SHOW FOLK: Ushers as Characters in “Through the Yellow Hour”
A crowded staircase leads to a dark hallway. Graffiti mars the walls. A sickly plastic film lines entrances as if sealing in some contagion. And a tall, expressionless man wearing a hazmat suit approaches, telling you to join the line and prepare to be stamped.
Is this some kind of nightmare (or a return to 1980’s NYC clubbing)? No, it’s just the usher welcoming you to Rattlestick Theater’s production of Through the Yellow Hour, a post-apocalyptic Off-Broadway thriller by Adam Rapp, currently extended through November 10.
As my neck was stamped and my boundaries unsettled, I started to wonder about these ushers and their non-traditional duties — invading patrons’ personal space and setting up the world of the play with a gleeful intensity. The theater was counting on them to do a lot more than hand out playbills; in fact, they were the first act of the play.
On a recent sunny afternoon with not an invading biological weapon in sight, I met two people who’ve ushered at The Yellow Hour — Mat Leonard, a handsome and thoughtful young actor currently appearing in The Austerity of Hope at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, and Olivia Simas, an energetic and articulate local high school student with a passion for theater — and we chatted about unflattering gear, Big Brother and some very testy audience members.
How did you first get involved in doing this very unusual job?
Mat: I’d seen The Hallway Trilogy at Rattlestick and I’d sort of had been checking up on them while I was on tour last year. My friend Allison who lives in the city was ushering and said, “So there’s another play by Adam Rapp opening and you wouldn’t shut up about Nursing [one of the parts of the trilogy]. Would you be interested in ushering?” She sent me the link and I signed up. And all of sudden you show up and they’re like, “You want to put on this costume?”
So you had no idea when you signed up to usher that it was going to involve costumes and…
Olivia: When I signed up I had no idea but a few weeks later I got an email saying, “If you want, it’s not required that there’s a costume, but you’re encouraged to wear one.” So I jumped right in. It was so fun.
When you put on the costume the first time, did anyone talk to you about the mood they wanted to create or a character that you were supposed to be playing?
Mat: Yes. I don’t know if it was Adam Rapp or one of the producers but there was actually a full backstory and suggested script – and when I say suggested, I mean an actual script, so you better follow it!
Mat: It was complete with who you are – if you are a man, you will have been castrated so you might want to put the pitch up on your voice.
Olivia: Very detailed.
Mat: Single spaced, front and back. There was very little left ambiguous. It was very clear.
Can you tell me a little about your character?
Olivia: Well, I was more the traditional usher because people still needed to be guided to their seats. So I would hand out, not the regular playbills, but these faux newspapers… I had on a little bonnet and some surgical gloves. I was more traditional but Mat got more funky…
Mat: Yeah, they basically put me in a full hazmat suit which kind of cooked me and sounded like I was in a camping tent. I would stamp people on the neck and say something like, “You have to be recorded” or “You have to be documented.” And if they protested, there was a line where I’d say something like, “You’re being written up in the Rykers Island Directory.” It was interesting because then some people were very excited, some people were surprised and some people were like, “You’re not touching my neck.”
You had this list but did you add your own world to it, think about specifics, like “well, this is who I am”?
Mat: Yeah, actually I had to justify why … so this guy has been castrated but he’s also really big. So they must have had him on something…
Mat: I had to justify it. Or we’re just not going to talk about this.
What was it like the first time you were dealing with audience members in the costumes? Did you make you feel different about how you were doing your job?
Olivia: It was really interesting because the theatergoers were already surprised by the graffiti and the plastic bags [on the walls], so they were already uncomfortable. So then to have their neck stamped and the costumes…it was fun to watch.
Did you ever interact with Adam Rapp about your role?
Mat: It was just the print out.
Which is sort of like the play in a weird way.
Mat: Here’s Big Brother giving you instructions!
When you finally saw the play, did you feel like your role fit into the the world of the play?
Mat: Absolutely. [We provide] the outside world and then the play is what happens in this confined space… This is the world we are in and now let’s zero in on an apartment where someone gets shot in the first five seconds… With the play and the set and what we were doing, it’s a really well constructed world.
Did you ever have one theatergoer who was really difficult – not wanting to be stamped or freaked out by the whole thing?
Olivia: I had a pretty good experience but [Mat] was more physical so…
Mat: Yeah, there was an elderly gentlemen who was protecting his wife and was like, “Don’t you goddamn stamp her!”
M: So I just moved on and said, “I’m going to record this” and moved on to the next person. But in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “This guy, clearly it’s not the first show he’s been to. He knows I’m supposed to be doing this right now.” But it’s a great experience because here’s someone who, the world is so unsettling, that even though they know that we’re actors or ushers, he still doesn’t want you to touch him.
Out of this experience, is there something you can take forward for you? Because, Matt, you’re an actor and, Olivia, you’re going to study theater…
Olivia: Theater management.
Mat: I think two things. One: being specific about the costume and the script and briefing people so they’re all on the same page — you take something where you think, “Oh my god, we’re inviting people from the internet to usher for this, how are they not going to f*ck this up!”
Olivia: We’re just volunteers.
Mat: But if you set it up very specifically and make it very clear what the requirements are and where the freedom is, you’re likely to have a good experience. [I also learned that] there is something so unsettling about breaking that tradition of, “ok, the play is going to start after the lights go down.” [Here] you walk in and you’re in it. “What am I allowed to do? Am I allowed to talk to my girlfriend?” You can take advantage of breaking up the normal rhythm of a theatrical experience.
Olivia: I didn’t even think that something like this was possible. I’m used to ripping a ticket and saying, “Third seat in, aisle D.” The fact that this was able to happen made me think about how far you might be able to go.