By Laura Samuel Meyn
Photos by Joyce Marshall
From greeting patrons to narrating shows for the visually impaired, Ted and Vicki Witt make sure everyone’s Bass Hall experience is a good one. Seeing some of the best shows in town is a bonus.
t’s early on a Saturday evening, and inside Bass Performance Hall, employees are preparing for ticket holders at the will-call window. A holiday boutique in the lobby is ready for shoppers, and bottles of bubbly are chilling for those wanting a pre-performance drink. Ted and Vicki Witt, married for 47 years, arrive with a different sort of date night planned. Volunteer ushers, two of some 50 on any given evening, they make their way downstairs to catch up with a roomful of friends, don uniforms of maroon blazers and black ties and draw cards bearing their assignments for the evening.
Ted was first to join the program. Having sung with the Southwestern Seminary Oratorio Chorus at Bass Hall shortly after it opened in May 1998, he felt invested in the venue from its beginning. After retiring from the state comptroller’s office in June 2010, Ted ticked some items off the bucket list, including traveling solo to Siberia and with Vicki to Nicaragua to teach English. But after a year off, he was ready to do something in the community. “It’s ingrained in us to help people,” says Ted. “We both like concerts, we both like theater.” Ted signed up for a Bass Hall volunteer training session in August 2011 and was working as an usher the next month.
Vicki, retired from a staff position at TCU, enjoyed meeting friends for dinner while Ted was busy volunteering. But after a year of hearing him talk about how much fun he was having, she decided to join him as a volunteer. Following a two-hour orientation and shadowing experienced ushers during a few performances, she was ready to officially join the ranks of some 563 Bass Hall volunteers.
The Witts’ outgoing personalities serve them well in a variety of positions, from greeting guests and helping them find their seats to answering questions and helping those with disabilities. But in their many years volunteering, the duo has taken on more specialized roles, too. Ted acts as a docent during Saturday tours. And as part of the Children’s Education Program, he meets school buses and escorts classes in and out of Bass Hall during the week. “We get 40 to 50 buses per show and do two shows a day,” he says. “Disney World has nothing on us!”
About three years ago, the couple started helping out with the Audio Descriptive Services effort, narrating productions live for visually impaired guests, who listen through a headset. The service, broadcast from a booth in the theater, is typically offered for the Broadway Series’ Saturday matinees. “We compare it to a radio drama,” says Ted. Adds Vicki, “We only tell them things they can’t see that are pertinent to the show so they can laugh, cry or gasp along with everyone else. We don’t want to talk over dialogue or lyrics, so we find the briefest way to describe what’s happening.” While they both love The Book of Mormon, narrating the irreverent show has its challenges. “There are some tricky things to describe in that one,” says Ted with a laugh. “Both languagewise and actionwise,” adds Vicki.
The couple also worked the Cliburn Competition, which means longer shifts and stricter house rules. Ted says the no late seating policy is easier to enforce given that Van Cliburn himself once had to watch the competition on video rather than interrupt the proceedings. “The best thing Van Cliburn did for the ushers was be late one day,” says Ted.
Perks of the job include friendships with the other ushers; about half are retirees. Vicki says they frequently share grandchildren stories and travel tips. And there’s the privilege of seeing free performances, although there are no guarantees. When ushers draw their jobs each evening, they might be assigned to a position outside the theater. “For shows that everybody wants to see, someone will say, ‘I have an outside, anyone want to trade?’ and you could hear a pin drop,” says Ted. Yet ushers often find room to sit inside — always behind patrons, never in front of them — for shows that don’t sell out. The Witts are optimistic about Hamilton, which runs this June for three weeks. They’ll narrate some performances for Audio Descriptive Services, and with 50 ushers needed per performance, they believe the math is in their favor to see the popular musical from a seat, too.
This month, the Witts will work several performances of Texas Ballet Theater’s The Nutcracker. “I’ve seen The Nutcracker 50 times now, and I still like it,” says Ted. Vicki adds, “In this version, at the Christmas party, we still see things we didn’t notice from last year; everyone is a character.” In fact, a new family tradition has developed in recent years that makes for an idyllic day — the couple work the matinee performance on Dec. 24 before joining their grown children for Christmas Eve dinner. “It’s the perfect setup,” says Ted.