BY JOANNE KAUFMAN
Greet audience members, take tickets, work the concession stands, run the elevator. Point the way to seats, restrooms, box offices and exits. These are some of the tasks of a volunteer usher at theaters across New York City.
The lure: a free ticket. The competition: increasingly fierce.
Richard Ponce, the house manager of the Helen Hayes Theater, said he has 250 more requests than slots he needs to fill for the 10-week run of “Lobby Hero,” which opens March 26, and has Chris Evans and Michael Cera in starring roles.
“It used to be this sort of secret thing,” Mr. Ponce said of the volunteer program. “Now there are hundreds and hundreds more people who want to do it.”
Comparatively rare at Broadway houses like the Hayes, volunteer ushers have long staffed Off and Off-Off Broadway theaters. Lately, they have been signing up in droves. Playwrights Horizons is fielding 10 more requests per month than it did in 2016. The Irish Repertory Theater, which uses volunteers in the interest of budget-trimming and community-building, now has a roster of almost 500 names to draw from.
The word is out that “you can watch a show for free for a half-hour of work,” said Eddy Perez, the house manager of the Irish Rep.
Retirees with free time are jostling for slots, as are impecunious drama students who view ushering as a no-cost way to expand their artistic horizons and make connections with members of Off Broadway theaters. (Most Broadway houses employ unionized ushers.)
“To be able to see new work inspires me in my work,” said Anamari Mesa, 23, an actor and filmmaker who ushers at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. “Going to a play can get expensive, so it’s a way to go without having to pay, and you get to meet the people involved with the production.”
Volunteer ushers are generally required to be at the theater an hour before the house opens to learn the particulars of the show (What’s the running time? Is there an intermission?) and the lay of the land (for example, the location of the theater’s restrooms).
In some cases, they are asked to stay around after a show and police the house for dropped programs. Though Rattlestick urges ushers to “come as you are,” most theaters require basic black (the outlier is Playwrights Horizons, where the dress code is black and white).
“There aren’t so many rules for our volunteers, ” said Daniella Topol, the artistic director of Rattlestick. “The most important thing to us is that the audience feels welcomed and respected.”
Jordan Barbakoff, 61, a retired systems engineer and a frequent volunteer at the York Theater, the Mint and the American Airlines Theater, said that the work sounds easy enough, “but there are people who shouldn’t be ushers.” He added: “They just don’t get it when the house manager tells them that the odd-numbered seats are on this side of the aisle and even-numbered seats on the other side.”
And of course there are volunteers who do the bare minimum of what is asked, so they can see the show gratis. House managers maintain a black list of those who don’t wear the proper clothes, follow directives, show enough initiative, arrive on time or at all.
And don’t get Mr. Ponce started on the volunteers who complain about the location of their seats. “We just guarantee that they’ll see the show,” he said. “Sometimes they have to sit on a stool in the back. This is not a right. It’s a privilege.”
For their part, volunteers bemoan the frequent turnover among house managers, and thus the need to prove themselves again and again.
Sharon Ulman, 66, a retired staff member of the New York City Department of Education, ushers at Playwrights Horizons, the Signature and Second Stage, among other theaters. “You want your name to be on their brain and have them think ‘Oh, I know her; she’s good,’” she said. “But that’s hard when the staff keeps changing.”
Initially, she was unenthusiastic about ushering when the idea was suggested to her. “I had my memberships; I just wanted to go in and see my shows and not be bothered,” Ms. Ulman said. But now she is as dedicated a volunteer as you could hope to find.
“For someone who’s single, it’s a wonderful social connection because you’re there representing the theater, and it gives you permission to talk to anyone,” she said. “You kind of feel you have someone to go to the theater with, even if you’re ushering with people you don’t know.”
Because volunteers typically sign up well in advance of a show’s run, they have only a brief description to go on when mapping out their matinee and evening schedules.
Sometimes, they’re lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of a hit. Lori Wolf, a retired elementary schoolteacher, was an usher for the “The Band’s Visit,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Hand to God” before they transferred to Broadway.
“I remember walking out at the end of ‘The Band’s Visit’ and thinking, ‘what a great show,’” Ms. Wolf said. “Some shows you’re not as enthused about, but it’s an evening of theater. You take a chance.”
There are different attitudes among ushers on this issue. Some, like Ms. Wolf and Mr. Barbakoff, will see pretty much anything. Because Ms. Ulman never went to the theater or ballet during her childhood, she is similarly adventurous; she knows she has lots of ground to make up.
“Every show is new to me, even when, to my friends, it’s a revival,” said Ms. Ulman, who has a weakness for plays about dysfunctional families. “If that’s the subject, I’m definitely signing up to usher for it.”
Ms. Wolf, who grew up in what she described as a culturally rich household, will often go to the theater as a paying customer. The free ticket is lagniappe; her attraction to ushering is membership in a community of kindred spirits.
On a recent Wednesday, while she ushered for “Jimmy Titanic” at the Irish Rep, she said she felt as if she was part of the family at theaters around the city.
“This is an underground network,” Ms. Wolf said, as she headed downstairs to find her seat. “It’s a whole subculture. The thing that binds us together is our love of theater.”
So You Want to Be an Usher?
Some tips from veteran volunteers:
SIGN UP Check theater websites for a list of volunteering opportunities and an email address to sign up. Alternatively you can inquire at the box office.
GET ALONG Different house managers and other volunteers all have their personalities and quirks. So do you. Be patient and respectful.
FOLLOW ORDERS If you’re told to wear all black, wear all black. Don’t accessorize unless you’re told to accessorize. Pick up the programs at the end of the show if that’s what the house manager requests. Don’t be a diva. Let the divas be onstage.
KEEP CALM You may meet celebrities who are in the show or who are there to see the production. Don’t gush or ask for an autograph.
DISCRETION MATTERS Don’t bad mouth the show, even if you didn’t like it. You never know who’s listening.
BE PROFESSIONAL You’re a volunteer, but you should treat the role as a job. Otherwise, buy a ticket.