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Change: Contemporary Will Soon Be Classic

Change: Contemporary Will Soon Be Classic

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I recently noted to our 20-something Volunteer Coordinator that she might have to explain what she meant by “cassette tape” after she sent out an email to some of our student volunteers. The Volunteer Coordinator remarked at how quickly the world was changing.

This incident reflects how small cultural changes mean adjustments to our communication and plans, why change is the only constant and why managing the process is critical. In this Voices, I present an example that addresses all of these issues. Here, I describe how the Cincinnati Arts Association (CAA) recently engaged in a volunteer cultural and structural shift to better align itself to facilitate intentional, consistent service to our theater guests in two very different venues managed by CAA: the Cincinnati Music Hall and the Aronoff Center. 


Cincinnati Music Hall opened in 1878 and is the home to Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (the United States’ sixth oldest symphony orchestra), Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, the Cincinnati Opera (the nation’s second oldest opera company), the Cincinnati Ballet and the May Festival (the longest running choral festival in the Western hemisphere.) Traditions run deep and long in the marbled foyer, with generations of volunteers offering decades of service focused on serving classical music devotees. In the mid 1990s, CAA took over management of the Music Hall volunteer usher program from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The program continued intact with approximately 200 volunteers, a fiercely cherished but rather loosely-structured program with long standing friendships and a proud heritage. In the spring of 2016, Music Hall officially closed for a long anticipated million-dollar renovation.

By contrast, the Aronoff Center opened in 1995. It has three distinct performance spaces and is home to Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati, Cincinnati Ballet, Contemporary Dance Theater, Revolution Dance Theatre, Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative and Cincinnati Music Theater. The audience, by virtue of the resident companies, enjoys diverse contemporary programming of the performing arts. The Aronoff Center’s 1,000-person new volunteer program reflected a highly-structured environment, high expectations of the new recruits and young friendships with volunteers and staff.

Two distinct volunteer programs, one new goal

The Cincinnati Music Hall and the Aronoff Center each had a uniquely structured and managed volunteer program serving very different cultural experiences and audiences. One classical and the other  contemporary. One red brick and mortar and the other soaring glass and steel. One leaning towards what has always been done and the other leaning towards what’s being done now.As the venue management organization, CAA faced two seemingly opposite volunteer expectations while trying to achieve excellent guest experiences and create a CAA volunteer culture.

Conversations started in 2015 to bring the management of the two venue programs into an organizational volunteer program. The goal was clear: to create a unified volunteer standard to increase efficiencies in the Front of House procedures while allowing for the ease of volunteering across buildings by having the programs more in sync. This goal would also provide a welcoming experience for all guests whenever they entered either venue, and also provide guests an expectation of an usher standard, prepared to assist and enhance their experience of the performing arts.

Changes started in 2016. The long-serving, part-time usher coordinator at Music Hall retired at the start of the massive renovation. A full-time House & Volunteer Services Manager was hired to manage the program while our volunteers assisted a client in another venue where they performed during the renovation shutdown. The manager implemented a uniform change and the use of a new online scheduling system, moving away from previously assigned paper and email schedules and more closely aligning with the Aronoff Center process. Throughout this adjustment year, I was consulted to assist but was never directly overseeing; instead, I managed the Aronoff Center volunteer program only.

At the time, no purposefully planned change process had been instituted – other than announcing them prior to enacting the changes. In hindsight, it is understandable why reactions to a new uniform and different scheduling were met with resistance and much expressed anger (and some resignations) over the perception of mimicking the Aronoff Center. However, in the bigger picture, it was also helpful to make the changes incrementally.

Merging two volunteer programs into one

In late January 2018, my current position started. I would now direct the volunteer, Front of House and guest experience in both facilities. Starting September 1, a new unified Front of House program (inclusive of volunteers and staff) would be implemented, under the direction two house managers and one volunteer coordinator. In seven months, we effectively merged the two distinct programs into one and ensured that volunteers were the happy smiling faces who welcomed guests to our venues. Our team met to create a plan and I alerted them that every existing Front of House process was open to review.

By March and April, we had held four, voluntary listening sessions with the volunteers, reaching just over half of the volunteer population. We candidly shared that change was not a matter of one building being better than the other to immediately address the rumors that were already flying. With the two groups of ushers – representing very minimal crossover of volunteering between buildings – we shared existing similarities and differences in procedures, and one possible change we foresaw immediately: the interviewing and orienting of new ushers as a singular process. We also shared that no existing process in the Front of House was sacred; rather, we were examining everything regarding staffing and volunteer engagement. And last but not least, we reviewed that CAA had been discussing this possible change internally for a few years, and it was now time to implement that change with their help.

We opened the floor then and asked for concerns. We encouraged the volunteers to share what they were excited about and what they feared about this change (i.e., was it now mandatory to work in each facility? No). We asked for their input on scheduling since it might be adjusted, and for ways to ensure we could fill all shifts since our calendar was now expanding. Ushers were requested to share how meeting the requirements of the position (a set number of hours per season) could be made easier, discussed why people stayed in or left the program, and were honest about typical demographics of theater volunteer programs when we invited help on recruitment ideas.

Some of the sessions were very heated, with staff rebuked for seemingly trying to make Music Hall exactly like the Aronoff Center. Other sessions were very respectfully productive, with ides about recruitment being shared along with conversations on the reasonableness of possible new expectations. Each staff member answered questions, and helped to moderate the room when things got heated; our intent was to show a unified, trusted staff while acknowledging that everything else we were telling them represented uncertain changes. We took the best notes we could, and discussed what we thought was possible. We were very careful to not appear to make changes only at one facility. And we also discussed the expected impact of losing volunteers who did not want to experience this shift with us.

Keeping 1,000 volunteers informed and engaged proves difficult 

During May through July, the plan shifted to providing updates on how we utilized the information from these sessions as an outline for changes. It was important that we kept our 1,000 volunteers informed on the process so they could absorb the information, prepare for the changes and feel safe in our intent to give them a successful environment.

Unfortunately, these  ideal plans were waylaid by staffing issues on top of increased recruitment and training efforts crammed between the last shows of the season at both venues. The intended monthly communication was unintentionally dropped to once over three months, which led to a breach of trust with the volunteers. So we asked for their opinions and shared that we’d keep them informed about  how the changes were being planned and yet didn’t.

By late July, volunteers were anxiously e-mailing regarding expectations for the season start up on September 1. Throughout August, we held multiple orientations to each facility, with a stronger focus to boost numbers of trained ushers at Music Hall. We also conducted mandatory recharge sessions, two per facility. During these sessions, the President of CAA welcomed all the volunteers and the staff shared  the changes made, provided handouts, introduced new staff and reviewed emergency procedures in the form of an unexpected fire alarm drill. The two-hour sessions concluded with a question and answer session.

The season began with ongoing communication and constant orientations. This first season witnessed a struggle to fill all shifts at Music Hall, which started with fewer trained ushers, and the following season reflected a struggle to fill shifts in both facilities. We found that those who typically heeded our calls for help were trying to answer our requests in both theaters, and could not fill all needs. Recruitment was constant, as realistically and numerically we started with fewer ushers than actually needed to fulfill the needs in each building; there was simply not enough time to change structures and simultaneously recruit and train another 300 or more volunteers.

In shepherding the change process, my goals were to announce the intended new program format, gather volunteer input and allow time for grieving of what was being lost (familiar ways, friends who didn’t continue.) I intended to communicate as staff made decisions, provide an outlet for the honoring of losing the old and embracing the new, communicating expectations of the new season, communicating some more and guiding into a new unified program.


In the near perfect vision of hindsight, we did the best we could in the time allotted. Could it have gone smoother? Yes. Could we have relied more heavily on volunteers to recruit and train? Yes. However, that would have required more management change from us, less hands-on control and an increased trust in the volunteers to independently manage that onboarding process. I’d like to think I wasn’t just being a control freak in the situation and that I was aware that staff needed to also process changes without having them create more entirely new processes.

We are two years in. No change process I’ve ever experienced or heard of has been perfect. And when things don’t go smoothly, it is easy to find fault rather than find what the new success will look like. But we’ve realized that the roots from existing and new volunteers have been firmly planted. While we may not have ideal volunteer numbers just yet, we do have a program where volunteers value and are proud to work in both facilities. Our volunteers have become less identified as “Aronoff Center only” or “Music Hall only” volunteers, and they have become more aligned as “CAA volunteers.” Instead of fighting the reality of attempting (and failing) to fill the standard 60 usher positions per performance, we’ve recently started looking again at our processes.

We can’t change the amount of time volunteers are able to give. But we can change what we do and how we do it so that our benchmark of success is attainable for staff and volunteers alike. Towards that goal, we can change what success looks like. During our enforced COVID-19 shut down of theaters, this is exactly what our staff is trying to work out and something we will then take to the volunteers for their input – through Zoom, of course. We know that nothing about attending performances or volunteering in theaters will look exactly the same when we reopen; we are, again, operating within another massive change.

But we do know that in the future, adapting to anticipated guest and volunteer needs requires high intentionality and clear communications. When initiating change, we know that it is necessary to have a clear vision and plans that involve all parties; to communicate, communicate, communicate;  and to honor feelings. It is vital to listen and to hear perspectives that are shared and, if possible, implement suggestions.

The future is built upon the past; what was once contemporary is now classic. In hindsight, giving grace throughout the merge to all involved seems like a way to achieve a new success. And now, hopefully with agility and continued grace, we will collaboratively create a post-COVID-19 experience in our theaters.

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