October 4, 2023

Joint Venture of University Venues Seeks Volunteers to Serve as Ushers

By Anne Levin

Back before the pandemic, ushers at McCarter Theatre Center were a dedicated group who volunteered their time taking tickets, leading audience members to their seats, and solving any squabbles over seating at concerts, recitals, plays, and dance performances.

Once the shutdown ended and audiences began to return, the theater switched to paid ushers. But a new joint venture between McCarter and other popular Princeton University venue Richardson Hall is poised to bring volunteers back to McCarter. Richardson, which paused its schedule during the pandemic, has remained volunteer only. The Joint Ushers for McCarter and Princeton (JUMP) initiative aims “to build an enthusiastic, committed, and diverse group of volunteer ushers,” according to richardson.princeton.edu/jump, a website devoted to the effort.

A second program is geared to high school students, who can count volunteer ushering toward their community service requirements while getting close access to the performing arts.

“There has always been an overlap in our different usher programs at McCarter and Richardson,” said Ayame S. Whitfield, usher program coordinator for the University’s Performing Arts Services. “There was always potential for an actual joint venture. The pandemic hit the arts community very hard. Coming out of it and rebuilding our programs was an opportunity to work together and strengthen the arts community.”

In the past, ushers were recruited separately by McCarter and Richardson, often through word-of-mouth or referrals. “Historically, we have had mostly retired people who were wanting to engage. But we accept all ages of people who are coming to support as well as witness the arts,” Whitfield said. “Also, they are in service to the arts. It’s a way of supporting the community.”

Certain requirements apply for the two theaters, which differ in layout and some protocol. Ushers for the main program at McCarter or Richardson must be at least 18 years of age. They have to be able to “ascend and descend 40 or more steps quickly, stand independently for two continuous hours, have accurate vision in dim lighting in order to read tickets, walk in dark lighting to assist with seating, hear and speak clearly in areas with significant background noise in order to answer patron questions, and move quickly and calmly in an emergency,” according to the JUMP website.

Ushers usually arrive about an hour before performance time at Richardson. They are asked to stay for the entire show, and can sit if a seat is available. At McCarter, “They can sit if there is space,” said Meredith Schuler, director of operations at the theater. “But we let people know the physical parameters of the job. I’d rather they know getting in.”

Prospective ushers fill out an application, after which they may be called in for an in-person interview.

“I want to get to know them, assess how good of a fit they are,” said Whitfield. “We’re looking for people who are engaged, energetic, and kind. It is a customer service opportunity. We like people who enjoy that service aspect as well as appreciate the opportunity to be exposed to the performing arts.”

Ushers get more than just a chance to see shows for free. “We’re offering exclusive learning and engagement opportunities as part of that community-building,” said Whitfield. “One guest artist might provide a lecture to them. They might get a tour of one of the University’s buildings. Princeton offers so many wonderful opportunities for engagement, and McCarter’s programming is top-notch, so we’ll look for special engagements to put together for this.”

The program for high school students, Community Arts Service in Theaters (CAST), includes ushering opportunities at both McCarter and Richardson and is open to students from all over New Jersey. “We’re very excited to provide this opportunity,” said Sharon Maselli, audience services manager for Performing Arts Services. “We have our first ushers enrolled.”

Whitfield and Schuler are hoping to hire 75 volunteers for the two venues. “We want to bring not just audiences, but ushers, back to pre-COVID levels,” said Whitfield. “This is a great opportunity for all of us.”