The ushers arrive about an hour before every Spoleto Festival USA chamber music performance at the Dock Street Theatre. They have a brief meeting to go over their roles and responsibilities. Some will take tickets, others will help patrons to their seats and still others will offer programs to the patrons.
Carol Reed, a house manager who manages Spoleto Festival ushers, said they are what keep the festival going.
“It would be absolutely impossible to run a festival like this without ushers,” she said. They are the ones who ensure that every event runs smoothly. They are the ones who address patron concerns or recommending a local restaurant.
Reed started volunteering for the Spoleto Festival 35 years ago and worked her way up to a house manager position in the 1990s.
“I really loved Spoleto and what it did for the city,” Reed said. “I just called and volunteered. The next thing I know, here I am.”
Many of the festival’s ushers initially volunteered because it offered them a chance to see Spoleto shows at no cost, and be a part of their hometown’s biggest arts events. But the volunteers quickly took on more responsibilities.
“They will volunteer to do just about anything, even things that they don’t like,” Reed said.
Robert Ball, who has been a Spoleto Festival usher for 10 years, recently was promoted to assistant house manager and now supervises the other ushers at every afternoon chamber music performance.
“The goal should be to try to be as helpful and courteous as possible,” Ball said. “At the same time, relax and enjoy it while you’re there.”
Ball, a Charleston medical doctor and researcher, and his wife Betty Gore have been festival patrons since the start in 1977. But to attend everything they wanted to see was cost-prohibitive, so they volunteered to usher.
“My wife and I make this a two-week staycation,” Ball said.
Ball’s medical expertise has occasionally proven helpful.
“Not a year goes by that I don’t get at least one or two ‘Get Dr. Ball’ calls,” he said. Most of the calls are false alarms that come from upset family members who overreact when someone has had a heavy lunch and fallen asleep.
When, rarely, he must attend to a heart attack or stroke victim, Ball does everything he can to minimize disruption. After running a Vietnam War emergency room, he is used to such pressures.
“You never stop being a doctor,” he said. “No longer is it stressful. During the war, it was.”
Karl Bunch, the festival's house management coordinator, supervises Reed and all of Spoleto’s ushers. He said his team often is responsible for a patron’s first impression of the festival, and local expertise enhances a patron’s experience.
“Not only are (patrons) being served during the festival, and during the performance ..., but also when they’re outside a performance,” Bunch said.
The festival also represents an occasion for Charleston’s residents to give back to their community.
“Spoleto is such a big part of springtime and early summer in Charleston,” Bunch said. “A lot of people want to be involved.”
Thanks to the festival, which draws at least half of its patrons from outside the Charleston area, the city has become an important tourist destination and, increasingly, internationally known, Reed said.
“It’s put us on the map in a lot of places that really hadn’t noticed us before,” she said.
Ball, who discovered the first case of AIDS in South Carolina in 1982, has been a witness to the cultural awakening of his hometown.
“Charleston has so much to offer,” he said. “Spoleto is one of the best shining examples.”