Shuffled Off in Buffalo

March 14th, 2012 § 6 comments

In 30+ years of attending professional theatre, I have to say that more often than not – Broadway excluded – I am shown to my seat by a volunteer usher. On balance, volunteer ushers have been the norm at theatres where I have worked, or that I have run. They provide an enormous budgetary savings to the institution or venue and they usually want only one thing in return: that when the show isn’t sold out, they can watch.  That only makes sense; otherwise they might choose to volunteer in other disciplines, say at schools so they can work with young people, at health care centers so they can brighten the days of those who are invalids, and so on. But odds are, they’re there because they love theatre (and may not be able to afford to see it any other way).

According to a report in today’s Buffalo News, Anthony Conte of Shea’s Performing Arts Center doesn’t want his ushers to sit down. He is quoted as saying, “The very first thing I said when I came here was, ‘If you volunteer to see a show for free, I would ask you to please leave.’ And I believe that. Anyone who comes here because they want to see a show for free should not be coming.” It’s a harsh statement, but it’s his absolute right to say so, and he reiterates the sentiment later in the article, saying that customer service is his first priority.

I agree with him in general about customer service. But when it comes to volunteer ushers, we come from different worlds, it seems. I say, if there are seats, let them sit – and I don’t even care how old they are, an issue the article plays up. If they’re bartering their services to you – namely their work as ushers – then reciprocity seems essential, and that should come in the form of being able to see the show when the house isn’t sold out.

I’m well aware of some of the challenges of using a largely volunteer house staff – they don’t all follow instructions to the letter, you struggle with last minute cancellations, they want to be assigned to locations near their friends, they can’t be counted on to always spout, or even know, the company’s party line about productions. That’s part of the trade off, but what you can gain is a group of passionate individuals out in your community who speak with vigor and a sense of belonging about your venue. What you may lose in pitch-perfect customer service you may gain in community relations and marketing.

Having run a resident company in neighboring Rochester for a few years, I am well aware of upstate New York’s economic challenges, now hardly different than the rest of the country. I also know that there is a tradition of theatergoing in those communities, once standard touring stops 75 years ago for tours that often featured the original Broadway casts. That tradition remains, and it’s tremendous that there are so many people who want to support your work, especially since the loss of Studio Arena a few years ago.

In my opinion, the choice here is simple: either let your volunteers sit (unless there are other necessary tasks to be undertaken), or stand at the back or sides – or start paying them. If you want a certain level of behavior, if you want accountability for behavior, that’s why you pay people; it compels their compliance with practice and policy. Now I know how expensive that can be, especially when staffing a hall of some 3100 seats, but you are in fact staffing it, while apparently denying any quid pro quo in the process.

As I write, I’ve found it unable to avoid words like staff and work, because that is what these volunteers do. If you expect them to do it for nothing, simply out of their own altruism, then you may have to wrestle with a diminished usher corps, reduced attention to customers, resentment in your community, troubles with your local fire department (if they require a certain number of staff at specified positions), and perhaps even a visit from the labor board (after all, you can’t even call these internships with a straight face).

We all rely on volunteers in one way or another in the arts, but it’s essential that they be respected and even honored for the assistance they give our companies.  Heck, it even costs them money to volunteer, since they may have to drive and park, or take mass transit, in order to show up. If letting volunteers fill empty seats is too much to ask, too unprofessional, then the way is clear – hire professionals (who may well be your current volunteers), and hope your former ushers want (and are able) to buy tickets to see the shows they so want to enjoy.

Even as I wrote this, I was receiving tweets saying that seated ushers are not disruptors of the theatre experience — it’s latecomers who expect to be seated whenever they arrive. Fascinating.


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  • Julie H.


    We all rely on volunteers in one way or another in the arts, but it’s essential that they be respected and even honored for the assistance they give our companies.” 
    While, like you, I understand his customer service concerns, your thoughts on the value of volunteers is dead right. And while there can be varying degrees of success with volunteer ushers, they are there and volunteering their time. There is value in that.

  • As a volunteer usher, most of the companies where I volunteer not only allow me to watch the show – they insist on it. If a show is sold out they add folding chairs in each corner of the room for us to sit in.  For them, having trained volunteers in the room who know the evacuation route in the case of an emergency, or to be the FOH Manager’s eyes in the room. When there’s a medical emergency my job – as a volunteer – is simple.  Quickly and quietly go get the FOH manager who is stationed in the lobby to deal with latecomers, reseating folks who get up to leave, or any content related issues that patrons have. The company provides us with flashlights which allow us to help patrons move safely on weird stairs, find their ways out in the dark when they are unwell or whatever new issues will present itself that night. 

  • Looking at this as a customer, I appreciate the ushers’ work, and I generally assume them to be volunteers.  If I knew they weren’t being treated fairly, that would upset me as a customer because of the work they do for free or for out-of-pocket expenses on the theatre’s behalf.

    As my mother would say, the way you treat the people who work with you says more about you than the way you treat me as a customer.  You have to be nice to the customer.  You ought to be nice to your staff, including your volunteers.

    I agree with the tweets, too.  The only disruptions I’ve ever noticed have been latecomers.  

  • Well said,  Howard. When I read about this today I was so upset. My mother is retired and volunteers in her community. She has had a knee replaced and has other physical challenges. She was nervous about asking for accommodations for her limitations, but they were happy to let her sit during her shifts at the shelter, and she is able to continue volunteering. It means so much to her, and when I read that people had to stop volunteering after decades of service because Mr. Conte believes it’s unreasonable for them to want to sit down, I was furious.

    Often volunteers are retired women who are on a budget since they historically have earned less income and might be living on a meager monthly check. In Mr. Conte’s world, he would prefer these women stay home instead of engage with and contribute to his company’s mission. I know reporters can sometimes skew sentiment, but Mr. Conte’s own words quoted in the article are what angered me so much.  If these volunteers love theatre, why try to shame them for daring to want to see a show when there are empty seats? As a theatre artist myself who can’t afford to see everything I want to, volunteer ushering has been a rewarding way to contribute my time and energy to theatres whose missions I support, and to be able to enjoy their work. Everybody wins.As for the Shea folks, I am sure there are smaller theatres in the area who would be happy to inherit Mr. Conte’s annoying volunteers.

  • Jayne Cravens

    First, I have to note that I never, ever say volunteers save money. “They provide an enormous budgetary savings to the institution or venue” makes me cringe. Unions and people struggling to find work read this statement and become further entrenched against volunteering, boards read this statement and say, “Hey, let’s save some money and lay off some staff”, and on and on. Here’s the blog where I rant on and on about this:
    http://coyoteblog.posterous.com/do-not-say-need-to-cut-costs-involve-voluntee

    You said, regarding volunteers: “they don’t all follow instructions to the letter, you
    struggle with last minute cancellations, they want to be assigned to
    locations near their friends, they can’t be counted on to always spout,
    or even know, the company’s party line about productions. That’s part of
    the trade off”

    I don’t have this problem with volunteers, any more than I have these problems with paid staff. Why is that? Because I work very hard to make sure volunteers are screened, trained and supported properly, whether they are going to volunteer just once in an evening or they are going to take on a leadership role, like leading a project. If this is the experience you are having with volunteers, the problem isn’t that you aren’t paying them – it’s that you aren’t doing the fundamentals of volunteer management.

    Finally, regarding Conte’s statement “The very first thing I said when I came here was, ‘If you volunteer to
    see a show for free, I would ask you to please leave.’ And I believe
    that. Anyone who comes here because they want to see a show for free
    should not be coming.”

    That’s absolutely ridiculous and outrageous. Many volunteers work for free to get to see a show for free, because they can’t afford to see it otherwise – been there! And I was also a really good usher – I did what I was trained to do, and my volunteer work was the priority during the performance. But I absolutely did it to see the show for free! I loathe these “I only want ‘pure’ volunteers!’ people – they need to realize that no one – NO ONE – ever volunteers for purely altruistic reasons.”

    Here’s an idea: tell volunteer ushers that they can volunteer once for a performance and they must be on call the entire time during that performance – standing in the back or in the lobby, always helping people as needed, helping with close-of-house, etc. – and, after they have fulfilled this obligation, they may volunteer again for just the start of a second performance, and be allowed to then sit in any empty seat for the remainder. This is how I scheduled volunteers once upon a time, and it worked wonderfully – the audience got the level of service they deserved, and most volunteers came back for second, even third, performances. 

  • I’m 100% behind Jayne’s comments in response to this blog.

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