The Saints have been a pillar of support for the cultural community for more than forty years, providing volunteer ushers to medium and small performing-arts companies throughout the Chicago area. The quid pro quo is that all ushers get a free ticket to the performance at which they volunteer. Dressed all in black with distinctive silver name-tags displayed on their chests, Saints ushers have become such a fixture on the scene that you may not have noticed them. Yet if you’re a fan of Chicago performing arts, there’s a good chance that you’ve been helped by a Saint.
The first time I noticed The Saints was in January of 2014 when I produced a show at the Athenaeum Theatre, but forgot to secure someone to work the door. Rookie mistake! I ran to the lobby in a panic only to see two Saints folding programs and corralling early-bird attendees. One of them turned to me and said, “Hi, I’m Frank. I’m with The Saints and I’m here to help.” What a relief!
Afterwards, I’ve experienced the phenomenon of “frequency illusion,” where you notice something once and then notice it everywhere. Now, I see Saints at most of the shows I attend, and like mustard on a hot dog, it doesn’t feel like a Chicago show without them.
The Saints started in 1979 with about fifty to seventy-five people doing volunteer work at the St. Nicholas Theater Company, which was founded by William H. Macy and David Mamet. “Most people think The Saints are a religious organization,” says Mark Jeffries, who joined in 1981 at the age of twenty-six and is still a member, “but we’re really named after the St. Nicholas company.” When St. Nicholas closed, the volunteers migrated to the Organic Theater Company, founded by Stuart Gordon of “Bleacher Bums” and “Re-Animator” fame. Hungry to help, Jeffries says they were forced to resort to philanthropy. “We organized mailing campaigns, fundraisers and street fairs.” He laughs. “We even tarred the roof over the Organic Theater!”
The organization received an influx of new members in 1988 after the Chicago debut of “Les Misérables,” and again in 1990 for “The Phantom of the Opera,” both of which drew record crowds to the Auditorium Theatre. The Saints, who had only been entrusted to manage a small concessions stand in the lobby, were drafted into the front lines. With ushers in high demand—and earning free seats to the hottest shows—membership skyrocketed from a few hundred into quadruple digits.
In 2020, membership reached its zenith—over 2,300 members—but diminished to around 1,600 due to the pause of live performance during the pandemic. “COVID shook things up and nobody knew what was going to happen,” says newly elected president Anna Cantlin. “It was hitting people of a certain age harder than others, and Saints membership skews older.” Cantlin was elected in part for her experience in the medical industry. “I got involved in the board for two reasons: To see if there was anything I could do to make sure that The Saints were still being considered a viable option, and that the ushers would have as much protection as possible.”
Volunteer ushering is not a new concept. A lot of theaters offer some form of in-kind partnership, but then you must deal with the different systems of every theater you want to attend, and that can become a slog. Saints’ members pay an annual fee of $100—only $45 for members forty years old and under—and in return can request to usher at as many shows as they want at an in-network theater of their choice. Members sign up through a custom-built online registration system, the Usher Module, which allows members to sort shows by genre, venue, region, time slot and even keeps a list of favorites saved for future reference.
Of those membership fees, most of it goes back into the organization’s grants program. For the 2023-24 season, The Saints awarded $88,824 to twenty arts organizations in the Chicago metropolitan area, bringing the total of their philanthropic funding over the last thirty or so years to nearly $1,370,000. In addition, members who wish to donate to a company can request a match from The Saints of up to one-hundred dollars.
Members also gain insight into the performing-arts industry. All ushers must attend an orientation that explains the ins and outs of house management and frequently receive behind-the-scenes access prior to performances. There is even the occasional event over Zoom, called the BOBB (before-on-behind-beyond) Stage Series, where industry professionals give private presentations to enlighten Saints members about the process of stagecraft.
The best part of The Saints is the people, those ushers whose faces become familiar the more you attend live performance. As mentioned, the Saints demographic skews toward retirement age, a time where people are struggling to “switch off” from work mode, feeling anxious at having more time, but less money and finding it difficult to fill their time with meaningful activity.
Take Frank Lackner, who saved my show a decade ago, a retired sound engineer who toured the globe with the Martha Graham Dance Company, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Joffrey Ballet’s second company, Joffrey II. When I ask him about his time with The Saints, Frank just smiles, “It keeps me busy. I enjoy it.”
I ask his daughter Sarah Lackner, founding member of Stonewolf Studios, about her takeaway regarding her father’s time with The Saints. “From hearing stories while growing up, fine and performing arts has been his passion, his career and his being for his entire adult life. Even though he’s retired, he gets to continue all of that for however long he wants to.” At a time when life is filled with uncertainty, The Saints can fill that void and relieve that anxiety.
There’s no downside to The Saints. Each member contributes to their ability and in return has their need to see live art fulfilled. The byproduct is financial and labor support for the Chicago theater scene. If live performance is your passion, then membership in The Saints is the best deal in town.