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STUDENT MATINEE FRONT OF HOUSE STAFF: the show before The Show

It was in the fall of 2014 when I sought a job that would match the year-round schedule of my daughter’s new school. I was doubtful that such a job existed when my sister spied and forwarded this job posting to me:

Open Positions – Daytime Usher: Help us to bring live theatre productions to junior and senior high school students as a daytime Usher for daytime weekday matinees at Park Square Theatre in Downtown St. Paul.

I almost didn’t apply, not wanting the hassle and expense of parking downtown. But why not just take a look? My background did include customer service and working with students. I’d even been a regular theatre-goer before motherhood and, in fact, was a Park Square subscriber for a season before giving birth.

My interview went beyond well. We were a good fit. And not only would I have the flexibility to work around my daughter’s school schedule, but it dawned on me that I could park and ride to work on the light rail. The job even came with the perk of free tickets to all the plays, reinvigorating my family’s theatre attendance.

The House on Mango Street was the first student matinee performed on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

Adding to my excitement was the prospect of being a part of Park Square’s new phase. The just completed Andy Boss Thrust Stage would open that fall, with the potential to expand their teenage audience from 25,000 to 35,000 students each year. They needed more Front of House staff to be able to service two shows running on two stages.

Our Student Matinee Front of House pre-season training introduced us to the Education Program’s “Evening of Theatre During the Day” concept for school groups. Basically, we give students the same amenities as our evening and weekend audiences but at a lower cost. The students get reserved seats, an unabridged program and the service of professional ushers–all that create a special outing to see a show. The Front of House staff set the initial tone for the “evening”; we’re part of the show before The Show. We even dress up for our roles: black pants or skirt and white top with permissible pops of color.

As an usher, I’m officially under the supervision of a house manager but, in reality, I work in partnership with her/him. The house manager and ushers also work in conjunction with the stage manager. Together, we aim for seamless service and a superior audience experience.

The ushers carry out many varied tasks. Pre-show duties include greeting buses, helping groups cross the street and into the lobby, tearing tickets, handing out playbills and directing patrons to their proper seats. During the performance, two ushers stay inside with the school groups while two ushers remain in the lobby to set up concessions. During intermission, the outside ushers sell snacks and beverages; one of the inside ushers come out to monitor the bathrooms, returning inside once intermission is over. While the play continues, the outside ushers do a post-count of concessions to check against the house manager’s money count, clean the lobby and throw out trash. An usher checks on bus arrivals and helps patrons cross to their buses post-show. All ushers pitch in to leave the theatre and lobby clean and, if necessary, set up the lobby for the nighttime performance. The house manager stays to complete reports and lock the doors.

While our Front of House duties may sound somewhat straightforward, true to the nature of live theatre, our workdays are open to unforeseen surprises. Snow may delay a group’s arrival; an actor may wake up sick, causing a scramble to bring in the understudy; once all the water in the building got shut off. Another time, Romeo accidentally slid his sword next to a student, who picked it up despite my whispered instruction to let it be. Medical emergencies arise; a section gets rowdy; a chaperone losses his temper. High drama can happen offstage, too. Front of House staff learn the art of letting go–but not letting it go to heck.

And how do we watch the same play over and over? The performance is actually different each time, depending on the synergy between the actors and audience members. As the house manager says in her/his pre-show announcement: “It’s you being here, creating and working with the actors that creates theatre.” Plus who says we’re just watching the play? We’re also watching the students react to the play. That gives us an added perspective. Students are generally less inhibited than adults to show how they feel during the play. I recommend sitting through The Diary of Anne Frank or our new adaptation of Hamlet with them to see what I mean.

If we’re lucky, a pre-show Build A Moment (a presentation by professional theatre artists to explain how a particular scene was created) or post-show discussion is scheduled for the day. Then Front of House staff can opt to come earlier or stay later to watch these fascinating events. We get to learn along with the students.

One thing that I’ve learned is that what Park Square offers through its Education Program travels well beyond our walls. We can be a student’s first exposure to professional theatre, first time to see themselves truthfully portrayed on stage or initial spark to a lifelong love of theatre. Comprised of hundreds of students from a number of schools, an audience may witness acts of racism, privilege, empathy, kindness and generosity in our theatre. All that becomes part of the learning experience that goes back with them as well. Theatre reflects humanity, both on and off the stage.

I’d say that a big responsibility of Front of House staff is to pay attention. Pay attention to what’s happening on the stage and all around us, how the program interconnects to the organization’s mission as a whole and how our role fits and matters in the bigger scheme of things. To care about doing this is the key to Front of House longevity. You need to be inspired, too.

If you would like to consider joining the Student Matinee Front of House staff for Park Square’s upcoming season, don’t hesitate to email a cover letter and resume to kunik@parksquaretheatre.org or contact PerformanceManager Jiffy Kunik at 651.767.8489 (or via email) with any questions. 

A HISTORY OF OUR EDUCATOR ADVISORY BOARD: Teachers Helping Teachers

At the backbone of Park Square Theatre’s robust Education Program is the Educator Advisory Board. This working board is comprised of secondary educators whose passion for theatre compels them to volunteer their personal time to ensure that our program serves our young patrons well.

Having been a teacher herself, Education Director Mary Finnerty did not hesitate to ask for help from teachers when she started Park Square’s Education Program in 1994. She knew that the program’s effectiveness relied on keeping a pulse on what was happening in classrooms. A strong program had to offer relevant and engaging programming with usable supporting materials. Who better to ask for input than teachers themselves? Hence, the Educator Advisory Board was formed in December 1994 and consisted of four members. Together, they created the study guide for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the only production for students that season.

By the following year, membership had grown to ten teachers who gave practical advice on how best to handle ticket disbursement, disruptive students and much more. They met once a month and wrote the study guide for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as well as discussed future programming.

In 1997, the now 14-member advisory board created a new event called “Teacher’s Night Out.” It was a fun way to introduce the Education Program to teachers with an insider’s look at the season’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. One hundred teachers attended the first “Teacher’s Night Out” which remains an annual event, grown in popularity to require a guest wait list. The special evening begins with a complimentary glass of wine before “An Insider’s Look at Park Square Theatres’ Education Program: A Teacher’s Take on the Season,” which is followed by Build a Moment where teachers see how a scene from a play evolves from page to stage. A delicious catered dinner is then served before teachers see the play’s full performance.

With ever more teachers volunteering to help promote and support the Education Program, it experienced huge growth in 1998, attracting about 7,200 students to see Of Mice and Men with 3,600 to take part in its Immersion Days, consisting of workshops and demonstrations to further deepen students’ learning experience at Park Square.

It was time to consider how to expand student matinee offerings beyond one show per season, which Park Square Theatre started doing in 1999 with The Miracle Worker, Taking Sides and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). About 16,000 students participated in the Education Program that year.

And, as the saying goes, “The rest is history!” Currently, over 30,000 students visit Park Square Theatre each year to participate in our award-winning education program. The Educator Advisory Board continues to advise Mary on programming, scheduling, logistics, discipline policies and workshop topics and artists as well as produce our study guides and organize education events. Park Square Theatre is so grateful for its hard work and dedication. Thank you for your invaluable support!

 

(Look out for the upcoming post “THE EDUCATOR ADVISORY BOARD: Creating Our Study Guides”)

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Current Educator Advisory Board Members:

Marcia Aubineau, University of St. Thomas, retired; Liz Erickson, Rosemount High School; Theodore Fabel, South High School; Craig Farmer, Perpich Center for Arts Education; Amy Hewett-Olatunde, LEAP High Schools; Cheryl Hornstein, Freelance Theatre and Music Educator; Alexandra Howes, Twin Cities Academy; Dr. Virginia McFerran, Perpich Center for Arts Education; Kristin Nelson, Brooklyn Center High School; Mari O’Meara, Eden Prairie High School; Jennifer Parker, Falcon Ridge Middle School; Maggie Quam, Hmong College Prep Academy; Kate Schilling, Mound Westonka High School; Jack Schlukebier, Central High School, retired; Tanya Sponholz, Prescott High School; Jill Tammen, Hudson High School, retired; Craig Zimanske, Forest Lake Area High School

 

NOTE: If you are interested in joining, please contact Mary Finnerty at 651.767.8494 or finnerty@parksquaretheatre.org.

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