- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

“The thing you have to watch for tonight is the late seating,” Tyler Penfield, the house manager for a Friday performance of “Richard III” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company downtown, tells his volunteer ushers about an hour before the curtain.

“Normally, the first late-seating break is a lot sooner,” he says. “But this time, it’s about 50 minutes in, so you’ll have to be ready when it happens.”

Mr. Penfield hands out assignments — who goes to the first ticket-taking station, who’s doing indoor tickets, who’s handling the refreshment stand, the gift stand, the coat check. His 14 ushers — some in their 60s or older, some young, some veterans and some newcomers — take in his instructions.

To theater professionals, volunteers such as these are absolutely crucial to a house’s smooth functioning.

“Ushers are usually the first person a theatergoer sees. They’re very important. Except for the performers, the ushers are the face of a theater,” says Lynn Coughlin, theater services manager for the Shakespeare Theatre.

“Plus,” she says, “it would be an enormous expense to hire professionals to perform these tasks.”

Mustering the troops

Welcome to the world of Washington’s volunteer ushers, who muster almost every night and on matinee afternoons all over the area in scenes very like that played out at the Shakespeare Theatre.

On that same Friday night, just down the street, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company prepares its ushers for the night’s performance of “Vigils.” In Southwest at Arena Stage, a crew of ushers gathers for a performance of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” Volunteer ushers in Shirlington got ready to show off Signature Theatre’s new building and lead patrons to their seats for a performance of “Into the Woods.”

And at the Studio Theatre in the busy 14th and P Street area, Solomon HaileSelassie, director of Studio’s Audience Services, instructs his eight ushers just before a performance of Lypsinka’s “The Passion of the Crawford.”

“I don’t think you can get to do productions without volunteer ushers,” Mr. HaileSelassie says. “The ushers are a part of the whole process. They’re the ones that make sure the audience experience is a good one.”

Free work, free shows

While the Kennedy Center, the National Theatre and the Warner Theatre use paid professional ushers, almost all other performing venues — especially Washington theater companies of all sizes — use volunteers to perform tasks from taking tickets to manning gift shops, coat checks and concession stands.

These vital hands come from all walks of life and can range in age from teenagers to octogenarians. Frequently they are retired people or students, couples, theater buffs with day jobs, young professionals, men and women.

“We try to have a mix of people,” the Shakespeare Theatre’s Ms. Coughlin says, “first-timers or newbies, veterans, young and old.”

Mr. HaileSelassie of Studio Theatre describes his crew as “eclectic.”

“We have ushers as young as 18 and some folks who are in their 80s,” he says. “But we try to instill a little bit of the idea of being a part of the theater and what goes on here.”

Volunteer ushers aren’t paid, of course, but the job has other rewards. It’s one way to see live performances free, no small thing in times when theater tickets are expensive .

Yet not everyone ushers solely for the free shows. People become ushers for a mixed bag of reasons. To be part of the ambience of a theater and to be in the theater world is one draw. Others like the people contact or the intellectual and creative spirit that animate a theater. Others say they want to give something back to the community.

“I love the language, the musicality of it, so that’s why I’ve been ushering here,” says Andrea Bauerfeind, a German-born volunteer at the Shakespeare Theatre who works downtown and was part of Mr. Penfield’s “Richard III” crew that Friday evening.

“It’s different than hearing and seeing Shakespeare in Germany. And I love the idea of being a part of the theater,” she says.

Ms. Bauerfeind likes it so much that on this evening she has brought her friend Holger Kraatz, from Munich, to usher with her.

Mr. Kraatz, a consultant, later calls the experience “fun.”

“They explained things clearly, so it was easy to deal with people,” he says.

Jobs for everyone

Theaters vary in the number of ushers they use, the guidelines they ask ushers to follow and the jobs they give their volunteers beyond taking tickets, providing direction and staffing concessions.

Very small theaters, for example — like Catalyst, Rorschach Theatre, the Source Theatre and the like — tend not to have numbered or ticketed seats, which relieves ushers of the job of showing people to them.

At Arena, ushers get an elaborate playbook of rules, information and do’s and don’ts, as well as a regular schedule.

“We have ushers sign up for a season,” says Jody Barasch, house management coordinator at Arena. “That doesn’t mean they can’t do more, but we have eight plays, plus a special sometimes in the summer, and they’re filled by different people every performance.”

And at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, where most of the events are concert, symphony or dance performances of one to three days, director of patron services Allen V. McCallum Jr. uses 40 volunteer ushers per show — and they have a lot to learn.

Ushers there not only staff the gift shop, handle the elevators and perform numerous other duties, but must familiarize themselves with the physical layout of what amounts to a performance cathedral along the lines of the Kennedy Center: top and bottom entrances, for one thing, and a performance hall with nearly 2,000 seats.

It’s work, so much so that ushers may catch only part of a performance — which Mr. McCallum says still leaves them ahead.

“Half of Itzhak Perlman is still a good thing,” he says. “It’s just such a spectacular space, people love being here.”

A Capital subculture

How do theaters find their ushers? No central clearing house exists for job information or position availability. Many theaters accumulate names and advertise for positions by way of e-mail and through their Web sites, where volunteer usher program information can be found. Much of the information travels by e-mail or word of mouth.

Of course, finding a spot at one theater doesn’t mean volunteers can’t play the field.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of volunteer ushers that usher only at one theater, although you try to have many of the same people over and over again,” Studio’s Mr. HaileSelassie says.

Take Alan Friedman, a retired elementary school teacher who started volunteering as an usher for one simple reason: “The amount of theater I wanted to see, I couldn’t afford,” he says.

He says he saw 91 plays last year.

That’s a lot of theater.

“Yeah, it is,” he says. “I usher everywhere. The little theaters, I like going to them. You name them, I’ve been there. Some of the small theaters, they’re exceptional.

“And I take the job seriously. I’ve done it all. Concessions, aisles, ticket-taking, coat room, you name it.”

But something interesting has happened here. He doesn’t just do the tradeoff — free plays for free work. He’s become part of a whole world.

“Oh sure,” he says. “I’ve met so many people over the years. Made a ton of friends. You meet a lot of people who do the same thing. You’d be surprised. It’s like a subculture of Washington.”

And he makes as many opening nights as he can.

“I don’t miss much,” he says.

Home base

Yet even floating volunteers keep a soft spot in their hearts for their “home” theater, where they learned the duties that command their dedication.

Gerald and Sara Robinson, for example, are government employees who have been ushers at Arena since 1980, and recently expanded to the Shakespeare Theatre Company. They were part of Mr. Penfield’s crew for the recent “Richard III” performance.

“We go for the plays,” Mr. Robinson says. “But you can’t help but feel part of something too, especially at Arena, since we’ve been there so long.”

Mrs. Robinson agrees. “I think people make you feel part of something at both theaters. You’re there to help people, that’s the bottom line,” she says.

Avery Burns, too, ushers regularly at different theaters unless she’s traveling, but cut her teeth at Arena. She remembers so many details of her first experience there she seems like a walking history of Washington theater.

“The first time, I remember, for me, was a production of ‘Galileo’ at Arena in 1960, with Robert Prosky,” she says.

A retired school librarian, among other things, she is serious about theater, and so treats her ushering experience extremely seriously.

“It’s important,” she says. “You treat people with respect, you know what you are doing, you are courteous. We are a part of the experience.”

A dedicated crew

It’s that sense of responsibility that continues to impress theater professionals.

“I am always amazed by the dedication,” says Mr. McCallum of Strathmore. “We would not be able to function without the volunteer ushers, that’s for sure.”

He might have in mind Bob Schultz, a retired government worker who lives not far from Strathmore and has ushered there since the center opened in 2002. Mr. Schultz, also a docent, says he loves the building, the hall, the space, and volunteers out of admiration and a sense of wanting to “give something back.”

Mr. Schultz has yet to see any part of a performance at the center in his capacity as an usher and doesn’t care to take advantage of the usual work-for-performance tradeoff.

“That’s not what it’s about to me. It’s about service. I love dealing with people,” he says.

“Here’s the way I feel: My wife and I used to go on a lot of cruises; I want people to feel the same way that people on a cruise feel — that they’re welcome and special.”

Luckily for Washington theater, most ushers feel the same way. Back at the Shakespeare Theatre on that Friday night, Mr. Penfield’s crew waited as the theater went dark and Welsh actor Geraint Wyn Davies uttered the familiar opening words: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer ?”

Like the audience, the ushers let the words wash over them and kept still — at least for 50 minutes until the late seating would begin.

Joining the cast of theater ushers

Note to theater buffs who hope to become volunteer ushers: Theaters and performing arts institutions vary in the number of ushers they use, and each has its own usher list and requirements. For detailed information, see the Web site of each theater and find its volunteer usher forms.

For a comprehensive list of theaters, performance venues (and museums and arts organizations, for that matter), see the Web site of the Cultural Alliance of Washington at cultural-alliance.org and click on “Member Directory.”

In the directory, look for a link to the Web site of the Helen Hayes Awards at www.helenhayes.org, which contains a complete list of Washington area theaters (click on “Theatre Directory”), with links to their Web sites.

What follows is information on volunteer ushers taken from a sampling of Washington theater Web sites:

• Arena Stage, Kreeger and Fichandler theaters: 1101 Sixth St. SW. Arena has used volunteer ushers since it began in 1950. Ushers serve once for each production in an eight-play season. Ushers choose the day of the week. Arena holds a workshop for new ushers in the summer or fall.

• Folger Theatre and the Folger Shakespeare Library: 201 East Capitol St. SE. The Folger draws from a pool of 500 volunteer ushers. Volunteers take tickets, distribute playbills, help patrons find their seats and sell concessions, in exchange for free performance. Ushers report one hour before curtain. Functions include theater, lectures, Folger Consort performances and other events. Ushers are encouraged to sign up with a friend. No experience is required.

• GALA Hispanic Theatre: 3333 14th St. NW. Ushering opportunities are available for every performance in exchange for seeing the production. Ushers are asked to commit to a minimum of two performances per run.

• Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda; 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Round House has more than 500 volunteer ushers on its roster.

• Shakespeare Theatre Company: 450 Seventh St. NW. The Shakespeare Theatre uses about 14 ushers per performance. Volunteers must have an active e-mail account so they can receive reminders. Usher schedules include an evening or matinee performance for all remaining plays in the season. Ushers report 90 minutes before the curtain for assignments, coffee and orientation. Dress for ushers is business attire. Seating for ushers is contingent on availability.

• Signature Theatre: 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington. In its new space, Signature uses anywhere from five to 21 volunteer ushers if two shows are running. Ushers take tickets, greet and seat patrons, run the coat check and staff the merchandise store in the lobby. Ushers arrive 90 minutes before the performance. Shows are free.

• Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW. Volunteer usher positions are assigned to: greeter, wine bar, coffee shop, bookstore, ticket taker, seating usher, coat check. Dress code is professional black and white or all black. No jeans, tennis shoes or sandals.

• Theater J: 1529 16th St. NW. Theater J uses two to four ushers per performance and draws from an usher database. Tasks include concession table, stuffing and handing out programs, taking tickets, seat location, etc. Ushers are asked to arrive an hour before the performance.

• Woolly Mammoth Theatre: 641 D St. NW. Woolly uses up to eight volunteer ushers per performance. They do stuffing, ticket collection, patron seating, merchandise sales and hand out stagebills. Ushers arrive one hour before show time. Dress is semi-casual. No jeans or sneakers. Performances are free.

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