A theatre is a place of deception. Its specialty is making things look easy. To the audience, the experience is effortless: come in, sit, and lose yourself in a show for a while. That is the magic of it. If a show didn’t seem real, it would lose its power. Dozens of unseen hands conspire to achieve this illusion: costume designers, set designers, stagehands, stage managers, house managers. Then there are the ushers—who also show up night after night. They are the first faces you see when you enter a theatre. They are as visible as actors, yet their job requires fading into the background. For four years, I was an usher at a theatre in which, for approximately three years and eleven months, the same show was playing.
Watching the same show night after night for almost four years may sound maddening. While it certainly wasn’t as exciting, as, for example, playing the leading role, something kept me there for so long. Perhaps it was the ornate carved ceilings, the opulent chandeliers, the “eccentric” Times Square crowds. Perhaps it was because, as an usher, I was in very close proximity to the arts, even though I was not a participant. I think, though, that it was the way old theatres remind me of why I love this city: It's a haven for artists and outcasts, made of memories and intricately carved stone.
And nothing exemplifies this better than Midtown Manhattan: the Dick Clark bash, the lavish musicals, the big-screen advertisements and gaudy flashing lights, the old stone buildings, Grand Central Station’s celestially painted ceiling, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Then there’s the people. If New York City is a melting pot, then Times Square is a lava flow. Times Square has everybody —the place is cluttered with visitors from every corner of the world, coming to visit relatives, attend business meetings, see the sights.
And when people come to New York City, they want to see a Broadway show.
Working in a theatre will teach you a lot about people. A theatre is truly a microcosm of the vast spectrum of human behavior, but the greatest lesson you will learn from the job is that we are all fundamentally the same.
One of the responsibilities of an usher is to hand out Playbills—an action which seems relatively benign but reveals more about the vast spectrum of human psychology than perhaps any other aspect of live theatre. When people walk into a Broadway theatre, they want their Playbill. Some patrons look you in the eye and stick out their palms, without so much as a hello, a smile, or even a nod of acknowledgement. I’ve had people grab them right from the pile in my hand. The one time I got cursed at while working, it was prompted by my oft-repeated line, “You’ll get one when you’re seated.” It's bizarre.
Then there’s the young theatre lovers, who are overjoyed when they receive one. Sometimes they’ll ask for an extra for their friend, shyly, as though they are asking you to commit a crime. And then they smile from ear to ear when the request is granted. Ushers have a system: When you show somebody to their seat, then and only then should you give them a Playbill. It keeps things orderly.
Everyone may be different when they enter the theatre, but once the lights go down and the show begins, the crowd becomes one entity. With a few exceptions, everyone knows the etiquette and respects it. But they’re not just repeating the same motions. By experiencing a story in tandem, they’re connecting on a deeper, almost spiritual level.
This wasn’t something I noticed right away. For my first several dozen shifts as an usher, I actually watched the show. Then I started studying the show. I analyzed the writing, analyzed the music. I observed which lines the audience responded to and which fell flat. I memorized the actors’ performances, learned to spot even the smallest deviation from their normal delivery. Eventually, even the mistakes started to feel repetitive, and that’s when I started studying the crowd. I learned that crowds sway slightly, like oceans. At any given moment during a show, most people are still. But there are always a few people evenly dispersed throughout the crowd adjusting their posture or shifting their heads from left to right. The waves turn rough when the crowd laughs, and then eerily still during sad or serious scenes. When one of these scenes ends, they crash violently. Everyone in the audience shifts at once, and the result is audible.
I learned that there are good crowds and bad crowds, and that energy is contagious. Sometimes a crowd is really engaged, laughing and crying and vigorously clapping and "woo"-ing at the end of every scene. And sometimes a crowd is bored, and the laughs are few and the applause forced. The enthusiasm of the crowd is arguably the most important factor influencing a night at the theatre. They feed off one another’s enthusiasm, engaging more and more as the show goes on. The actors can sense this, and they start having more fun, too.
And it’s not just emotions that spread. Actions, too, rarely happen in isolation. You hardly see just one person scratching their nose or shifting their seat. A movement like this always sets off a cascade. One person shifts in their seat in the middle of the theatre, and then another person does the same thing all the way in the back. Another two follow simultaneously, one off to the side and one all the way in the front, and then another, and then another. It’s not like they’re copying one another. The wave of movement can spread to people on opposite sides of a theatre, from back rows to front rows. Then, these ripples suddenly stop, and the crowd becomes calm water once again, until the next disturbance sets them into motion.
The experience of watching a show as an usher is strange. You’re there to do a job; you’re not a member of the audience. Sometimes, though, you get pulled into the shared experience regardless. There was a sad moment at the end of my show when the death of a character was revealed. The crowd went silent, still. A few people cried. If I was distracted, I could completely miss this scene happening. But if I was paying attention, I’d feel the temperature in the room drop, a shiver creep up my spine and then make its way into my arms and legs. It would remind me that emotions are physical. We’re just not always perceptive enough to feel the more subtle ones.
Each night at the theatre is a unique work of art. While always similar, a show is never the same twice. I think this is the point of the performing arts; the audience is part of the story. You seldom get chills when alone on your couch watching a movie or listening to a recorded piece of music. But those shivers are a guarantee at a good concert or a good play. This is why theatre, our oldest form of storytelling, has endured while others have come and gone. Its impact is irreplicable and will never become obsolete. In fact, in our current age, thirsty for connectedness, we need live theatre more than ever. This is why I have faith that our theatres will always remain, inviting us to blast living waves upon their shores.
For if the theatre ever dies, it will mean humanity has died, too.
Melissa Petrie lives in Queens, New York. She is the creator of Thinking Man on Substack.