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.