Try This: Volunteering at Signature Theatre


Sam Ludwig and Whitney Bashor star in "The Hollow," a Signature Theatre production that finished its run in October. (Scott Suchman)
November 3, 2011

Cory Cunningham holds a clipboard and stands before a dozen people. “I feel like we’re having a secret meeting,” he quips. At 5:30 p.m. in a dimly lit auditorium antechamber, the group is awaiting his instruction. Each person dons an orange button signifying the evening’s mission: volunteer.

As a house manager at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Cunningham is responsible for doling out assignments: “Who is an excellent scanner? . . . I need someone for the shop. . . . Does anyone want to do the coat room?”

With those tasks divided, Cunningham leads the remaining volunteers into the auditorium. They’ll be the evening’s ushers, helping guests to their seats for the 7 p.m. performance of “The Hollow,” an adaptation of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” As stagehands arrange fake leaves along the stage behind him, Cunningham spends the next 15 minutes running through ushering dos and don’ts. (Do: Get people as close to their seat as possible. Don’t: Switch people’s seats. If they insist, get the house manager.)

The tutorial ends 25 minutes before the ushers need to take their assigned positions.

Betty Pyle, 68, will be tearing tickets, “The thing I like about ushering is, I feel like you’re the hostess for the theater,” she says.

Across the lobby, Jennifer Shapira, 37, folds T-shirts at the Signature gift shop counter. “You get to talk to more people with this job, too,” she says with a smile, “because everyone wants Peppermint Patties.”

At 6:30 p.m., Wes MacAdam stands ready as one of the two center-aisle ushers. A volunteer usher with Signature since 1994, the 73-year-old Arlington resident is quick to offer tips to a newcomer. It will remain fairly calm until five minutes before the show starts, he says. “Then there will be this huge crowd here, trying to find seats.”

Over the next 15 minutes, a few guests begin to trickle in. MacAdam handles each arrival with ease, handing out programs and consulting each ticket stub for the right seat and row number before guiding them to it. After a few goes, ushering seems pretty effortless and breezy. Everyone is in a good mood. MacAdam’s warning is all but forgotten until a line spontaneously appears at the center aisle entryway.

Oh, right. 6:55 p.m.

Now it seems that the two ushers can’t move fast enough. People — who often insist they know where their seat is until they don’t — are continuously streaming in. Despite this 10-minute surge, MacAdam keeps his cool and greets everyone cordially. Then, as quickly as it arrived, the crowd disperses. Everyone is seated by 7:05 p.m.

Cunningham ducks in and waves at MacAdam, indicating he’s free to sit in any of the remaining open seats. That’s one of the primary reasons many volunteer here: If a show isn’t sold out, volunteers are welcome to stay and see the show free of charge. It’s no wonder that Signature volunteer coordinator Nicole McCrae estimates she has 300 volunteers on her e-mail list. The lights dim and the show begins. During the 90-minute performance, the volunteers are off-duty.

It’s only after the cast members take their final bow that the volunteers are back on the job, albeit briefly. While some help Shapira pack up the gift shop, MacAdam scoops up a few stray programs from the theater floor. Everything is tidied up in a matter of minutes. At 8:40 p.m., the volunteers turn in their buttons and quickly blend into the crowd heading home.

Where is it: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. www.signature-theatre.org.

Get involved: A 15-minute volunteer orientation is required. To set up a time, contact Nicole McCrae at 703-820-9771, Ext. 1842, or e-mail volunteer@signature-theatre.org.

Where is it: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. www.signature-theatre.org.

Get involved: A 15-minute volunteer orientation is required. To set up a time, contact Nicole McCrae at 703-820-9771, Ext. 1842, or e-mail volunteer@signature-theatre.org.

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