Ushering — Destroyer of Souls!

I was listening to the latest entry from the Cool As Hell Theatre podcast while reviewing the financials from last month when both the host and the interviewee began talking about how ushering in return for admission was demeaning and soul killing (around 13:00). I actually backed the audio up and listened and then did so again when I got home.

I am not quite sure what Nick Olivero objection to the practice is, especially since the show his company is producing apparently is all about the whole labor for money for goods exchange.

Of course, this is the show the company is doing free of charge so their whole point about the labor-cash exchange might go in a different direction. However, since they praise Starbucks for giving everyone benefits and talk about how their company is paying performers more and more each year, I can’t think that they damn the process too much.

The lead in to the criticism of ushering is that Nick, being dirt poor, feels it is important to offer performances for free because the only way he has been able to see shows otherwise has been to usher. Then he and host, Michael Rice, start talking about how demeaning and soul killing it is.

I acknowledge that the situation of being so poor that you can’t afford a ticket to a show can be demeaning. So the fact that you have to split your attention between the show and seating patron, scowling at cell phone users and tracking down video tapers when you could be focusing entirely on the performance can be depressing. But the forces which shape this reality are external to the theatre’s see the show for free policy.

The alternatives are to ask people to usher and not see the show or pay people to usher in which case the management may have greater expectations of the ushers which would preclude the opportunity to see the show. One of my paid staff or I watch the lobby so our volunteer ushers can see the show. If I were paying them, I would expect them to be in the lobby far longer in order to serve late comers.

But in the interests of understanding this point of view, if anyone can offer some insight into where they are coming from, I would appreciate knowing.

Thinking about this issue got me reminiscing about a time early in my career when I learned that some of our core volunteers were actually working the arts organization circuit. I was crushed since we obviously offered a superior artistic product to the other guys and went to a lot of effort to treat our volunteers well. I felt the cuckold.

This was back in the days when I believed that all one had to do was produce good work and the public, as enthusiastic about the arts as I was, would flock to the door. Frankly, I think there may have been more truth to that sentiment then than now.

But those volunteers were having a wonderful time in their retirement being involved with a number of arts organizations and seeing lots of good stuff. I have a good group of those type of people volunteering for me right now as well as those who want to do the least they can for the greatest opportunity to see a show.

Except for a couple high school students, I don’t really have any passionate young artistic types who can’t afford to buy tickets to the performances. Perhaps I am still possessed of naivety, but sincerity counts a lot for me. In many respects, I would rather have an entranced student letting things fall through the cracks as the weakest member of the volunteer team than a person completing tasks with the least effort required to gain admittance.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Ushering — Destroyer of Souls!”

  1. My wife and I usher as volunteers at Ford’s Theatre. We are expected to know the basic history of the building, wear black pants and a white shirt, be courteous, helpful, at the theatre one hour before curtain. And we get to watch the show for free if we want to. It’s definitely a rewarding experience. It is not demeaning at all. If I felt demeaned or insulted, I wouldn’t do it. I think the other 200ish volunteer ushers (mostly retired folk) feel the same way. We are treated as professionals.


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