A is for ALTERNATIVE, something everyone in the performance scene aspires to, but few achieve. NIn comedy, check out the Monday-night ALT.COMedy lineup at the Rivoli (332 Queen West) or Kenny Robinson's unpredictable All Black Comedy Sunday, the last Sunday of the month at Yuk Yuk's Superclub (2335 Yonge); in theatre, try works by Darren O'Donnell, Jacob Wren, Theatre Viscera or anything at the Rhubarb! fest at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander); in dance, check out August's fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists (fFIDA).
B is for BAD. There's plenty of dreck out there. To avoid wasting your time and money, use NOW's ratings system. Less than three Ns usually means you'd be better off renting Showgirls.
C is for CELLPHONES and CANDY WRAPPERS. Don't leave the first one on or crinkle up the second. Otherwise, stage managers will put you in a corner and have the actors torture you after the show.
D is for DANCE. Or, as it's called in certain circles, movement. The city's dance scene ranges from classical (National Ballet of Canada) to modern (Toronto Dance Theatre, Danny Grossman Dance Company), with a very strong indie scene and lots of visiting artists, often at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queen's West).
E is for ETHNICALLY DIVERSE. The city is. Why isn't the arts scene? Still, many talented artists of colour are working to change that, like Jean Yoon, Alison Sealy-Smith, Marjorie Chan, Paul Yee, Billy Merasty, Djanet Sears, Karen Robinson, Yanna McIntosh, M.J. Kang, Yashoda Ranganathan and Andrew Moodie. Some theatre companies, like Young People's and Shakespeare in the Rough, make a point of casting across the colour spectrum, based on talent, not skin.
F is for FESTIVALS. Like it or not, this is a festival town. Which means you get to see a whole lot of stuff in a short period of time, usually for a small amount of cash. The Fringe of Toronto theatre festival takes over the city in July, August is dominated by the SummerWorks fest of local plays and, for dance lovers there's fFIDA.
G is for GIVEAWAYS. Score free theatre, dance and comedy tickets with contests found in these very pages. Hint: put NOW's number on speed-dial.
H is for HALF-PRICE TICKETS. Canadian Stage (27 Front East; 26 Berkeley) offers a limited number of half-price tickets for most performances, but the most reliable way to see shows cheaply and when you want is to head over to T.O. Tix at the mall formerly known as the Eaton Centre (290 Yonge). Tickets to theatre, comedy and dance go on sale from noon to 7:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday.
I is for IMPORTS, which used to dominate the stage scene a few decades ago, when theatre consisted mostly of British and American touring shows. Now the local scene is so strong that second-rate versions of Broadway shows featuring aging former TV stars often can't compete. Still, somebody thought it was a good idea to invite Dame Edna: The Royal Tour to town this fall. Go figure.
J is for JOKES, the mainstay of the comedy world. Check out the cut-up action at Second City (56 Blue Jays Way), Yuk Yuk's (2335 Yonge; 5165 Dixie) or Comedywood (194 Bloor West; 800 Steeles West) most nights, and look at NOW's comedy listings for one-offs and special events through the week.
K is for KILL, something comics are said to do when they're hot, and something audiences feel like doing to them when they're not.
L is for LIVE TAPINGS. See if Mike Bullard is funnier in person than he is on the tube by joining the rowdy crowds lined up for the taping of his show Open Mike With Mike Bullard (weekdays at 5:30 pm, 888 Yonge). The price? Free. But they should pay you to do the same at Carla Collins's dreadful Chez Carla (see also: B for BAD). Believe me, the woman's much funnier in person. Tapings of her show happen every Saturday at 5:30 pm, 888 Yonge.
M is for MUSICALS, which are back with a roar (The Lion King) and a disco beat (Mamma Mia) after the yawn-o-rama decade that belonged to an evil Brit named Andrew Lloyd Webber. Both big shows offer tickets for as little as $20 to $25. The most exciting trend, though, is lower-budget musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Honest Ed: The Bargain Musical created by such comedy-trained performers as Lisa Lambert, Brock Simpson, John Mitchell and Steve Morel.
N is for NEXT-TO-NOTHING, which is what most performing artists make from practising their craft. So be generous. Tip. Spread the word when a show's terrific.
O is for OPERA. Even without a respectable opera house, T.O. is home to some of the best operatic talent anywhere (Ben Heppner, Russell Braun, Isabel Bakraydarian). Look out for major productions by the Canadian Opera Company and the baroque opera/dance troupe Opera Atelier.
P is for PWYC, still the best theatre deal in town. Sundays are to plays what Tuesdays are to movies. Pay-what-you-can Sunday-afternoon performances are traditional at most theatres, including the Tarragon (30 Bridgman), Factory (125 Bathurst), Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson) and Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander).
Q is for QUEER. Toronto's home to the world's largest queer-themed theatre in the world, the always-reinventing-itself Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Lots of experimental stuff, and stick around for Sissy Saturday dance nights and weeknight cabaret acts. As you'd expect, though, gay and lesbian-themed work can be found throughout the city, with artists like Sky Gilbert, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Brad Fraser, Daniel MacIvor and Diane Flacks mounting plays this season.
R is for REVIEWS. Read 'em in NOW. We review every show worth seeing, and lots you shouldn't waste your time on.
S is for STUDENT DISCOUNTS. Most theatres offer single-ticket student discounts of 10 to 25 per cent per ticket, usually excluding Saturday nights. Many others offer cut-priced subscriptions to their seasons. Cheap tickets, no lineups. Do the math.
T is for THESPIANS, more commonly known as actors. The city's full of them, and they aren't just serving up decaf lattes. No question. The quality of acting in the city's plays is higher than in films.
U is for UNKNOWNS, discovering them, that is -- one of the best reasons for going to live shows. Once upon a time, the Kids in the Hall, Harland Williams, Paul Gross and Atom Egoyan were all struggling in the city's not-for-profit theatres and clubs.
V is for VENUES, which range from the resplendent (Princess of Wales, 300 King West) to the comfy-but-a-tad-out-of-the-way (Canadia dell'Arte, 186 Munro), with absolutely everything in between. Some venues, especially comedy clubs, include bars to keep you drinking so you'll find everything that much funnier.
W is for WOMEN'S THEATRE, proudly championed by some of the city's most exciting companies, like Nightwood Theatre (9 St. Nicholas).
X is for X-RATED. Lots of plays feature nudity. Sometimes you'll wish they didn't.
Y is for YAK. As in "Thou shalt not yak during a play."
Z is for ZZZ. Which you should not do at a show. Especially if you're a stressed-out theatre critic who attends 200-plus plays a year and has no social life. To avoid falling asleep, forget about wine at dinner, carry a pack of chewing gum -- great for intermissions! -- and sit with a friend who can nudge you when necessary. Hint: if the show's any good, you'll find you stay awake, no matter how sleep-deprived.
There. Now you know your ABCs.