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Good theater? Yeah, we got that. 

Welcome to the maze. Step inside? Regional live theater is a labyrinth whose shifting walls and passages are kept in flux by a number of factors. There are the 70-plus companies and 15 or so presenters who produce more than 200 different shows here each year. A steady stream of student, journeyman and professional actors, directors and designers who come, change, recombine and go. An expanding audience that has fueled theater's growth here in the past decade, and a community of playwrights and stage artists making something beside the same old same old.

Union stages? Check. Robust academic programs and fiercely independent companies who regularly produce work just as accomplished? Check. Musical theater, ethnic theater, auteurs, hacks? Check, check. Playwrights' forums, new works, children's companies, community-based companies and the theater of social justice? Check and double-check.

Work that regularly matches--and at its best excels--the quality of work we see in New York?

Yeah, we got that.

If you're looking for capital-T Theater--major mainstage shows with all the trimmings--let's start with the union houses. Chapel Hill's Playmakers Repertory Company (www.playmakersrep.org) is the professional company affiliated with UNC's Department of Dramatic Art. Triad Stage (www.triadstage.com) is in the same league, just up the road in Greensboro and well worth the drive.

Among regional presenters, Duke Theater Previews (www.duke.edu/web/theaterstudies/theater) hosts speculative productions that are trying to make it to New York but need further development before they get there. Raleigh's Broadway Series South (www.broadwayseriessouth.com) generally brings in union and non-union touring versions of major Broadway musicals. Semi-big name stars of a certain vintage (Loretta Swit, Lou Diamond Philips) headline combination casts of New York and local talent in new, archive-level productions of classic American musical theater at N.C. Theater (www.nctheatre.com) in Raleigh.

On our smaller stages, independent companies rule. They make up the largest portion of regional theater, and at their best they regularly match or surpass the work we see on larger stages. Perhaps that's why their work has increasingly been exported in recent years. In addition to Raleigh's Kennedy Theater, Burning Coal Theater Company (www.burningcoal.org) has played New York and the Spoleto Festival, and Durham's Manbites Dog Theater (www.manbitesdogtheater.org) has performed at Joe Papp's Public Theater in New York. Both lead the list of the indies with consistently innovative, challenging and finely detailed works that explore the theater of social conscience. In addition, Manbites Dog also regularly hosts worthy, smaller regional companies like Shakespeare & Originals (newfrequency.org) and Dog & Pony Show in their "Other Voices" series. StreetSigns Center www.unc.edu/depts/comm/streetsigns) Wordshed Productions (www.unc.edu/wordshed), Both affiliated with UNC's Performance Studies program, have similarly distinguished themselves in recent years with bold stage adaptations of fiction and non-fiction works by James Joyce, Walker Percy and Jim Grimsley. And social justice is the key concept in Raleigh's new Justice Theater Project (thejusticetheaterproject.org), which has taken top honors for its work on the death penalty.

Auteur director Ellen Hemphill's collaborations with Jungian therapist Nor Hall have been the focus of Archipelago Theater's unique, atmospheric work in recent years. We look forward to their latest findings at Duke in spring 2005. Both Hands Theater has intrigued us with their original texts of late, and no list of performing playwrights could be complete without Paperhand Puppet Intervention, whose yearly pageants involving complex, multi-story, multi-user puppets evoke political and environmental allegories well worth heeding.

Raleigh Ensemble Players (realtheatre.org) tends to stake out the edgier scripts, while Deep Dish Theater Company (deepdishtheater.org) opens its fourth year in their unlikely venue--Chapel Hill's University Mall--with a broad spectrum of work, from Moliere to Rebecca Gilman. Tighter spectrum--and more laughs--come from Raleigh's Actors Comedy Lab (actorscomedylab.com). And Ghost & Spice Productions (ghostandspice.com) has done strong work with one- and two-character dramas in the recent past.

Since last year, Durham's Theater Or and Raleigh's Second Avenue South have presented Jewish theater (Second Avenue from the lighter side), while Durham's Rotimi Foundation (rotimifoundation.org) has focused on the stirring--and satirical--work of Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi.

Nearly all of the region's universities and colleges boast one or more student companies, but since these programs vary in quality and depth, their output tends to do the same. Duke's Wendell Theater (www.duke.edu/web/wendell/) abets its Theater Studies program (www.duke.edu/web/theaterstudies) and is usually well worth notice. UNC student groups in Studio 1, 2, & 3, the venerable Lab! Theater, and Company Carolina always have something brewing (www.unc.edu/depts/drama/whats_on_now.htm). Despite occasional missteps, Peace College (peace.edu/theatre/perform/perform.html) regularly challenges us with work well above average, but the acting on stage at N.C. State's University Theatre (www7.acs.ncsu.edu/University_Players) hasn't always matched the technical excellence (in lighting, set design and, above all, costumes) we've regularly witnessed in recent years.

Community theater in the area varies as well. We've seen up-and-down work at Raleigh Little Theatre (raleighlittletheatre.org) and Theatre in the Park (theatreinthepark.com) in recent years, while Sanford's Temple Theatre (wave-net.net/templetheatre) sticks to competent productions of popular fare. Mapping the cheap seats Okay, we can't put it off any longer: Time to think about the bottom line. After all, paying full price for every one of the region's 200-odd shows would be a glorious way to go broke--but why do it if you don't have to?

Of course, you could leave it to chance, betting on your best tie-dyeds, your fellow man--and the shaky scrawl on that "I need a miracle" sign from your last Dead show.

But how about six strategies instead on how to lock it all in, at prices from reduced to free?

1. Buy season tickets--but first do the math. Season tix should be a trade: You pay more up front to save significant money in the long run. At venues like Playmakers, N.C. Theater and Raleigh Little Theatre, this arrangement means a 20-to-25 percent price break for each show--a fair trade for what amounts to a short-term interest-free loan.

But do the numbers carefully. Top seats at Broadway Series South this year cost $418 individually--and $412.20 by season tix. Total savings? A whopping 1 percent discount: $5.80. Why bother?

And read the fine print. Manbites Dog's 8-pack vouchers claim--accurately--to save patrons up to 37 percent on each show, but the small type says the vouchers aren't good for every show they produce.

2. Develop a constituency. Though policies differ radically on flash mobs, most houses will discount groups (over 10 for some, over 25 for others) when they make arrangements in advance.

3. Don't forget the off-nights. Public previews before "official" opening nights are deeply discounted at Triad Stage and Playmakers among others. Pay-what-you-can nights are key at places like Raleigh Ensemble Players, Burning Coal and Manbites Dog. Weekday nights tend to be cheaper than the weekend (all seats at Playmakers go for $10 every Tuesday), but only the bigger groups run weekdays. Some--but not all--discount their matinees.

4. Be a student. Since nearly every theater and presenter discounts students, always ask for student rates and student rush policy. Thanks to a grant, Duke Performances is deeply discounting student tix this year. N.C. Theater's one preview night is only open to students and teachers--I.D. mandatory--at $10 a head. (Next opportunity: the musical Ragtime, Friday, Sept. 10.) Not bad when folks are paying five to six times that much the next night for the same show.

5. Cultivate a taste for the experimental. For the same money it takes to see one blockbusta at BTI Center, you could literally see up to 10 different shows by independent and student groups in the region. Go back to the top and look again at the other 30-odd names we regularly associate with advanced work. Investigate. Save money. Enjoy.

6. Volunteer as an usher. Or something else. Really strapped for cash? Then it's quite simple: with the possible exception of union houses and school shows where students get credit, no theater is ever going to turn away free help. Venues like Manbites Dog regularly ask through their e-mail bulletins for folks to assist them with upcoming front-of-house duties in exchange for free seats.

So call the theaters you're interested in at the start of the season--now--to get on their mailing lists and ask what kind of help they might need later on. During the season, call at least a couple of weeks before opening night if you're interested in ushering for a show.

And if you want to volunteer to be the Indy's cheap-seat poster child--and have us follow how much money you save over the year with these techniques--drop me a line at byron@indyweek.com.

Taking the lead? But no user's guide to regional theater would be complete without a word about auditions. The fact is, dozens of companies will fill hundreds of roles this year--and at this point well over half of them are still up for grabs.

If you're ready to take the stage, keep an eye on the weekly auditions listings in the Indy and the Friday "What's Up" section of The News & Observer. But, as often as not, the most comprehensive info comes from the theatrical community itself. For years now, Raleigh actor Phil Crone has regularly compiled a newsletter of upcoming audition notices and sent them to theater people by e-mail for free. If you want to get on Phil's list, drop him a line at spelare97@hotmail.com.

An obvious word of caution: As we've noted above, production values--and competencies--do vary radically throughout the region. Before you audition for a company, see a show by them first. As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to see shows from at least three companies in whatever field you're interested (comedy, drama, children's theater, etc.), before auditioning for one of them--just to get some perspective on where they stand in relation to the rest. It's best to know if you respect a company's work before you start working with them.

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