets. This is also a great way to reach new, unexpected audiences! If your theatre does invite dress rehearsals or even has a dress rehearsal, you could open it up to local families and people in need of a little magic. Shelters, local affordable camps, service workers, army families, college students, and low-income families are often overlooked and thus may not get as many opportunities as others. Offering them the chance to see theatre for free is a real, potentially life-changing, gift. If you’re running the show anyway, and your contract allows you, invite people to your dress rehearsal or fill a low selling matinee with people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to theatre.
If you’re a student looking to keep theatre in your life this summer, you can participate in student rush lines, ask for discounts, and even talk to your local theatre about a discounted student night or group price. You can also find scripts a local library, from your local theatre, or online. If you have extra time this summer, you might even find you want to write your own! Older students in need of extra money, and who may already have theatre experience, can also reach out to local theatres or venues about helping with tech or front of house. My first paying job was working backstage of a theatre, and I know many theatre-makers who share similar sentiments of running backstage for $50 a show. It’s a way to see the show for free, actively stay involved in theatre, and perhaps get some comp tickets for your family. Complimentary tickets kept my family and me in the seats of the theatre more often than I could have hoped for!
Theatre can be expensive to create, yes, and you don’t need to struggle or put your company at risk, but when you do have extra space and resources, they should be shared. Theatre is about creation, magic, and feeling something new for as long as the show lasts, no one should be denied the opportunities for these experiences. Theatre can have a real impact on someone’s life, and those of us who are able to offer theatre to someone who can’t afford it, should do so.