After several Covid-induced months of silence, the Straz Center began a limited series of programming in October 2020, focusing on outdoor events and presentations conducive to social distancing.
Guest Services Manager Deb Ferree put the call out to her roster of ushers, unsure of how many responses she’d get. After all, the facility had been dark for months. COVID was still an issue. How many on her list would be ready to return for an unpaid position?
The answer? 200. Far more than the minimum necessary, way more than Ferree was expecting.
“As soon as I put it out that we’ve got shows, they were there,” Ferree said.
“People are dedicated to this place,” adds Assistant Guest Services Manager Juan Underbakke. “Ushers are an integral part of all this. A lot of things couldn’t run if we didn’t have them.”
Anyone who has attended a performance at the Straz, from a huge Broadway production to an intimate acoustic performance, has had the experience enhanced by the volunteers who take tickets, help find seats and answer patrons’ questions.
People volunteer for different reasons although the major perk for volunteering at the Straz is fairly obvious.
“Initially, like everybody else, I suppose, the incentive is we’re going to be able to see Broadway shows and musicals and things of that sort and that’s a big part of it,” said usher George Powell. “But it turns out it goes a lot deeper than that.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction with doing the job,” Powell continued. “We’re very well-treated and respected by management and the guests. We’ve made a lot of friends. It’s just – it’s fun.”
George and his wife, Susan, have been volunteering at the Straz for about 12 years. They’ve each worked more than 1,000 shows.
Ushers are asked to sign up for between two and four shows a month. The Powells sign up for between six and eight.
“The fact that we’re doing additional shows says pretty clearly that we enjoy what we’re doing and we look forward to it,” George said.
What they look forward to now, though, is more than the performances.
When the Powells, both retired high school teachers, initially began volunteering, they didn’t intend to volunteer for children’s shows.
“We thought after 30 years of teaching, we want to handle adults,” George said. “That turned out to be incorrect.“
George is particularly fond of sensory friendly shows in TECO Theater, at which the lights are turned up and the sound is turned down for the benefit of youngsters on the autism spectrum who process sensory information differently. It’s also a place where children are free to stand up, talk and play.
At these performances, it’s not unusual when “a 5- or 6-year-old gets up and starts making noise,” George said. “It’s a no-judgment zone.”
At another performance for children, Susan was working the doors as teachers and their classes waited to enter the theater. A little girl with Down syndrome kept walking away from her group to talk to Susan, a problem for the teacher but not for Susan.
“I told the teacher, “If you can watch her from where you are, she’s fine over here talking to me,’” Susan said.
The little girl was the last to go into the theater because she needed to sit next to the teacher, Susan said, “so I said, ‘Let’s get these people in and we’ll wait until everybody gets in,’ and she was the last one in, and she took my hand and kissed it before she sat down. That was just so touching.”
The Straz has a pool of about 500 volunteers, Underbakke said, “but we’d like to be back in that 750 range.”
The Straz also is aided by volunteers who work in the retail kiosks and at the Will Call window, and who handle administrative chores.
More information on volunteering can be found here on the Straz Center’s website.