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Since a dustup with its volunteer ushers earlier this year, Shea's Performing Arts Center has improved the way it communicates with them concerning when and where they can watch performances.
But two longtime ushers who spoke to The Buffalo News in March to criticize those policies have been told they are no longer welcome back.
Mary Ann Devlin, who ushered at the theater for 29 years, and Jeanette Swartz, who volunteered in the unpaid position for 12 years, were let go for airing their differences outside the theater rather than first following proper channels, a theater executive said.
"The reality is that if you have a serious issue or problem, you should make every effort to get it taken care of within the organization before going outside the organization," said Anthony C. Conte, Shea's president and chief executive officer.
"At this point, I don't think it's good for the organization for either one of them to volunteer."
Devlin and Swartz said they felt they followed the proper chain of command by going to their immediate supervisor.
"We had no protocol for complaints. I thought the chain of command was my usher captain," Devlin said.
Devlin and Swartz were among a number of older ushers - several with health problems - who told The News five months ago that management no longer let them sit in the theater to watch performances even when there were plenty of open seats.
Devlin said she complained about the policy repeatedly to her usher captain. When he told her he was unsuccessful advocating for her concerns, she started a petition "requesting permission to sit in the theater during performances."
She stood outside the volunteer entrance Feb. 17 to collect signatures before being told to leave by Joseph McCarthy, operations director. Devlin was allowed to usher later in the season.
Conte reiterated Friday that volunteering as an usher "does not grant the right to sit and watch a show, and it's never been stated that it does." He said there are policies intended to prevent ushers from interfering with the viewing experience of theatergoers.
At the same time, Conte said he was glad to allow ushers to watch inside the theater under the right circumstances.
In recent months, Shea's management has implemented a number of changes to improve communication between staff and volunteers, including a revamped volunteer manual. An information board with a seating diagram now lets ushers know if and where they will be allowed to sit for each show, with more seating areas in the theater where they can do so.
Staff also attended a seminar on team-building.
Devlin said management's response was appreciated. "I was so happy when these changes came through," she said.
"We feel pretty good at where we are with the volunteers," he said.
More than 600 volunteers attended the Aug. 14 orientation session, Conte said, but Devlin and Swartz were not among them. Neither received letters notifying them, but went hoping it was an oversight.
Instead, they were told by McCarthy to leave after stepping into the theater.
"There's a reason why you didn't get a letter. You're not welcome here," both recalled McCarthy telling them, moments before asking a guard to lead them away.
Swartz, who exchanged heated words with McCarthy, later spoke with Conte at length. He said he would get back to her with a decision on her status, she said, but that hadn't happened as of Friday, when she learned from a reporter she was not returning. Conte said he intends to speak to Swartz, but has been busy with vacation and work.
"The whole thing boils down to, what was created because of the way they handled the situation was a very bad situation for our volunteers, and for us," Conte said.
Swartz said she was "deeply disappointed" by not being able to continue at Shea's. Devlin said she was "very disappointed" that she wouldn't be volunteering at the theater for what would have been her 30th year.
"I felt I've devoted a considerable part of my life to Shea's. I've loved that theater, recruited a number of my friends to be ushers, and I was very upset when I kept hearing my fellow ushers complain about the situation and nothing was being done," Devlin said. "So I thought I would take a step forward, and see what happened. And now I'm out."
But Shea's spokeswoman Lisa Grisanti said many volunteers were angered by the criticism, fearing it had unfairly cast theater management in a negative light.
"We have received many complimentary letters and verbal statements from volunteers who are happy with their volunteer positions at Shea's, with management and [the theater's] policies," she said.

email: msommer@buffnews.com