- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

Steven Berkoff dances like a jack rabbit across a bare stage at the Studio Theatre in "Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil," recreating eight of Shakespeare's baddies.
Bald, dressed entirely in black, the London-born actor sends his voice ricocheting between manly baritone and womanly falsetto as he evokes a scene between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude. He's playing it, moreover, as if the troubled young Dane were acted by a moronic sitcom star and the queen by a boozy, aging actress who forgets a crucial prop.
Watching this one-man spectacle from a back row at the Studio's second-floor Milton Theatre is 32-year-old Tijani Howe, laughing heartily.
And why not? Mr. Howe is no ordinary patron. He is part of an army of volunteers and paid folk who form the backbone of performance venues all over the nation's capital.
He is an usher.
Laugh if you like, but theater insiders look at the ushers as godsends. Ushers are the first people the patron sees. They tear the tickets, point out the seats, stuff the programs, sell the food and the drinks, clean the bathrooms, vacuum the floors, change lightbulbs and pick up the programs left behind by the audience.
Most of them in the Washington area don't even get paid but then again, most of them see the job as a gift.
"Nothing we do is difficult," chirps volunteer concessionaire Ane Powers, 54, of Northwest, as she moves gracefully between the coffee urns and sweet, attractively unhealthy snacks spread before theatergoers at Studio, at 14th and P streets NW.
Ms. Powers, a career counselor by day, says the British playwright Tom Stoppard put her unpaid role in perspective at a Studio press night last season.
"'Oh, I'm just a volunteer,'" the animated Ms. Powers says she told the Tony- and Oscar-winning visitor. "And, he goes, 'American theater wouldn't exist without volunteers.'"

It's true. While the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Theatre pay their ushers, most Washington ushers are volunteers.
That means they see the shows for free. But the job is more than a social outlet: Many ushers see it as part of a greater good, as a way of involving themselves in the community. Not only do they meet patrons and other ushers, but they rub shoulders with actors, directors, playwrights and staff. That's what brought Mr. Howe to the Studio Theatre.
"It's a significant voice in Washington for new works," he says. "I felt, 'What better way of supporting the arts than actually be a participant?' And, of course, it's [a] benefit to myself to see productions which, by and large, I've been very much impressed with."
They get to see the inner workings of the theater, witnessing the frantic goings-on in those precious minutes before the lights beam up and the set full of static furniture becomes a critical backdrop for a two-hour theatrical tour of a playwright's mind.
"You buy your ticket and you come and sit down and you see magic," says Studio usher Wes MacAdam of the patron. "To know how the magic gets produced and all the work that goes into putting it on, that's really kind of fascinating."
Tom Ault of Silver Spring, a 56-year-old health policy analyst, has learning in mind when he ushers at the Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre.
Mr. Ault performs in musicals such as "The Music Man," "Guys and Dolls" and "Fiddler on the Roof" at his church in Silver Spring. So when he goes to usher, he lives vicariously through the actors onstage as the house lights go down.

Surprisingly, volunteer ushers can get fired. That's definitely not being part of the community. What can provoke it?
"Ohhhh, various things," says Mr. MacAdam, 63, sporting a collegiate-looking black blazer, with a tie and lapel pin that herald his home city of Arlington.
"Some theaters have a dress code to look halfway decent, and some people come in and are consistently sloppy. Others, when they do concessions, tend to eat everything in sight."
The diminutive Mr. MacAdam, a Dana Carvey look-alike who is retired from the Internal Revenue Service, is what you would call a pro. Just look at the number of area theaters under his ushering belt: Roundhouse, Theatre J, Woolly Mammoth, American Century Theater, Washington Shakespeare Theatre, to name a few. He sometimes helps build sets for Signature Theatre. His calendar is overwhelmingly full, but he laments, "You can't see all the theater you'd like to."
"Wes is my mentor," says Ms. Powers, with a gust of laughter. "He's out there doing it all."
The two run Studio's concession stand on a cold Friday night when there are two plays, "Shakespeare's Villains" and "Runaway Home." Patrons enter from P Street just off 14th Street, a part of town whose rejuvenation comes largely from Studio's presence over the past 25 years. The lobby is the ultimate in chic gray tones and bare wood, reflecting the basic black so often worn by artistic and managing director Joy Zinoman.
Bouncing about the lobby in a headset is house manager Solomon HaileSelassie, a calm, green-shirted presence who is popular among the ushers because he seeks to include them in activities. Only 20, the Northwest resident takes the job seriously, rolling his eyes when asked about patrons with cell phones. He says he has a list of about 500 ushers, but is always looking for more.
"We usually require them to be 18 and up," he says, then pauses. "There are some exceptions. We had a remarkable 15-year-old, who was the son of an usher here, and he could handle angry patrons better than his father. But that was a true exception."

The Brookland chestnut Dance Place is a smaller venue than the two-theater Studio Theatre and is now in its 22nd season. It not only provides dance performances, but also classes for all ages, outreach programs, free tickets for neighbors, summer camps, internships, speakers and, of course, ushers.
It's a cold, cold night as one courses toward 3225 Eighth St. NE, within sight of the Roman Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The brick Dance Place, with its green awning laced with little white dancer silhouettes along its front edge, has become such a neighborhood fixture it even has a street sign pointing down Eighth Street.
"Pretty much half the people that come through the door, we know them," says usher coordinator Nicole Pouliot, "The Kennedy Center is also a professional venue, but it doesn't have that small community feeling. And you know that there would be no exceptions to the rules at the box office like that because they can't run that kind of a system, when we have a little bit more of a flexibility."
Tonight, the International Association of Blacks in Dance performs its Evening Showcase Performance, which is part of the worldwide group's four-day convention. The intimate, late-night show nearly fills the 165-seat theater, featuring a menu of performances by the AIDS Project, National Deaf Dance Theatre and Gesel Mason's quiet interpretation of Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings.
Amid all of this eclecticism, Ms. Pouliot moves about the small lobby as a box office manager, work-study coordinator, outreach program teacher and helper on the financial side. Her job duties spill over into running the usher staff. Her pool of 15 to 20 ushers doesn't include those who are adult scholarship students participating in Dance Place's work-study program.
"Mostly it's from people calling for volunteer opportunities," says the curly-haired Ms. Pouliot, seated in a high chair near the coffee makers. "Some students who go to the public high schools have to do community service hours, so that's how we get some of the students. A lot of people just want to see the shows for free, even though our ticket prices are much lower here than other venues; not everyone has $18 for that purpose.
"I feel like it's hard to get people into the door, at first, because they're not sure what they might have to do, but once someone ushers, they pretty much are interested in ushering because it's not a lot of hard labor."
The atmosphere is chaotic sometimes. In the lobby, in the back of the risers facing the stage, dancers are constantly moving, stretching. Amid this movement is the smooth Cecil Tucker, 60, a Dance Place veteran with slicked-back hair, a manicured mustache, and a low, silky voice. A lifelong District resident and now a Dance Place board member, he came to the performance space after taking an early retirement in November 1994 from the District zoning commission.
He responded to a Dance Place mail brochure about ushering "after vegetating for about six months and determining what I was going to do, and getting my fill of Jerry Springer and Rikki Lake," he says.
"It's been eye-opening to me. I find it fascinating to interact with the dance community, and people in the dance community have a whole different mind-set. And being around a lot of younger folks certainly helps me with my mind-set, and I enjoy the notion of giving back to the community in the sense of volunteering my time and service.
"It's self-gratifying."

While Dance Place explores the gamut of dance, the 350-seat Barns of Wolf Trap includes not just dance but a range of other artists such as the Windham Hill Winter Solstice Tour, Miami String Quartet, folkie Livingston Taylor, Cajun legends BeauSoleil, and even musicals such as "The Sound of Music."
Stacked with a list of 35 to 40 ushers and a schedule to entice a wide variety of people, the Barns in Vienna seems to not need any more help. At least that is the impression given by Rosemarie Mirabella, the Barns' facilities rental director.
She only needs about six people a night to man the main floor and the balcony. While the much-larger Filene Center schedules its ushers according to recurring days as opposed to specific productions, the winter and springtime Barns can't ask for that strict a commitment from people.
But what Ms. Mirabella does ask for is reliability and common sense from her ushers.
"Unfortunately, I don't always get what I'm looking for," Ms. Mirabella says with a laugh. "And a lot of times you don't know until you've got somebody, and like with any other volunteer thing, it's awfully hard to get rid of 'em.
"We manage. Because it's a simple setup and a simple house and most of our people are familiar, we rarely have any kind of incident."
Yet when there is an incident in the 38-by-56-foot 18th-century barn, Ms. Mirabella calls her ushers to action. She says that patrons can react in ways she still finds baffling, and ushers have to be prepared.
"If we have somebody become ill, we will ask whoever the artist is onstage to just ask if there's a doctor in the house," Ms. Mirabella says. "Depending on where it is and what the situation is, we get the facts, call 911, report what it is and basically the ushers at that point are more crowd control."

Other flaps can be more embarrassing than dangerous. Mr. Ault's wife, Aldene, a community nurse in Prince George's County who ushers at the Shakespeare Theatre, remembers one evening when two couples showed up with tickets to the same seats. (That happens when particular tickets are reissued for various reasons.) Mrs. Ault, 54, had one couple standing in the aisle, refusing to budge, while the curtain was held.
"Neither couple wanted to give up their seats," Mrs. Ault says. "You go and get the house manager. It takes a little negotiating."
Then there are the drunks, the sneezers, the coughers and the important types with the cell phones. The Aults have seen them all. They have been ushering since 1974, when they were newly married. There were not a lot of theaters then, and ticket prices were beyond the young couple's means.
"After a while, it got to be a habit," Mrs. Ault says. "Now we can afford it, but we still like doing it. You're part of the show, in a way.
"We like to usher people to their seats. It feels like we're making people feel comfortable in the theater."
About 90 percent of the time, Mrs. Ault says, she and her husband can actually sit and watch the show. Once the curtain rises and the show kicks into gear, most ushers like to be part of the audience. And while staying behind after the show to pick up requires no heavy lifting, for the usher who is also a discerning theatergoer, it can cause problems.
"That's when the show is so awful and you have to stay around and help," Mrs. Ault says. "We've had to leave a show. But when you are ushering, you have to be there for intermission. And I've had to be there for some bad shows."

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