BY FRANK THOMPSON
CRATCHIT: We shall buy some apples!
TINY TIM: Mum’ll love them so! Father, look! The theatre!
CRATCHIT: When we’re rich, we’ll go! (From Alan Menken’s musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol)
Okay, so maybe you don’t slave long hours in a grim, Dickensian office, working for a tyrant who barely pays you enough to survive…well, wait, maybe you do and that’s why you’re reading this. In that case, put down your porringer of gruel, Oliver, and get ready to learn how you can see some of the best live theatre in The Midlands…for free!
Yes, I said free. Release that feeble burst of joy that was about to arise from your shivering, tubercular frame and weep no more…you’re going to the theatre! Most of the larger (and smaller) performing arts groups in Columbia actively recruit ushers and front-of-house volunteer help, providing an excellent opportunity for the cash-strapped to enjoy an evening’s entertainment (By which I mean the play onstage, although helping a 110-year-old on a Chardonnay and Metamucil bender find her seat after the second intermission of Carousel is entertaining in its own right).
After helping out before the show, ushers may seat themselves free of charge in any available space. But where to spend your free (see what I did there?) evenings? Well, that depends on where your tastes lie, but there’s definitely something for every theatrical palate in Columbia’s active theatre scene. Your first step is in deciding where you belong.
Town Theatre, located in its historic Sumter Street home, just a block from USC’s Horseshoe, is the most family oriented of the local houses, featuring primarily classic and new musicals and comedies, occasionally branching out into more grown-up, but still mainstream fare such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Miss Saigon. Ushering duties are generally light, consisting of handing out programs and assisting patrons to their seats, which are easily identifiable with the traditional “Row A, Seat 5” style numbering system. (Seriously, if you can’t figure it out in about a second, you’re either too drunk to stand or can entertain yourself just as well at home with a shoelace and a rock.)
Sunday matinees attract an older crowd, so if you usher for one, don’t tell your grandma you can’t visit her that afternoon because you’re out of town…if she isn’t at the show, at least half her friends will be, and you’ll be cold busted either way.
Workshop Theatre Of South Carolina, another venerable Columbia arts institution, is about to depart from its current Bull Street location, and will be presenting its 2014-2015 season at 701 Whaley. Slightly more experimental than Town, but with at least one foot firmly in the traditional camp, Workshop offers thought-provoking drama by modern playwrights ranging from Tennessee Williams and A.R. Gurney, as well as new musicals i.e. The Wild Party alongside beloved classics like Dr. Doolittle and the catalog of Neil Simon.
Although the new location is somewhat less conventionally structured, volunteers and assistants will definitely be needed in the coming months as a full slate of shows will be on offer in a cool, hip location.
Trustus Theatre is the place for those looking for something a bit edgier and (usually) more adult in an evening at the theatre. With an emphasis on contemporary works of significance, Trustus is where you’re most likely to see something you may have never heard of, so don’t be alarmed if Hello, Dolly! and Arsenic And Old Lace aren’t anywhere on the season. Ever eager to introduce newer plays and musicals, Trustus doesn’t shy away from including darker and more serious pieces alongside a few dramatic chestnuts and modern comedies. (Such scandalous things as curse words and boobies might sometimes be on display, so if you are of a delicate or prudish nature, you may want to call and ask about the specific show before volunteering.)
Ushering jobs are a little tough to come by, as Trustus company members (the in-house actor/crew association) get first dibs, but sometimes extra help is needed. Ushers at Trustus are also required to help tidy up afterward, but this generally consists of picking up a few empty cups and a program or two, and hey…they often keep the bar open late, so you can enjoy a cold one with all the money you saved on a ticket.
Managing Director Jim Litzinger describes Columbia Children’s Theatre as “the easiest ushering gig in town”. Located in Richland Mall, CCT presents plays and musicals for children, performed by adults, in a kid-friendly environment offering floor seating (literally, on the floor) as well as a general admission section with chairs for those whose spines and bums aren’t as resilient as they once were. Ushers aren’t required to memorize any seating charts or deal with anything terribly stressful ( beyond the occasional meltdown over a dropped juice box or missed naptime.) Classic fairy tales along the lines of Cinderella and The Wizard Of Oz share the season with newer (but usually well-known) children’s stories such as Pinkalicious and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Things can get a little noisy sometimes, but that’s all part of the fun. Definitely a great gig for those who love kids, maybe not so much for those nursing a level 10 hangover.
The smaller production companies around town also frequently need assistance with ushering gigs, and provide a wide variety of entertainment options. Theatre Rowe, also in Richland Mall, presents primarily dinner theatre/murder mysteries, Stage 5 offers original and experimental fare, South Carolina Shakespeare Company (which features free admission to most of its productions, but always welcomes volunteers) the works of The Bard as well as other classical playwrights to life in a fun outdoor setting, Chapin Theatre Company specializes in comedies and original works, and On Stage Productions in Lexington stages at least two large-scale plays per season as well as smaller touring shows.
“But how?”, you may wail, rending your poor, tattered garment (see, I didn’t forget the whole Dickens theme) “can I get involved with these fine organizations?” Weep no more, Little Nell, for the information is just below this paragraph. Now shake off that pesky consumption, stagger barefoot into the snow, and run…no, let’s go all the way and have you limp with a shabby crutch…down to the theatre and enjoy a show!
TOWN THEATRE: (803) 799.2510
WORKSHOP THEATRE OF SOUTH CAROLINA: (803) 799.6551
TRUSTUS: (803) 254.9732 COLUMBIA CHILDREN’S THEATRE: (803) 691.4548
THEATRE ROWE: (803) 200.2012
STAGE 5: (803) 834-1775
SOUTH CAROLINA SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: (803)787.BARD (2273)
CHAPIN THEATRE COMPANY: (803)240 .8544
ON STAGE PRODUCTIONS: (803) 351-6751