Usher in a freebie in the Big Apple
Sue White shares her method of seeing theatre in New York City for nix - and it's legal.
WHAT Volunteer ushering on Off-Broadway productions.
WHERE Across New York City's theatre district.
HOW MUCH Free, in exchange for an hour or so of your time (usually before the show, sometimes for half an hour afterwards), helping hand out programs or checking no one has left their bag behind after the curtain goes down.
WHY GO If you've got greasepaint in your heart but few dollars in your wallet, volunteer ushering is a little-known way to see shows for free. Forget lining up with the masses for cheap tickets, numerous New York theatres have volunteer usher programs, using up to a dozen volunteers per show.
It's an excellent way to see Off-Broadway productions (and definitely Off-Off-Broadway) but some Broadway theatres also enlist volunteers. Call the theatre's box office or house manager and ask if they use volunteer ushers, and how to register.
Each theatre will have its own system, so there's a bit of running around involved to set things up but, as some have pointed out, this is no more time and energy than you might expend lining up for last-minute tickets or at the half-price ticket box.
My own experience volunteer ushering gave me the opportunity to see five shows in the space of a week. Ironically, the work is not usually "ushering" itself. More than likely, you'll be stuffing programs with updates to the cast list and then checking for lost property after the show. My roles included being positioned at the top of a set of stairs, pointing confused patrons to the bathrooms; handing out programs; and (my favourite), asking patrons to stand and wait while the "real" usher returned to show them to their seat. Only at the high-energy Blue Man Group show was I entrusted with the actual task of ushering - because the seating plan was so foolproof they figured a volunteer could hardly muck things up.
Once the lights go down, ushers are pointed to the best seats available and simply sit and enjoy the show. My best experience was orchestra seats; the least salubrious was a stint on the stairs. If you volunteer with a friend, you may not end up sitting together, but for the price, who can complain? On all occasions, I felt I was definitely on the best end of the trade - and was always surprised by how effusively the volunteers were thanked by theatre management for their contribution.
Volunteers come from all walks of life - theatre buffs, students, retirees and tourists make up the diverse group. Happily, most take the work seriously, arriving on time and honouring the small commitment that is asked; it's considered extremely bad form not to turn up once you've signed up.
Next time, I'll know to pack an all-black outfit and a white shirt, as ushers are often told what to wear. A trip to a Manhattan op shop provided the solution in my case and the $10 investment was far outweighed by the value of all those free tickets; however, it's far nicer to be wearing clothes you actually like, especially if you're waving to Susan Sarandon as she arrives for work.
FREE STUFF The ticket itself is always free, as is the excitement of behind part of the behind-the-scenes buzz of some of the world's best theatre.
BONUS I always enjoyed the theatre slowly coming alive before the show. It's often a nice opportunity to get a smile from the show's stars as they come into the theatre.
Meeting the locals (your fellow volunteers) is another nice perk; many will have tips on which theatres to try for similar programs.
As a backup, signing up with a friend makes the experience more social if you don't connect with the other volunteers, plus it gives you someone to rehash the experience with afterwards in a hidden New York bar.
DETAILS Grab a copy of Time Out New York and hit the theatres in person, or call up and ask them if they accept volunteer ushers. (Be aware most, but not all, will need you to sign up in person, usually for a show a few days to a week in advance.) Roundabout Theatre Company and Blue Man Group are just two groups who regularly use volunteer ushers, but googling "Volunteer ushers, New York theatre" will also throw up lists of other suggestions.