Thursday, April 24, 2014

A to Z Blog Challenge -- U is for my Ushering Staff Days at the Performing Arts Theatre

Welcome to Day 21 of this year's A to Z Blog Challenge where --

U is for my Ushering Staff Days at the Performing Arts Theatre

A lot of change happened to me in 1991, the year I left a full time retail position to embark on my film degree at Ryerson University.

For the first few months as a student, I wasn't working at a job, which felt both strange and liberating at the same time. However, I'd applied for several part time positions, knowing that my student loans, as well as my fiance's income, would be stretched to the max by my film projects (unlike handing in university papers, when handing in a completed film -- even a short film -- you're looking at many hundreds of dollars later.)

When I got the call from the O'Keefe Centre (now the Sony Centre) to come in for an interview, I couldn't believe what was happening to me. At that time, the O'Keefe was the home theatre for The National Ballet of Canada, and I'd been a passionate devotee of the company since watching several televised performances on CBC when I was growing up in Nova Scotia.

So, not only was I studying at my dream university for my dream degree, but I was working at the very theatre where Mikhail Baryshnikov had made his dash for artistic freedom and the West. I was actually being paid to watch live performances by one of Canada's premiere dance companies.

photo by SimonP

During the eight years I worked there, the theatre went through an initial name change to the Hummingbird Centre, and after I'd left, once again it changed to the Sony Centre. For simplicity's sake, I'll refer to it as the O'Keefe Centre, since that's what it was called for the longest amount of time (for over 30 years.)

Besides the obvious delirium of joy in having the equivalent of an all-access pass to the spring, fall and winter seasons of the ballet, it quickly dawned on me -- as I stood at my post near the exits, yet watching performance after performance following my days of classes at Ryerson -- that all of the design concepts I was learning in university were playing out before my eyes onstage.

Sure, we were learning how to fill the frames of a film -- yet the landscape ratio of the stage was basically the same as the film frame, and all of the spatial design concepts, as well as how to move actors within the frame, how to light them, how to use music to create mood within the soundtrack -- all of it was there in real time during my evening and weekend shifts at the theatre.

Not only was it the home theatre for the ballet, but also for the Canadian Opera Company, as well as many touring musical theatre productions. I inhaled the design concepts of every production, most notably Robert Lepage's 1993 double-bill of one-act operas Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung, which utilized the same basic design for both stories, yet literally tipping the set usage on its head.

Of course, not every single performance was as important as perhaps working on university papers (still had those) and later on the rough drafts of my first novel manuscripts. Many of that work was done while working the pass door position, where I could hear the live music from onstage, piped into the backstage area (just to the top left of the picture.) This is where we held all the people who were cleared to visit the dressing rooms following the performance, until we received the all-clear from the stage manager (such as Ernie Abugov, shown with me below on my last night at the theatre.)

Besides the ringmaster duties of overseeing each performance, the stage manager's is the voice you hear before the curtain that announces changes to the program, such as, "In tonight's performance, the role of Albrecht will be performed by ..." 

The years I spent at the theatre were amongst my happiest. That's me reading the paper in the green room (oddly, it looks green out in the backstage area to the right, but that's just the florescent lighting.)  My friend Alan was checking out the green room TV while waiting for a group of us to assemble and head out for dinner between shows (when we had a matinee and evening show.)

Not surprisingly, many of the ushers who worked front-of-house at the theatre were pursuing some sort of artistic career, whether in acting, music, dance, film, broadcasting, writing or illustrating. Many of my co-workers from the theatre appeared in my student films as well as worked as crew. You can check out their amazing efforts in my post for R, which was for Ryerson University.

Having spent many hours in the lobby taking tickets over the years, and working the load-ins for the Ballet Boutique which raised money for new productions, when I was telling one of the women who volunteered there that I was working my last week, she arranged for the ballet company dancers to sign my favorite poster for me, along with my friend Jacquie's help.

That's the poster behind me in an early attempt at a selfie (I have short arms. Not really great with the selfies.)

I've remained friends with many of my fellow ushers from theatre days, including the Jacquie I mentioned, who wrote me several letters a week when I first moved from Toronto to Yarmouth, NS to help my mom keep an eye out for my grandma, who was beginning to need that in 1999. Those letters were like water for a desert-island survivor, which is what I felt like in that first year away from my beloved city of Toronto. Thank you, Jacquie!

That's me doing a kick line with Jacquie (in pink) along with my former House Manager Charlene at left and usher Marg Goodwin at right. This was on one of my trips back to Toronto from Nova Scotia, and lo and behold -- who should be performing at my old theatre than The Rockettes! They were on my bucket list, big time. I could not believe my luck. Thanks, Jacquie, for the comp ticket to the dress rehearsal.

My friend Alan and his wife Marianne (also a former usher with us) met up with my husband Brad and me on one of their trips Down East -- this one was days before 2003's Hurricane Juan hit Halifax. Good timing!

In the small-world category, Brad also worked at the theatre for several years, during the day in the mail room.

This shot was taken during a Christmas-in-Toronto trip in 2010.

So many wonderful years together. So many fabulous conversations during our breaks at the theatre -- often deeply discussing the art we were watching / working on / trying to figure out. So much laughter during after-the-show get-togethers at each other's apartments, or at the nearby restaurants where my friends went instead of bars or pubs because I couldn't stand the smoke. Eternally grateful for that, guys!

Thanks to Facebook, I'm in contact with quite a few of my theatre peeps these days. I believe Marg is trying to organize a reunion this summer. If anyone is interested, look her up on Facebook. I won't be able to make it to Toronto this summer, but hopefully, next time! 


Kristin said...

This sounds like a dream job. I've been thinking about volunteering someplace so I can watch for free. Except for my bad knee, I would.