Last Friday night I saw the play “Good Boys and True” at the Steppenwolf Theatre, generally considered one of Chicago’s top theaters. Although tickets for the play can run as high as $55, I didn’t have to pay a single cent. That’s the beauty of volunteer ushering, a practice many theaters use to cut down on paid employees. Having paid the full price for the ticket, I might have been a little disappointed in “Good Boys and True,” which was good but not great; having seen it for free, I feel like I got a great deal.
Ushering doesn’t usually involve a lot of work. You’re required to show up before the show begins and be trained for whatever task you’ll be taking on that night, usually something like tearing tickets, checking coats or selling beverages and snacks. The actual work rarely takes more than half an hour, and then you get to find a seat and enjoy the show with the paying patrons. Afterwards you may be asked to pick up programs and trash for a few minutes, and then you’re free to go. You’ve gained a cost-free theater experience, and the theater has gained your unpaid labor. It’s a win-win situation.
In most cities, ushering is really that easy. In Chicago, though, there’s an unusual hurdle to get past: the Saints. The Saints function in some ways as an ushers’ union, and like a traditional union they have their upsides and downsides. According to its website, the organization began in 1980 as the small volunteer arm of the Saint Nicolas Theatre. After that theatre went out of business, the Saints decided to expand their focus to help non-profit theaters across the city and suburbs. To the best of their knowledge, they are the first and only organization of their type, and they have quite a lock on ushering in the area. Their hundreds of members serve over 120 performing arts organizations, including Court Theatre, the Chicago Symphony Center, and Second City. So where’s the problem with all of this? Well, there’s two of them. First, it costs $65 per year to join the Saints; and second, a lot of theaters use the Saints exclusively, meaning if you’re not willing to pony up the cash your ushering options are severely curtailed. Finding out which theaters will let non-Saints usher adds a frustrating twist to ushering, but it’s still a great way to culture yourself on a budget.