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Confessions Of A Theatre Usher

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‘Turn your phones off’ or ‘no filming in the venue’ that’s what so many perceive as being Front of House staff at a theatre.  Stood there in their black and white uniforms, big smiles and friendly way’s many people seem to think that that’s the only job requirement.

However after working Front of House for 5 years I decided that this week I would like to take my hat off to the Front of House teams and let you good folks know a little more about those we also refer to as ‘ushers’ and some of the things they have to deal with. You see whilst on the outside it may look like they smile, watch the show and then say goodbye, the reality is very different.

Here are some things you should know about a FOH staff’s every day shift and a few pointers to help you help them keep that friendly exterior friendly.
Oh yes, what a joy they are to deal with, and of course it’s the Front of House staff who are the first ones to get it in the neck. I know that I was called all sorts as were my follow colleagues by drunks. If they are disrupting the show it’s the FOH staff’s jobs to try and quiet them down etc. and you can imagine that that’s far easier said than done. When you have them shouting "I can see the wires" as Mary Poppins flies over the audience or when they talk back to the actors it can be a little annoying for all involved. With a smile and calm manner the staff defuse the situation and return to their post (or the nearest loo to scream out their frustration) and because of their quick thinking all is right with the world again and the lady in seat G7 can enjoy the rest of the show.

Now everybody knows that taking photos in a theatre during a performance is a big no no, in fact many venues have signs all around the theatre to say just that...oh and an announcement at the 30 min bell, oh and another announcement before the show, but for those people who don’t hear all of that (Hmmm) then it’s back to the FOH staff for a night of 'chase the lights’ and how they love that, it was so much fun. Running around an auditorium for 2 hours to find those people is a thrill. What’s even better is when the audience react to the poor FOH staff member and tell them to be quiet as they are trying to remove a camera off someone who does not seem to understand the words ‘no photos’. On my last shift there I was pushed up the stairs by a patron for that reason. "You’re just trying to spoil my fun" or "You take your job too seriously" they are told, well of course they take their job seriously, the managers remind them every day that no photography is allowed, the FOH staff don’t tell patrons to stop taking photos because they are bored.. So if you are at the theatre and think you will try and sneak a few photos please don’t...it’s exhausting.

Seating Issues
If it was as simple as entering the theatre and going straight to your seat then life would be wonderful, only it’s not. Many people end up in the wrong seat which is an honest mistake, except the ones who have re seated themselves from the Grand Tier to the stalls. Out comes the torch and in to action they fly. During a sold out performance and with late comers wanting to sit in their seats that happen to be in the middle of an aisle but are unable too because everybody is in the wrong seats, well the FOH staff know how to play musical chairs better than anyone. However it’s the FOH staff that get yelled at by the row behind for obstructing their view of the show (they keep smiling though). So if you see the staff member trying to move 23 people  off one row please don’t have a go at them, it’s not on their list of ‘fun things to do’ either!

My favourite thing about working FOH. Now people are always going to be late, it can’t be helped, sometimes the buses and trains are delayed, sometimes traffic is really bad and that’s fine. The team will be ready to greet you when you arrive and take you to your seat. However, many productions which come to the venues have something called a ‘Latecomers rule’ the people behind the show you are seeing have TOLD the FOH staff team that they can’t take you to your seats until a certain point in the show. This is not the fault of the poor Front of House member who is with you, shouting at them and trying to barge in does not help. I’ve seen FOH staff reduced to tears because of this (but they’re still smiling). So please remember that if you are late and you have to wait a few minutes before you can go in that it’s not down to the FOH team, go and shout at the Producers of the show... no really, please do.

Now all theatre venues have a staff of cleaners who do a wonderful job of keeping the venues looking fresh. However, in-between a matinee and a night show the auditorium needs to be cleaned in the space of sometimes as little as 30 minutes before the next audience come in. Now after a sold out Matinee you can only imagine the state of the floor, crisps, sweets, ice cream tubs, snotty tissues.... all the good stuff. The FOH staff after their shift and before their next shift have to pick up all the rubbish by hand. Yes all the junk from each person in the 2000 seater venues has to be cleared away by the FOH team (not smiling so much). Also remember that the small amount of time in-between the 2 shows is the staff’s only time to eat, smoke, reapply the smile etc. So when you are next eating a tub of ice cream and the show is done, look back at the FOH staff member, he or she may be full of smiles, but inside they are dying....dying from the knowledge that they are about to spend 30 minutes on their hands and knees avoiding getting chewing gum stuck to their clothes.

Now FOH don’t just work in the auditorium, they rotate from day to day working on other things such as the bars, kiosks, door etc. The bar however is where all the fun happens. Nearly every shift on a sold out show in the interval it’s a given that a line of 100 people will start tutting, yelling and shouting at the staff on the bar as they think that they are too slow... .yes too slow at serving over 100 people in 20 mins. Here is the thing though, why not just order an interval drink, that way your drink will be ready for you on the interval, no waiting around. I used to let the painted smile slip when on incoming I would ask so many if they wanted to place an interval order ‘No thanks’ so then I would warn them it’s a sold out performance so the bar will be busy ‘It’s fine, we won’t be getting a drink at the interval’. Then what do you know, there is the same person at the interval yelling at you because they have been waiting for 5 minutes to get served. ‘I want to see your manager’ or ‘why can’t you work faster’ and many times some very nasty comments thrown at the staff. Please remember that 20 minutes is not a long time to serve all the thirsty customers and the staff (who work at warp speeds on the bar) can only go so fast. And here is a little tip, if you are going to yell at them then they will purposely make you wait until you have calmed down or apologised (maybe that was just me?)

Yes that’s just a handful of things that the staff deals with in one night, I could talk about so much more but I think you get the idea. Many nights the staff will go home and hit things, scream in a field or simply rock in a corner from the nights events but after a good night’s sleep they switch back on the Stepford FOH switch and they are ready to do it all again.

These young people working for very little pay are what keep the theatres running. Without them you have no drinks, sweets, programmes etc, nobody to sort out your seating issues, take latecomers to their seats in the dark, calm down the intoxicated people sat in front of you, they really are the lifeblood of the theatre.

So I salute you FOH teams, because without you chaos would reign supreme. The next time you are at the theatre give them a smile, I can guarantee you will get one back.

- Craig Hepworth

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