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University of Iowa News Release

Jan. 21, 2004

Minimum-Wage Struggles Fuel Humor Of 'Nickel And Dimed' Feb. 3-13 At UI

The Mainstage series of University Theatres will present "Nickel and Dimed," Joan Holden's comic staging of Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling book about the struggles of America's working poor, opening at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building.

Additional performances will be at 8 p.m. Feb. 4, 5 and 9-12, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 6 and 13.

The Feb. 11 audience will be invited to remain after the performance for a discussion with three representatives of the UI Center for Human Rights -- Colin Gordon, Ken Cmeil and Roberta Till-Retz.

In order to make the play accessible to the economically strapped workers who are its subject, 50 seats for each performance will be available for a minimum of a nickel and a dime -- or whatever the audience member can afford up to the regular price. The "nickel-and-dime" tickets -- for the best available seats -- will go on sale at 7 p.m. for the evening performances and 2 p.m. for the Sunday performances: First come, first served.

The book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" chronicles essayist Ehrenreich's personal experiences in demeaning and low-paying jobs when she went undercover, posing as an unskilled housewife thrown into the job market after a divorce. To gain insight into the struggles and anxieties of the 12 million women cut loose by welfare reform, she took a series of minimum-wage jobs and tried to make ends meet.

To become part of the working poor, she took jobs as a waitress, a hotel maid, a housecleaner, a nursing home assistant and a chain-store "associate." And the ends never really met. She usually worked two jobs, with no benefits, and still almost ended up in a shelter.

"It's a scandal that so many people work so hard and can't live on their earnings," Ehrenreich writes. "What I find most pernicious is the myth that you're poor because you're dumb, or not working hard enough, or are addicted, when it's a major flaw in our economic system that creates poverty."

When Joan Holden of the highly political San Francisco Mime Troupe was invited to put Ehrenreich's experiences and insights on stage, she jumped at the chance, thinking that the book's ideas were "right on time. . . My life is subsidized by thousands of people." She calls underpaid workers who "swallow their indignities" the "real anonymous donors. We owe these people."

With her trademark zany humor, Holden puts Barbara -- both heroine and narrator -- in a "Mall-Mart" chain store, and a "Kenny's" restaurant and other familiar workplaces, where she deals with idiotic bosses, mind-numbing and backbreaking routines, annoying co-workers, humiliating drug tests and hopeless poverty.

"There's a moment in the book she describes as 'the perfect storm,' when they're a cook and a waitress short at the restaurant in Florida," Holden says, as an example. "Her book describes chaos and farce, but it has the serious underside. She's barely exaggerated what it's like to work in a rush, at the pace that millions of people work at during a day."

Director Eric Forsythe of the Theatre Arts faculty comments, "There are plays that just call out to you: 'Do me!' This is one of those plays. The story is engaging, highly theatrical and true to life. Fans of Barbara Ehrenreich will certainly want to attend, but I think it's the people who've never heard of her who will be most delighted. They can make her acquaintance through this play!"

Broadway lighting designer Ed McCarthy is designing the lighting, as a guest of the Department of Theatre Arts. Other artistic contributors to the UI production of "Nickel and Dimed" include scenic designer William Moser, costume designer Adriana Solano-Gomez, sound designer William Barbour and dramaturg Jessica Dart.

University Theatres is the performance arm of the UI Department of Theatre Arts, an academic unit in the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Tickets are $17 (UI student, senior citizen & youth $8), and may be purchased in advance through the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial 319-335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to 319-353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial 319-335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Hancher's website:

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail:

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,

PHOTOS are available at

In the photos: Barbara -- Christina Frank

4 Suits (closest to farthest away) -- Ken Peterson, Christy Sullivan, Jonathan Biver and Colleen MacRae

OTHER INFORMATION: Reach the director at