The Seattle Repertory Theatre is responding with "Pay What You Can" (PWYC) performances, for which ticket buyers can name their price and pay as little as $1 for a $45, front-row seat.

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“Not to go to the theater,” said German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “is like making one’s toilet without a mirror.”

In other words, we need theater to help us see who we are.

And right now, we’re an anxious lot. The economy. Health care. Swine flu. David Letterman’s stupid human trick.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre is responding with “Pay What You Can” (PWYC) performances, for which ticket buyers can name their price and pay as little as $1 for a $45, front-row seat.

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The promotion not only allows people a luxury they otherwise couldn’t afford, it has served as an unintentional gauge of what live theater can do for people.

When the box office opened at noon Wednesday for the matinee and evening performances of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” there were 29 people in line. Most had been waiting for at least an hour.

This was the second PWYC day for “The 39 Steps.” The first one, held two weeks ago, sold out. “It was crazy,” said Rep spokeswoman Kate Jackman. “There were at least 100 people in line. We had never seen anything like it. Usually we have tickets up to curtain.”

(The Intiman Theatre also is offering PWYC performances).

In line on Wednesday was Michelle Plaitis, who had been laid off from her job at an ad agency just the day before.

She came with her friend Rachel Frost, also unemployed and tapped into what one can do in Seattle with little money.

“Without ‘Pay What You Can,’ I wouldn’t be able to go to the theater,” Frost said. “It’s a luxury, and we’re so grateful.”

Along with their friend, Susan Merrill, the women paid $10 total for three tickets down front.

There was no judgment at the ticket window. Everyone was treated in the same, cheery manner. Because everyone has a story.

The first woman in line got four tickets in Row J for $5, total.

Then there was Larry Fletcher, 72, a retired teacher and drug counselor who paid $25 for his single seat.

“I could have paid anything,” he said, “but I am trying to do as much as I can for the Rep.”

As for those who pay just $1?

“I think some people don’t have a chance to see live theater otherwise,” he said. “The people I don’t like are the ones who can afford more and don’t do it.”

The theater will hold PWYC events on Nov. 19 for “Equivocation”; on Feb. 9 for “Glengarry Glen Ross”; and on March 30 for “Fences.” All shows are at 7:30 p.m.

The average ticket price for PWYC this season has been $3.91, down from $4.09 during the 2007-2008 season.

Understudy Allison Jean White can often sense when she’s performing for a PWYC crowd.

The house is fuller, for starters.

“And maybe there aren’t as many theatergoers, so there’s a different response,” she said. “They laugh in places you didn’t expect, or more than another crowd. They’re more engaged and just happy to be there.”

White loves that the theater is offering cheap seats.

“Art should be available to everyone,” she said.

Indeed, no matter how tough times get, the theater should still be accessible to people to inspire, to soothe and to help them forget what’s outside for a while.

“And hopefully, they will remember us when times get good again,” Jackman said, “and subscribe.”

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or

“Good” evening, indeed.

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