Theater Volunteers

Cary Conover for The New York Times

Pearl Russell, 89, at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, has been a volunteer usher since she was a teenager

Will Work for a View of the Show

Pearl Russell, 89, has been hooked since she was a teenager. Bob and Linda Smith have done it 25 times in the past three months, and Ruth Biller manages to satisfy her craving almost every night, sometimes twice on Wednesdays. "I’m definitely an addict," boasted Ms. Biller, a retired personal shopper.

These and hundreds of other people are members of a colorful and highly secretive sect known as volunteer ushers. They are a cliquish and competitive group, some very young and others quite old, who have found a way to consume absurd amounts of theater without spending a cent.

In exchange for free tickets to scores of Off Broadway productions, they stuff Playbills, sell Skittles, scold cellphone users and escort theater patrons to their seats. Then if luck is on their side, or if the show is a clunker, they scurry to empty seats. When the lights come up and the audience shuffles out, they clean up what the patrons left behind.

"The Off Broadway scene couldn’t get by without these folks," said Stephanie Wallace, the house manager at the Second Stage Theater on West 43rd Street. "They’re a godsend."

But the arrangement is not entirely tangle-free. For theater managers, there are the no-shows, the prima donnas and the earnest older people with newly installed hips who sometimes require more assistance than they provide. Then there are those gently described as "characters," the unpredictable eccentrics with their inappropriate jokes, high-decibel opinions and renegade color schemes that violate the black-on-black dress codes required by most theaters.

For those who cross the line one too many times, there are the Off Broadway blacklists, a devastating form of punishment that the defiant sometimes circumvent with the help of fake names or clumsy disguises.

"The volunteer usher scene is a crazy, wacky world," said Richard Ponce, house manager at the Lucille Lortel Theater on Christopher Street. "For some people it’s become a whole culture, a way of life. Sometimes they mistakenly feel they are part of the production."

For volunteers, the ushering part of the deal can have its challenges, too. There are the hard-charging theater managers, the stressful demands of running a concession stand during seven-minute intermissions and the pain of sitting through a stinker that paying patrons can abandon after Act I. Then there is the cleanup, a task that many approach with pinched noses.

"I’ll pick up programs and newspapers, but I don’t do tissues," said Gloria Azarian, a retired guidance counselor from Fort Lee, N.J.

Members of New York’s volunteer usher corps, largely comprising impoverished actors and hyperkinetic retirees, have a photographic memory of theater seating plans and an encyclopedic knowledge of playwrights and producers. Most important, they know how to secure coveted slots for hot productions at the city’s 275 Off Broadway theaters. (Only a handful of Broadway houses, all run by nonprofit groups, use volunteers. Most Broadway ushers are paid and unionized.)

To help her manage the ushering reservations drill, Ms. Biller, the retired personal shopper, relies on a pile of dog-eared crib sheets and two calendars that she keeps filled months in advance. But her interest is more in the ushering experience than in specific plays. She sometimes has no idea which show she is seeing until she arrives at the theater.

"That way the experience is even more thrilling," said Ms. Biller, who lives in a housing project in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and whose preferred uniform is a black T-shirt that says "Spooky."

Why the need for two calendars? "God forbid I should lose one," she said.

Christopher Richardson, company manager of the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea, said that when he announces the dates for a new production on the theater’s Web site, his phone does not stop ringing for days. The Atlantic’s current production, David Mamet’s "Romance," filled its need for 200 ushers, two per show, in hours. "You don’t exactly have to go begging," Mr. Richardson said. "Then again, there aren’t really qualifications to be an usher."

For struggling actors, ushering provides free exposure to new productions, makes the underemployed feel as if they are still in the mix and offers an opportunity to study the competition. Self-starter types do not hesitate to mine the moment for all its career-advancing potential.

Before the crowds arrive, Richard Millen, an actor from Park Slope, Brooklyn, sometimes seeks out the director or playwright to offer praise, but also to provide a reminder about his availability for future productions.

"I’d hand out my head shot, but that would probably seem too obnoxious," Mr. Millen said during a brief respite from tearing tickets at the Century Center for the Performing Arts near Union Square.

Theater executives have conflicting feelings about the system, recognizing that it saves money, but bemoaning their lack of control over the quality of the help.

Kara Eldridge, the house manager at New York Theater Workshop in the East Village, books eight ushers in the hope that at least four, the minimum needed, will arrive on time. The Roundabout Theater does not hesitate to send home ushers who arrive in open-toed shoes. Rachel Ayers, a manager at the Vineyard Theater on East 15th Street, recalls having to muzzle an older gentleman who greeted female patrons in Row G with a lewd reference to a part of their anatomy. "Sadly, we were forced to add him to the undesirable usher list," she said.

But when the reviews are bad and the ranks of the unpaid ticket takers grow thin, theater managers know they can turn to a die-hard brigade of ushers who never say no. They may call Ms. Russell, a retired librarian who estimates that she has seen 1,000 shows in eight decades, or the Smiths, a couple from Buffalo who have been renting an apartment in Midtown since January so they can catch as much theater as possible.

And when all else fails, they know they can summon Damian Begley, a film editor from the Upper West Side who took in 150 shows last year.

"I don’t care how bad it is; I’ll see anything," said Mr. Begley, 49, who often ushers with his sister, Daria. "I’m trying to cut down, but when you can see something for free, it’s a slippery slope and you want to see everything."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top

THE CITY LIFE I’ve Got the Horse Virtually HereBy FRANCIS X. CLINES

There were so many losers at Aqueduct racetrack last Friday that they made for a sublime gathering of deadbeats worthy of Samuel Beckett. There were the many horses that faded short of victory, but even more human bettors who were grousing at their luck, yet ever bouncing back for fresh bets at the parimutuel windows. Eying fellow humans at the track in all their crestfallen glory and sporadic exultation is as much the attraction as watching the horses softly clopping from the paddock for the next go at life’s odds.

This experience will never be dearer now that Massachusetts has come up with the misbegotten idea of introducing virtual horse racing – a bloodless, computer-generated cycling of nonentities aping thoroughbreds on a TV screen. State officials are gambling on the cynical, sadly true notion that real bettors will bet on anything, even virtual horses.

The fact that these figments for gambling will have no true bloodlines and racing histories to be mulled over makes this bettor wince at the emptiness of the challenge. Hope is a studious art at the track, not a random cartoon; hope is the thing with withers.

Graphic, high-quality replications of pounding horses and photo finishes at the virtual victory line amounts to a slur on Secretariat and his progeny – not to mention on the young father I quietly watched juggling his good fortunes with a tot-filled stroller at one hand and a heavily marked tout sheet in the other.

Up from a similar gambler’s bloodline, I had $10 on Dr. Rockett to win in the third at a mile and an eighth. Leading desperately down the stretch, my horse was suddenly bumped off stride by a wayward competitor, Exaggerate This, who flashed across the finish line as the unofficial winner by a nose. Assorted hoots, groans and vulgarities rose up toward the jetliner traffic from Kennedy.

No way virtual racing could match the scene: sunshine-drenched anxiety, replays of my bumped horse on the infield screens, the wait for an official result with serious money and sweating thoroughbreds on the line.

Reality took a sweet while as a "Steward’s Inquiry" signaled steadily on the tote board. (How can there ever be a "Steward’s Inquiry" down the Mickey Mouse homestretch of the virtual track? No way human judges’ measuring of magnificent horseflesh can be faked.) Actual justice prevailed, along with Dr. Rockett. I was $71 to the good, far richer in experience. An angry bettor made the payoff sweeter, bellowing at the jockey aboard Exaggerate This: "Jose! You gave away my money!"

In the dust near the finish line, the young father had his child out of the stroller, pointing firmly at a horse, hopefully in some basic life lesson about winning, losing and daring to take a risk on something real.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top


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