In 1957, even with balcony seats at $1.10, there were people who evidently couldn’t afford West Side Story.

“I sneaked in,” remembers Donn Murphy, who now comes in through the stage door as president of the National Theatre Corp. “It was during a rehearsal while they were setting the lights. Forty years…that dates me, doesn’t it? Of course, I don’t approve of sneaking in anymore. But back then, well…I was in grad school, and it made sense at the time.”

He’s not alone. Rare is the actor or director who hasn’t at least “second-acted” a show, mingling with intermission smokers on the street, picking up a dropped program or ticket stub, and ambling inside with the crowd as the lights dim to grab an empty seat at the back.

While producers and box-office personnel frown on the practice for obvious reasons, it’s hard to find theater folk who haven’t engaged in it and who aren’t pleased, at least off the record, that people are desperate enough to see even half a show that they’ll risk embarrassment and police charges to do so.

There are more legitimate ways to get in for nothing. The Shakespeare Theatre’s Summer Free-for-All takes a production that played for $45 under the Lansburgh Theater’s roof and offers it gratis to those willing to risk a thundershower at Carter Barron Amphitheater. Potomac Theatre Project never charges for its often splendid, always controversial brand of political theater out in Olney. Arlington

County presents hundreds of free events in its Summer Al Fresco series. And the Kennedy Center’s Millennium series offers free shows

in the Grand Foyer at 6 p.m. every evening of the year.

For those who want to get a little more involved, volunteers and ushers are generally allowed to sit in empty seats or get offered freebies for another performance by most theaters. And when an opera needs nonsinging supernumeraries or “supers” to beef up a crowd scene, enthusiasts who happen to fit the troupe’s costumes can stand just a few feet from the divas they revere. Behind them, admittedly…but then, it’s hard to argue at that price. CP

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