The big ledger was open on the desk and we signed in, carefully noting the exact time. We picked up big, round buttons that said "usher" and pinned them onto our collars, laughing a little at each other, and then we almost tiptoed into the dark, quiet theater where we sat down meekly to await further instructions.
Stagehands were rushing about, someone was fiddling with the lights and from beyond the wings a voice kept repeating, "Put it over here. Not there, over here!"
It was an hour and a half before curtain time at the Kreeger Theater, and my husband and I and six friends were volunteer ushers for the evening. It was our first time and we were all nervous, so it was nice when some of the veteran ushers ("This is my third time already") reassured us. "It's not hard at all," they said, "and the people are so nice - even if you make a mistake they won't mind, and most of the customers have season tickets and know where they're supposed to sit."
We were still nervous, though, and were glad to see head house manager Wayne White come in and hear him say that he would "give you all your assignments now and tell you something about the show." While he talked about seating breaks and what to do if someone had tickets for the wrong night or the wrong theater - "Once someone came in, sat down and thought she was at the National" - we folded programs, And folded them. And folded them.
The eight of us chose to work in the balcony and trooped upstairs to sort ourselves out, one couple to an aisle. The first patron appeared. Panic! She trustingly held out a ticket stub. I stared at it as though it were written in Hindi. "You're holding it upside down," my husband hissed in my ear, "turn it around." He didn't do much better: I barely stopped him in time from turning two people away because their tickets were "for tomorrow night." "Isn't today the 27th?" he asked me as I showed the thoroughly confused people to their seats. "Are you positive it's the 28th"?
Our friends were looking equally harassed but somehow, in spite of us, the audience got seated, I even got to use a flashlight to seat some latecomers. When the show began, we separated to find seats or a friendly wall to lean against until the intermission, when we were back on duty to answer questions and say that famous usher line: "Smoking in the outer lobby only, please."
Since that first evening, we have become much more confident. We've ushered at both Kreeger and Arena Stage, checked coats, stacked tables and chairs in The Old Vat Room, taken tickets and given directions and - our favorite - sold champagne in the Arena lobby.
"Volunteer ushers have been a tradition at Arena since we opened," White says, "We have about 1,400 volunteers, some of whom come back year after year. A few families habe been with us since 1951.
"The majority of the ushers are couples," he adds, "but we do have a few single people and students. At the beginning of the year the ushers sign up for the night they prefer and everyone gets to see every play one time. We try to have doubt 35 ushers at Arena and 25 at Kreeger."
All kinds of things happened to us during the two years we ushered. A woman once dropped her contect lens in the ladies' room and asked me to tell them to hold the curtain until she found it (I didn't, but she did); when a young couple who bought seats at the last minute were separated by three rows, my husband helped rearrange things, with the help of those seated nearby; we sold champagne faster then we could open the bottles one bitter November night; and a woman who had been leery about ushering because it might be beneath her dignity changed her mind when she met her boss at a performance - and he was ushering.
There's something magical and exciting about being a part, however small, of a show, and something special about being a part of Arena Stage; we're always sad when we turn in our button at the close of a performance and look forward eagerly to the next time we can say, "Ticket, please, may I please see your ticket? This way, please." CAPTION: Illustration, By Annie Lunsford.