Tracking down diapers for the Dixie Chicks’ children wasn’t in the job description, but University of Iowa senior Emily Noll hardly blinked an eye. The popular all-women country group made the request during a 2004 stop at Hancher Auditorium, and it was Noll’s responsibility that day to fulfill performers’ backstage wishes.
A stagehand at Hancher for the past two years, Noll is used to doing a variety of odd jobs, from adjusting backdrops to picking up performers from the airport.
“I love being backstage,” says Noll, a communication studies and business major from Burlington, Iowa. “You get to see how everything works. Being onstage was never my thing.”
Thousands of people each year visit Hancher, the University’s performing arts center, for Broadway musicals, dance performances, comedy shows, and musical ensembles. And the shows simply couldn’t go on without the more than 100 student employees working behind the scenes and front of house, Hancher staff members say. Students sell tickets at the box office, usher patrons to their seats, and serve refreshments during intermissions. Students also work behind the scenes, setting up and tearing down the stage, conducting tours, and promoting Hancher. They work alongside the theater’s professional, full-time staff of about 20 employees.
“Because we’re largely operated by students, they really get to take ownership in this place,” says Rob Cline, Hancher’s marketing director and a former student worker. “There’s a pride that goes along with working here.”
Students say Hancher work is a welcome respite from classes and studying, as well as a chance to connect with friends. When Susie Goldman, an English and journalism major from Ames, Iowa, responds to a work call, the stagehand might spend the shift testing lights, moving scenery, or carrying costumes into dressing rooms. The work is rarely the same. One night, while working greenroom security, she was elated to run into singing legend Aretha Franklin.
“I’ve always loved theater,” Goldman says. “I don’t study performing arts, but this is one way I can be part of it.”
Most Hancher student workers are hired at the beginning of each school year. Work schedules vary widely depending on the month’s performance calendar, so the job is ideal for students who want flexible schedules, or who don’t mind working evenings or weekends.
Student workers appreciate certain perks, too, such as seeing many performances for free. December graduate Andy Hunsberger, a Hancher usher for five years, says he saw Mamma Mia! three times, for example, when the musical came to Hancher in 2003. And a pair of free tickets is offered to student ushers and stagehands with strong work records.
“I loved the job more than I ever thought I would,” says Hunsberger, a history and secondary education major from Elgin, Iowa. “We would have a good time, but we worked hard, too.”
Students don’t have to major in the arts to score a job at Hancher, although many have an appreciation for the stage. Oversight of the 65-person usher staff falls to Connie Tipsword, director of patron services, who says she looks for students who are personable and dependable.
“I want to know they’re going to be able to interact with our patrons,” Tipsword says. “Everything else we can teach them.”
New student workers participate in orientation early in the school year, but most of the training is done on the job. Students learn assertiveness, for example, when they must politely ask patrons to turn off their cell phones.
Hancher jobs provide students with more than just a paycheck; they also offer résumé-building experience for students interested in arts or arts management careers.
Cassie Carson, a senior marketing major from Elliott, Iowa, started as an usher and an unpaid intern in Hancher’s marketing office, eventually earning a spot as a salaried student assistant. Carson, who wants a career that combines the arts and marketing, is responsible for selling advertisements, ensuring ads run as scheduled, and writing copy for programs.
“I’ve learned a lot from this job—more than I have in many of my classes,” Carson says. “The important thing is, it makes me realize I’m going into something I enjoy.”
Andrew Stone, a communication studies and business major from Des Moines, hopes to use connections he’s made as a backstage Hancher worker to earn a job in the entertainment industry. Stone, whose dream job is to work as a tour manager, says he has learned a lot about the business from interacting with the managers and agents working to promote performers behind the scenes.
“I enjoy this side of the entertainment industry,” he says. “You see a lot of things nobody else gets to see.”
For instance, Stone says he loves to see empty stages become elaborate sets for a Broadway musical in a matter of hours. Or, to spend 30 minutes in a car with performers he’s picked up from the airport.
Working at Hancher is a common way for students interested in arts management to get a foot in the door, Tipsword says.
J. David Carey, associate director of Theatre Cedar Rapids, learned the arts management ropes as a Hancher student worker while earning an MFA in the early 1980s. When he entered the graduate program, Carey was interested solely in theater management. But he says working at Hancher introduced him to other kinds of performance arts, including dance and music. He went on to earn a job out of school as program director for the Wyoming Arts Council.
“The broad experience I gained at Hancher made me attractive to other kinds of employers,” Carey says. “The person who hired me for my first job out of graduate school was very aware of Hancher’s reputation.”
Charles Swanson, Hancher executive director, says he frequently crosses paths with former student workers during his arts travels nationwide. At a performance of Moving Out in Chicago, an Iowa graduate heard Swanson talking about Hancher.
“He couldn’t wait to talk about his experiences working at Hancher,” Swanson says. “I often meet people like that who have memories of working here. They have a real fondness for Hancher.”
Connected by a love of performing arts, an untold number of friendships and marriages have formed over the years among Hancher student workers.
Carey’s favorite memories include hanging out with fellow student workers in Hancher’s café hours after the performers and patrons had gone home.
“It was a great bonding experience,” he says.
Cline responded to a Hancher advertisement for student ushers in The Daily Iowan when he was a UI undergraduate in the early 1990s. The Cedar Rapids native made long-lasting friendships and found a career through the experience. He also met his wife, Jenny, a fellow usher. Today, the couple’s three children occasionally make appearances in Hancher’s audience.
“I can’t promise everyone that they’ll get married because of this job,” Cline says, “but I know they’ll get a great deal out of it.”
Hancher Auditorium likely will be relying on student workers for years to come, Swanson says.
“We really feel strongly this is a student investment,” he says. “This place was built by student fee money. It just fits in the mission of Hancher to involve students. Keeping this place alive with students is very, very important.”
by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith