Can’t Afford the Theater? Volunteer to Watch Plays

The Northwest Current, January 2007

During my first gig at Studio Theatre, director Solomon HaileSelassie greeted me with a full-lipped smile, a shock of curly red hair and a stack of programs.

“Hi,” he smiled, after finishing a rapid-fire conversation with his headset. “You’ve never ushered before, right?”

It was a rhetorical question. Solomon knows all the ushers by name.

Soon after my imitation into volunteer ushering at Studio Theatre, I began exploring D.C.’s thriving theater scene. I now usher all over the city.

Nivola Daval, administrator for the League of Washington Theatres, thinks the Washington theater scene has gotten bigger and better in recent years, with existing theaters expanding and new ones popping up. That means more productions, more seats, and a greater need for ushers.

According to Washington.org, a site maintained by the Washington DC Convention and Tourism Corp., our city is second only to New York in quantity of theater seats. Compared to more populated cities, D.C. shines a live-arts leader.

Lisa Donaldson, a volunteer usher and aspiring actress who hails all the way from Montana, knows this.

I came to D.C. because of the acting opportunities, she said. “Everyone thinks of L.A. or New York, but they discount D.C. The truth is, D.C. is one of the few places to be if you’re serious about live theater.

Many believe theater in the nation’s capital is overshadowed by politics. But Richard Lee, a report for the D.C. edition of Curtain Up, an online theater magazine, disagrees.

“A great amount of networking is done at theatrical events, subscriber parties, and via individuals getting on theater companies’ boards of directors,” Lee said via email. “Thus the arts facilitates some of the political, while the political facilitates some of the arts (in the form of grants, performances, funding, etc.)”

My experience mixing the arts and politics came at Folger Theater one afternoon. Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, showed up shortly after his indictment and subsequent resignation to watch “Much Ado About Nothing.”

I handed him a program and gave him an order (“Enjoy the show”). It was a rush—he was, after all, a DC celebrity.

Shakespearean comedies rarely disappoint. But occasionally, when lined up to usher during a more serious performance, I’m skeptical going in. Take Woolly Mammoth’s “In the Continuum.” I tend to prefer large productions with happy endings, and this was a one-act about two women diagnosed with HIV. Even so, I forced myself to go—I’d already committed to usher—and it turned out to be one of my favorite performances of all time.

On a good night, my fellow ushers can be as entertaining as the show. They’re a sassy, diverse group of mostly retired folks who gave lived in D.C. for decades. When I first moved to the area, they divulged inside information about their favorite museums, mom and pop shops, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants downtown.

Although ushering is dominated by the over-60 crowd, some younger folks like me are getting in on the action. Take Anay Shah, a twenty-four-year-old who live in Mount Pleasant and works in international development. He volunteers at Studio Theatre.

“Ushering offers a great, free opportunity for young professionals to come together and be part of the theater community,” he said.

Many theaters host events to grow that community and acknowledge usher contributions. Volunteers are invited to activities throughout the year, from ice skating socials to tea parties. Studio’s HaileSelassie puts it simply: “Without the volunteers, there would be no nonprofit theater.”

In fact, almost every theater in the city relies upon volunteer ushers. Jobs generally include not only handing out programs and showing people to their seats, but also taking tickets, providing directions, manning the souvenir booth, serving food and wine, and handling the coat room.

Volunteers are “essential to the efficiency and productivity” of the theater, according to Dat Ngo, training programs manager at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Daval agrees. “Without ushers, most theaters would be hard pressed to function,” she said.

That’s heartwarming. But the truth is, I don’t usher for the greater good. I do it for selfish reasons: for my money saved, for my ushering community, and most important, for my viewing pleasure.